Recently, I have been pondering the question of what the list of most frequently used words in English tells us about the life of English speakers, individually and collectively, in the world, and about the structures of English. Perhaps a preliminary question is ‘Does the list of most frequently used words in English tell us anything about the life of English speakers in the world etc?’. Having pondered, the answer is certainly ‘yes’ – the most frequently used nouns, verbs and adjectives tell us a lot about the life of English speakers in the world, and the most frequently used other words tell us a lot about the structures of English. Perhaps most of what follows is self-evident, but I’d never thought about it previously, nor read anything like it, even after a few days of intermittent searching on the internet.
Various lists of the (some number) most frequently used English words exist on the internet, substantially similar but differing in details (but that doesn’t affect the broad scope of my analysis here). For this analysis, I took the 25 most frequently used words in each part-of-speech from this site (scroll down to ‘Chapter 5). I deleted a few and added a few more which I think are crucial (and which I’ve marked below with a asterisk). Even though some of what follows is quite preliminary (and almost certainly contains errors and omissions), definite patterns can be seen.
Humans (people, man, woman, child) live in space (place, world, area, house) and time (time, year, day). We live our lives in the exterior world of things and the interior world of *ideas and *feelings. During our life, we interact with a number of other people as a part of various groups. In English-speaking countries, at least, our lives are dominated by government and work. The italicised words are all nouns. Apart from the last two, all the others might apply to any society speaking any language.
The list of verbs begins with be, have and do: be relates to ‘existence’ or ‘state’, have to ‘possession’ and do to action. Humans perceive the environment (see, look, find, *hear, *listen, *feel (physically)) then apply thought and emotion (think, know, *need, *want, *like, *feel (emotionally)) to the information obtained. As a result, we can communicate (say, tell), move (*move, go, come), or interact with and manipulate objects (*touch, *hold, give, get, take, *put, make, use). Modal verbs are related to to decision (will, would), ability, possibility and permission (can, could, may, *might), advisability (*shall, should) and obligation (must).
Nouns are first paired with a range of words (determiners) which generally indicate ‘which one(s)?’ (a, an, the; this, that, these, those; another, *other, both, each, *every), ‘whose?’ (my, your, his, her, its, our, their), ‘how many?’ (no, *some, *any, every; half, one, two, few, several, all; more, less, *fewer, many, most), or ‘how much?’ (more, less, much).
These basic phrases can then be described by adjectives indicating size (large, big, small, little, high, *low, long, *short), age (old, new, young), value (great, good, *bad, right, *wrong, important), place (*personal, local, general, national), time (early, late), similarity (same, *similar, different, other), social organisation (social, political) and ability (able, possible) (and those last two categories overlap).
Any noun phrase can be replaced by a pronoun, which can be indefinite (*no-one, someone, anyone, everyone; nothing, something, anything, everything), personal (I, you, he, she, it, we, they; me, him, her, us, them), reflexive (*myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves), and interrogative and/or relative (who, what, which).
Noun phrases and pronouns can be preceded by prepositions, indicating possession (of), location in space or time (at, on, in, about, by, between, before, *after, over, under, within), movement in space or time (from, to, into, out of, between, through) or duration of space or time (during, since, for, within). Also on the list is the quartet of with, without, as, like, which are very difficult to categorise.
Also very difficult to categorise are conjunctions (both, and, either, or; but, as, if, whether, that, when, while, before, until, after, since, while, where, although, though, since, for, so), and adverbs (MANNER: how, well, *badly; PLACE: where, here, there; DIRECTION: up, down, in, out, back, *forward; TIME *when, now, then, still, *yet; DEGREE: how much, very, so, such, too; PURPOSE: *why, because; CONCESSION: however; NEGATION: not). Note that the adverbs on the list are not what we might call the ‘big adverbs’ of manner and frequency (many of which are derived from adjectives by adding ‘-ly’), but the morphologically simple what we might call ‘small adverbs’. (The most influential recent grammar analysis, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, thoroughly re-analyses prepositions, conjunctions and adverbs. If I analysed these frequency lists any further, I would have to take into account those new insights.)
Finally, there are also a number of ‘social words’, which are not on the list of most frequently used words, but which are nevertheless very important in English: hello, goodbye, excuse me, please, thank you, sorry, yes, no.
The approximately 150 words above certainly aren’t comprehensive, but equally certainly give a good start, and a handful of basic morphological rules exponentially multiplies the words available:
once we have nouns, we can have singular and plural and possessive forms, and noun modification of other nouns;
once we have verbs, we can have all the verb tenses (which are generally formed using be, have, do and modal verbs;
once we have verbs and prepositions and adverbs, we can have phrasal verbs (which use the same verb tenses);
once we have adjectives, we can have comparative and superlative forms;
once we have the categories of noun, verb, adjective and adverb, we can derive words in the other categories from the existing words in one category using suffixes, or modify the words each category using prefixes;
once we have prepositions and adverbs, we can combine them (eg very many/much, so many/much, too many/much)
So how much of English falls into the scope of what I’ve just outlined in about 1000 words? My guess is ‘most of it’. (Of course, these are just the words; we’ve got all that syntax (putting words into phrases, clauses and sentences) to go.)
[PS This site has some interesting statistics on the frequency of words, including that 100 words make up 50% of what we say and write. They also mention two things I was thinking, but didn’t add here: most of these words are short and to the point, and most have been in the language for a long time. Their lists are slightly different than the ones I was using.]