Thousands of reasons to keep reading

23:51, Sep 18 2013
Felix Brookie
MAN OF MANY WORDS: Felix Brookie, at 14, has a vocabulary of about 17,000 words, more than most adults.

Acetabular, quiddity, empyrean, wodge.

There's no need to feel discombobulated if these words perplex you - with the possible exception of Scrabble players, few Kiwis will have heard of them.

But chances are that, if you are able to read a newspaper, your vocabulary includes at least 8000 word families.

And if you're old enough to vote and you read a lot, your memory may be packed with as many as 19,000 words, according to Victoria University researchers who carried out what they believe is the largest test of New Zealanders' vocabulary size.

Click here to try the vocabulary test.

Applied linguistics emeritus professor Paul Nation and senior linguistics lecturer Averil Coxhead tested the vocabularies of 1000 New Zealand secondary school students and 218 adults.


They found 13-year-olds knew about 10,500 words, and picked up a further 500 by the time they turned 14.

Adult native English speakers knew about 16,800 words on average, compared with non-native speakers' 10,800.

People keep adding words to their vocabularies until they reach adulthood, at which point they appear to learn at a much slower rate - unless they worked in a science-related job or were linguistically exceptional, Dr Coxhead said.

"Scrabble players would not stop, or they would pride themselves on wanting to know more."

Wellington spelling bee champion Amanda Dharmasekhara was one of those who took the test. The 14-year-old's score of 18,400 words was higher than the average native English-speaking New Zealand adult's, despite her first language being Sinhalese.

People with high-end vocabulary sizes tended to be big readers, Dr Coxhead said.

"The more you read and challenge your mind, your vocabulary is going to grow larger."

The 10 most common base words - the, be, to, of, and, a, in, that, have, I - account for a quarter of the 2 billion in the Oxford English Dictionary's texts database.

In dictionaries' dustier depths, "low frequency" words such as squinny (slang for a person who whinges a lot) and wintle (to sway or capsize) were identified by the Kiwi researchers as the kind of words owners of prodigious vocabularies of 23,000 to 24,000 words might recognise.

One anonymous test subject's comment to the researchers captured how people's minds grapple with the strange words: "It's like looking for something in the bottom of your handbag."

Acetabular is the adjective of acetabulum, where the head of the femur bone meets the pelvis to form the hip joint.

Empyrean is a place in the highest heaven occupied by the element of fire, in ancient cosmology. Quiddity is a philosophical term for the essence of an object. A wodge describes a bulky mass or chunk of something, especially food.


He was investing in the sharemarket while he was still at primary school, and has a vocabulary larger than that of most adults.

Fourteen-year-old word whiz Felix Brookie of Palmerston North scored 17,000 in Victoria University researchers' vocabulary size test. That's more words than the average New Zealand adult would be expected to know.

The researchers' test subjects were anonymous, and all they knew was that a Palmerston North teenager with an interest in quantum physics had an extraordinary score.

"We looked at those results and thought holy moly," senior linguistics lecturer Averil Coxhead said.

By age 11, Felix had $1000 worth of shares in Fletcher Construction, Contact Energy, Auckland International Airport and Queenstown Airport. He also wrote software for households to measure their carbon emissions.

Now in year 11, the Palmerston North Boys' High School pupil is sitting NCEA level 2 science and maths papers, and plays viola in the Manawatu Sinfonia and the New Zealand Secondary Schools Orchestra.

Felix said he could not explain why his vocabulary was larger than usual - he read a lot, but did not consider school easy.

"All of the stuff I do I find interesting. I'm still learning and stuff, and I'm getting to the stage of school where I don't know about some things, and it's quite challenging."

The young scientist, musician and investor could not name any particular hobby as his favourite.

"There's a lot of things that interest me - that's the problem."



What is thought to be the most comprehensive test yet undertaken of New Zealanders' vocabulary size is the culmination of almost 30 years of wordsmithery by Victoria University applied linguistics emeritus professor Paul Nation.

He estimates 15,000 to 20,000 words of varying difficulty had to be fed into the vocabulary size test database.

Vocabulary size studies were used as the basis for reading programmes and text books for schools. Getting it wrong could mean texts were not matched to pupils' expected vocabulary size for their age, Prof Nation said.

"Vocabulary size measurement is the worst researched area of vocabulary studies, and possibly even in applied linguistics," he said. "We wanted to get it right and I have on working on doing that for the past 20 to 30 years."

One interesting aspect of the study could have a use in exam settings, he said. The researchers found that teenagers who sat the test twice scored at least 1000 words higher when they had a researcher sitting next to them, instead of a group exam situation.

"We found that when we actually sat next to them and kept them on task there were some improved results," Prof Nation said. "For kids who are really struggling that could really make an enormous difference in those schools."


The Dominion Post