Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/May 1902/Children's Vocabularies


By M. C. and H. GALE,


THE philological legend that the vocabulary of a workingman is only about 300 words[1] should show proof why it should not go the way of all legends when it is found that a child of two and a half or even two years uses by actual count from 600 to 800 different words in one day. Has anybody really estimated or counted the words used by a workingman; if so, what method has been used? A physician and father was asked to guess how many different words were used by our three children up to two and a half years of age, either in common or by any one of them. He gave vent to emphatic protests of incredulity when his guess of 'about 200' was met by the actual number of 2,170. And we ourselves have found several times that, after following a child about all day with pad and pencil and taking down all his talk for a waking day till we were almost exhausted, when we then tried to make an estimate of the words used we have only come to within a quarter to a half of the right number. This illusive underestimation of a child's vocabulary is so universal that it can only be corrected by cataloguing, indexing and actually counting the words thus recorded for a whole day. In the following table are given the different words and the total number of words used by two of our children on the day they were each two and a half years old:

Different words. Total words.
2 (boy). 3 (girl). 2 (boy). 3 (girl).
Nouns 369 307 3367 2168
Verbs 189 165 2200 2048
Adjectives 83 79 729 1327
Adverbs 42 38 1314 1031
Interjections 8 8 113 198
Pronouns 27 15 678 761
Prepositions 21 14 636 405
Articles and Conjunctions 14 3 253 54
Totals 751 629 9290 8992

It is interesting to find from the complete tables[2] that of the 751 different words used by 2 (b.), 479 or 64 per cent, were used in the first five hours or half of the day.

Such a record does not by any means include all the words which it would be possible for a child to use in one day, could it come into contact with its entire little world of experience by playing all its plays, looking at all its books, going on all its occasional visits, seeing all its acquaintances, living through all the days of the week and seasons of the year—that would involve almost its entire vocabulary up to that date. These two children had used respectively, up to two and a half years, 1,432 and 1,308 different words, almost all of which constituted their still usable vocabulary. So that on these days they used only about half of the words they might have used. When a child's world of named things is smaller it will naturally use a larger proportion of its vocabulary on any one day. For instance, the eighty different words vised by 3 (g.) at the beginning of the twentieth month were 96 per cent. of the vocabulary up to that day, but by the next month this proportion had dropped to 60 per cent. and in subsequent months varied from 54 per cent. to 43 per cent.

These children we believe to be but slightly, if at all, above the average child in the use of language. As an example of what a reputedly talkative child can do, we took the words used on his second birthday by Carl Andrist (whose father was instructor in French in the University of Minnesota); he used 803 different words.

Most of the records of children's vocabularies hitherto published have been gross underestimates, chiefly, we think, from two causes. In the first place, the estimate has almost always been made on the first or only child; for the enthusiasm for child study or psychology usually breaks out with the advent of the wonderful first child and lessens as this novelty wears away and heavier domestic cares with the second child discourage scientific ardor. But the later children have an advantage in learning much from contact with the older child. Thus our first child used only 400 words at two years, and 769 at two and a half years, that is, about half as many as the second or third child. Of three other published records of two children in the same family, two cases show a much slighter increase while one shows a decrease.

The second cause of the underestimation of a child's vocabulary is the use of unreliable methods. Even the almost constant presence of the mother with the child, and her daily noting of the new words it uses from the beginning of speech to the two or two and a half year limit, we found insufficient. For when in the case of the second child we also followed the child about and made a complete record, we found that the former method had failed to note many of the commonest words. We followed the third child through eight complete days, on the first of months 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 28 and 31; and, on checking these words off with the daily noted new words, we found we should have missed some 250 words had we used only the method of noting new words. Thus any attempt to write out a child's vocabulary from memory or from spasmodic observations is utterly untrustworthy. So in spite of the extreme cases of children's use of words (from 25 to 1,100 at two years in the published cases), the average of 257 for the dozen children reported in Tracy's 'Psychology of Childhood,' pp. 142-144, seems only from a half to a third of the correct amount. For, even if we allow these to have been all cases of first children, the absence of any description of the method makes it probable that the easier and less complete methods were used. For the average of the first eight summaries of vocabularies at two years in Preyer ('Seele des Kindes,' 4te Aufl. 1895, S., 378) is 419, to which our first child's record corresponds. The child studied by Prof. Humphrey's thorough, though in some ways questionable, dictionary method had a vocabulary of 1,121 words. The child studied by G. Deville's method had a vocabulary of 739 words, which corresponds almost exactly with our younger children's records of 729 and 741. If then an average child at two years uses from 400 to 800 words, can we believe without some real evidence that any adult uses only the fabled 300?

The total number of words used on one day is to many people even more astonishing than the number of different words. For the child's energy represented in the production of 8,992 or 9,290 words is something relatively enormous. Would that this child energy could be expressed in figures! But here again some idea of what a speech 'record' is, can be obtained from the case of the above Carl A., who used on his second birthday—i.e., when six months younger than our children—a total of 10,507 words!

In the number of repetitions of a single word one gets a measure, too, of the energy used; as on finding that our 2 (b.) used his own name 'Sammy' 1,057 times on one day (as subject, object and possessive, in place of the personal pronouns); while 3 (g.) used her favorite 'little' 660 times, 'that' 609 times and the aggressive ego words, 'I,' 'me' and 'my' 970 times.

Sammy, 350 want, 204 some, 134
Papa, 350 see, 128 no, 202
Mama, 193 going, 124 yes, 104
Dick, 148 don't 123 now, 151
Hilde, 62 go, 97 there, 134
boy, 45 get, 88 down, 105
bed, 42 put, 86 here, 100
house, 41 will, 79 that, 226
water, 34 did, 66 this, 116
was, 61 in, 145
have, 56 to, 147
take. 55

These comparative frequencies in the words used are an interesting index of the interests of the child, as well as of its energy. The preceding list gives those used most often by 2 (b.) on his two and a half year day:

Such a list shows the child's interests centered egoistically, and naturally, too, around his primitive struggle for existence. The aggressive want, go, get, put, will, have and take; the offensive don't, 'the everlasting no,' always taking precedence of the submissive yes; the demonstrating that, this, there, here, in and to—all show the natural pleasure-pain life in its immediate expression in ceaseless activity and in its conflict with the environment. The social instincts, however, appear in the more frequent use of his parents and sisters' names than of those of novel objects or objects for play; sympathy and approbation are shown by the use of see and some.

The important role played by the great activity of the child has been pointed out by Tracy (ibid., pp. 146-148) in the child's use of a much larger proportion of verbs than the adult. The full record of a child's talk for a day gives a vivid and fascinating picture of this intense activity; the following scenes give fair samples. In her first play for the day with her doll, about three quarters of an hour after waking and before breakfast, 3 (g.) kept up the following stream:

"My little baby, my little baby. Momsie, Momsie, jiggle my little baby, jiggle my little baby. Please put that little pillow in, put that little pillow in—little pillow in. I did put. Just little tiny bit, little tiny bit,—little, little, little. Going take nightgown off. Safety pin, safety pin. Put that on bed. Going put that on, going put little pillow way. Please help me put my little baby's sleeves in. I call that my little baby. Why I—I—I? Try pin. Can't pin. Why write that way? Don't want my pillow,—want that pillow,—want—. Where that little baby sleep on my pillow? (Repeated) Why do just like that way? That bed spread lie on. (Repeated) Little baby,—cover legs. (Sings) Sweet little baby, sweet little baby,—Oh little baby, Oh little baby, Oh little baby, Oh little baby. Put that,—that bed spread little baby lie on—have bed spread. Go right off. I going put my hands on that. Try make that stick together,—stick together; try make that stick together,—go together all nice. My little baby can't lie. What?—what? I used my—away back on Mamma's bed. Can't tell Hilsie that. My baby got two little shoes, two little stockings on. (Repeated) Can't take off. My poor little baby got go bed, got stay in bed. Got little neck, little neck, cunning little neck,—little neck. Please unpin that safety-pin, Momsie. My little baby not very well,—have stay in bed. No,—my little baby's nightgown,—that Grandma made (latter four times)—other Mama made me,—that Emma made me, that Emma made me. That Mama crochet, Mama crochet other one—other one. Hasie have that one (repeated twice)—that one. My little baby have sleep on,—where my little pillow? Got little chin. Why do that way? Got no nightgown. Play with little safety pin." (She then changed off to another doll.)

Of course the above was interrupted by some talk from other members of the family, but we tried to leave the child to its own activity and spontaneous talk as much as possible. The following extract shows some of the different interests and activities due to sex. After his dinner at noon 2 (b.) began thus:

"Papa come upstairs and build with Sammy. Fix Sammy big fid(dle). S. will fix big one. S. want only—S. want Mama, one lady and one man. Oh Anna, S. see Bannie (made-up word). No, no, S. going to build little house for children. No wood—build with stone ones. No, S. want these. Put those in closet. S. want new (blocks). P. get some. Little P. get little S. Want some. No, S. will let S. S. going make pretty nice fairy houses. This going be little house down here, so can't get out. This tiny one can't get out,—get out. and get in. And that down there,—that there down beside and that, that side-arch. S. going to build nice, nice fairy house. Mama, when P. was little P. did hump, hump (laughing). Yes. S. thought he was Bannie, Bannie. (Pause playing with stone blocks alone). S. has to finish with these blocks. S. need old block—S. need old block. No, no, no, that little boy,—little boy. He going to go thro here. That S. mat. This does take all block. There P. big fid. S. don't see P. big fid. S. have to play,—have to play. S. have to put P. big fid,—P. Fiedelbogen. Yes. What this? S. want,—Hilde, H. H. (the four months' sister getting into his things). This little boy S. will give H. S. want that whip. S. going to get green Decke. Don't put Dick baby on (repeated). Little boy,—No, No,—S. want that little boy. H. did take little boy. Is'nt something to eat, H. No, No, but S. want,—H., H., H., want. Take H. H. don't want. This for H. S. can suck. Oh, there baby,—isn't down on floor. Take H.,—take H. Don't take,—here boy, here boy. Oh, some (nonsense syllables). Yes. Mama now S. Oh, here was hat. S. found hat,—S. found boy hat. Shan't we, P.? No, S. won't come up till P. come up. S. got block lean over. P. now come up. M., don't get on S. block. S. got blocks lean over. P. build with S. P. build fountain-house. S. have to build. P. long one, P. Now P. build with S. P., now S. P. know those go down there,—belong. No, S. will put arch up there. P. build with those. Put other arch up there. P. build with S. Now take this block and build down there,—now put across there. H.,—why, why, H! Take that H. P. now take this. P. now,—Oh, build P. No, No, No, that arch down here. No, No,—Oh, S. will give H. rubber doll. There H. Now P. sit down,—H. got rubber doll."
It is astonishing how this activity keeps up to the end of the day and how the child struggles against fatigue and sleepiness. After having looked at his Brownie book in bed awhile S. was laid down by his mother to be sung to sleep as usual and the gas was turned down. Whereat he said:
"S. can't see—S. can't see. P. now give S. some more paper to write on, two more and that will be all. Sammylein, Hildelein, Mamalein, Dicklein, and that will be all. S. can't see. (Repeated five times and seven Nos.) Yes, S. want drink. Now P. drink some,—now S. want 'nother drink. Now don't write M. S. is'nt getting tired, This Water Baby. Why? Go way up to that corner. S. don't want to. S. is'nt sleepy. S. got jelly glass at S. house. M., don't turn down gas, don't, don't don't. Where P. go? No, No. (Finally weakening he says) S. want go S. bed. S. want green Decke. S. want S. pictures. M. sing some Schub(ert). Was this right way? No, this was wrong way. M., this right way? (Adjusting his beloved green Decke) This
right,—Yes. M., S. want those two pieces paper,—give S. some paper. S. have to roll up. M. cover S. Where P.? Where P.? M., where P.? M. sing loud. M. lie down on P. bed,"

when the Männlein suddenly fell off to sleep.

How considerably the range of a child's interests can vary even in substantially the same environment can be seen by a comparison of the entire vocabularies of our three children. For out of the 2,170 different words used by some one of the three up to two and a half years of age, less than a quarter, 489, were used by all; while 2 (b.) used 480 and 3 (g.) used 586 words that were not used by either of the other children. The varying interests in these cases are partly due to the difference in sex. But in the case of Professor Holden's two girls, whom he expressly says were exposed to surroundings as similar as was possible, we find at two years of age 246 words in common, while the older had used 241 and the younger 154 exclusively.[3] These wide individual differences in the stock of words children use seem to us on examining the complete vocabularies in chronological order to be much better accounted for by the varying pleasure-pains or interests of the children than by the oft-quoted law of the ease of utterance.[4]

For though the stock in common is on the whole the easier and the individual variations are toward the harder, yet the short words with their easier initial or imitative sounds seem to be used because of their necessity or interest to the child's life, as, e.g., the early words baby, cow, Papa, Mama, book, horse, dog, bottle, water, doll, pin, mittens; burn, see, take, want, eat, wash; pretty, hot, dirty, warm, broken, clean, sticky, another, there, off, away, quickly; good-bye, hurrah, peek-a-boo, etc., etc. The growth of language in the race has brought it about that the words most necessary to the child's life are the shorter and easier sounds. Thus the child uses them first because of their interest and serviceableness, and not because of their ease. So glancing down the chronological columns of our children's vocabularies, one can see how the compound words came into use later on together with the finer specialization, shown also in the more exact adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.

Thus, too, many equally easy words come to be used much later when they become useful or interesting, as mat, muff, people, joke, note, lace, veil, care, screw, bone, gas, glue, guess, give, fill, feed, tell, buy, shine, scrub, sure, like and soft. On the other hand, long hard words are used when the child's interests need them, used, however, in the modified shape of the nearest imitative sound the child can make or of some original substitute word. Thus they associated some sound which served as a word for nigger-book, handkerchief, petticoat, toboggan, umbrella, Brille, hammock, Brightwood, university, perfumery, Bauchknopf, apple-sauce, rocking-chair, dein ist mein Herz, chimney-sweep, Pantoffeln, peppermint-candy, waste-paper basket, Miss Haversham, David Copperfield, Thomas Orchestra, Beethoven, Brahms, button-hole scissors, magnifying glass, Kohlpechrabenschwarzermohr (in which 2 (b.) only left out the two syllables en and er); telephone, vaccinate, be reposed, collapse, Headerei (to be carried on one's shoulders, originated themselves from Washerei), kitzeln, remember, disturb; comfortable, precious, old-fashioned; day after to-morrow, guten Morgen, guten Abend, auf Wiedersehen.

We believe then that the acquisition of words by a child is mainly accounted for by the psychological laws of pleasure-pain, viz.: (1) the biological law that whatever is favorable or more immediately beneficial to our organism is pleasurable and that the harmful is painful; (2) between these extreme limits things are further differentiated as pleasurable or painful by being associated with things already differentiated by the biological law, and this principle of association comes indirectly under (1); (3) by the habit or custom principle whereby we come to have pleasure in anything long-continued about us—supposing it is not so immediately harmful as to kill us in the process of adaptation.

Words then are simply the tools whereby the child gets more pleasures and avoids more pains. And the number of these words is normally limited only by the pleasure-pains which are of sufficient intensity to make the motor connections for speaking the words. We have many observations showing how this association of the sound with the thing was made without any apparent attention to the sound; so that when the child's pleasure-pain interest in the thing was enough for it to want to use the word, out it popped without any previous trial or practice. If the child merely lives in an environment where the words are heard or—later on—seen in books, the words get themselves ready for use when needed.

  1. See e. g. Max Müller: 'Science of Language,' First Series, 1870. "Now we are told on good authority, by a country clergyman, that some of the laborers in this parish had not 300 words in their vocabulary" (p. 226).
  2. See the authors' complete vocabularies, tables and discussion in their article 'The vocabularies of three children in one family to two and a half years of age,' 'Psychological Studies,' edited by Harlow Gale.
  3. Holden: 'On the Vocabularies of Children under Two Years of Age,' Trans. Amer. Philological Assn., Vol. 8, 1877, pp. 58-68.
  4. See Schultze, 'Die Sprache des Kindes' (1880), S. 27, for the use of this principle in the sounds used by the child for words. But Holden had already applied this principle to the words which the child successively used and thus made up his vocabulary. "I am inclined to take it as a result of my inquiry that the ease of pronunciation, far more than the complexity of the idea, determines the adoption of the word" (ibid. p. 60). But of this principle Humphrey said: "Although it had some influence before the child was one year old, when she was two, it had ceased to have any effect whatever. She had, by that time, adopted certain substitutes for letters which she could not pronounce, and words containing these letters she employed as freely as if the substitutes had been the correct sounds" (ibid., p. 7). For Preyer's arguments against the principle in both its applications to the sounds and to the real words see his pp. 367, 373 and 374.