How Many Words Does It Take?

Lydia Davis:

I read recently that in English, a mere 43 words account for half of all words in common use, and that just nine (and, be, have, it, of, the, to, will, you ) account for a quarter in almost any sample of written English (my source is a very entertaining exploration of the English language, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, by Bill Bryson). In another grammar I found at a secondhand bookstore, A Practical Key to the Kanarese Language by F. Ziegler …, the beginner is presented with a list of 162 “indispensable” words: common verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, numbers, parts of the body, family members, and common objects such as the knife and the umbrella.

“Learning a Foreign Language: Spanish,” in Essays Two, p. 94