Hip Hop Linguists

Matt Daniels' Hip Hop Analysis

Today we'll be discussing the vocabulary sizes of the average person, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, DMX, Kool Keith, and me.

I know, I never thought Shakespeare and I would be in the same sentence, either. But we are, thanks to an interesting vocabulary comparison done by a hip-hop fan in New York.

We'll start with the fact the average university graduate has a vocabulary size of approximately 20,000 words. By comparison, it is thought Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 100,000 words, based on the fact he used 28,829 unique words in his entire body of work, which is more words than I apparently know. (Wow, here we are again!)

I completed TestYourVocab.com and got 27,700, about as average a score as you can get, looking at test-taker results reported in The Economist:

  • Most adult native test-takers range from 20,000–35,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 8 already know 10,000 words
  • Average native test-takers of age 4 already know 5,000 words
  • Adult native test-takers learn almost 1 new word a day until middle age
  • Adult test-taker vocabulary growth basically stops at middle age

And now back to the New York designer, coder and data scientist, who decided to look at the first 35,000 words used by Shakespeare, Herman Melville in Moby Dick, and 85 hip-hop artists. He compared the number of unique words each one used, and put them on a scale.

I can't do Matt Daniels' work justice; you should just click here. But I am able to report a few facts:

  • DMX is at the bottom of the list, with 3,214 unique words used.
  • Kool Keith is third from the top with 6,238.
  • Shakespeare is at 5,170, Herman Melville is at 6,022, and 66.66% of The Wu-Tang Clan, as any fan could guess, is in the top 10.
  • Aesop Rock, who is #1 (7,392), has almost 1,000 words more than GZA at #2 (6,426).
  • Unsurprisingly, the East Coast rappers have more robust vocabularies, and the Southern rappers, shall we say, use the fewest unique words.
  • Also perhaps not surprising, the biggest names in hip-hop are in the bottom 20%.

So, feel like pulling out that old Kool Keith CD and a dictionary? Me too!