The vocabulary [of Jinghpaw] is not as meagre as has sometimes been stated. The opinion that tribes are found with a vocabulary of only a few hundred words simply reveals the ignorance of the dialect in question and linguistic studies in general. It has more than once been asserted that the illiterate Kachins have at most only three or four thousand words. But the fact is that the most ordinary mountaineer, however rude and uncultivated he may appear, has command of eight or ten thousand words, while the priests, “prophets,” professional story-tellers and minstrels use an additional three or four thousand.
– Extracted from: Ola Hanson (1906). A Dictionary of the Kachin Language. Rangoon: American Baptist Missionary Press. pp. vi-vii.
This quote follows an earlier archival posting that highlighted religious change in the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia. As a missionary linguist Ola Hanson was a major figure in this history. However, as the previous discussion explained, the “most ordinary mountaineer”, and the priests, minstrels and the rest, have also played major roles in social and cultural transformations in the highlands. Some of their impact is at a linguistic level (as the languages of the region have adapted to new priorities) that continues to this day…
It is, with this in mind, that I am intrigued by Hanson’s comments on vocabulary. A master linguist; according to Herman G. Tegenfeldt (1974: 117) he had knowledge of Swedish (his mother tongue), English, German, Greek and Hebrew. Of course it as a student of Jinghpaw that he is now most famous. As I understand it he also spoke Shan and Burmese, and could hold his own in some of the other (non-Jinghpaw) “Kachin” languages.
Today many of the standards for language proficiency are measured, at least in part, by vocabulary size. As an example, the level one (highest) Japanese Language Proficiency Test requires around 10,000 words. Apparently it takes 3,000 to 8,000 words to be able to undertake “fluent conversation in social settings” and adult native speakers may have another 10,000 words at their disposal. For an outline of how such a vocabulary is put together in one of the many languages of northeast India this is a handy summary. A more scholarly account of “language corpora” is available here. It makes the point that in some languages there is a much larger low-frequency vocabulary with “between 30-50,000 word-forms being in use in everyday talk, and considerably more in everyday written texts, perhaps up to 80,000 in the case of English”.
As a student who needs to deal with a number of different languages, and with imperfect command of them all, I continue to be amazed by the depth of nuance available in so many tongues.
It would be nice to hear from readers who have their own ideas about how much language is enough. For the native-English speakers among us, would you be happy with, say, a Thai vocabulary of 3,000 words? What would 10,000 words of Khmer get you? What about Hmong? Or Mandarin? Or Esperanto? How many words do you need? Does vocabulary size really matter? And for those who don’t have English as a first language, what kind of vocabulary size allows you to enjoy New Mandala?
On that final question, in response to the demands of global communication recent years have even seen the rise of the “Simple English Wikipedia” (available here at simple.wikipedia.org). The goal is to keep the required vocabulary under 3000 words, with an ideal of 1000 words. It has really got me thinking – how many words, in contrast, are required to understand New Mandala? My guess is it must be somewhere in the realm of 10,000. What do readers think? Would there ever be a market for simple.newmandala.net? Or, as some of our critics may have it, is that what we already do!?!