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I wonder how I can assess how well-known a French word is. In other words, how can I estimate the percentage of French speakers who know the meaning of a given French word? "French speakers" here refers to adult native speakers; I am mostly interested in metropolitan French.

The Google Ngram Viewer only gives a count of the number of appearances of a given word in a book corpus, which can be quite far off from the percentage of French speakers who know the meaning of a given French word.

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    While it's a very slow, scattershot process, I find there's value in the Easy French videos for this purpose. (I'm currently binging Easy German.) They interview random people on the street about random topics, and you hear certain words and phrases over and over and over. I find it's the closest thing to another educational experience, walking along the streets of Paris with my ears open, which taught me that young Parisians structure every conversation around the words marrant and dégueu. – Luke Sawczak Jan 3 at 4:59
  • Can you specify exactly what you mean? Are you including children? Adults over a certain age? Do you want precise numbers or just a general idea? If you can pin down precisely what statistic you require, it's easier to answer. Also you can bet that someone in French university has done a study. If you know exactly what you are asking and why, then you know what to search for. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 3 at 10:26
  • @chasly-supportsMonica I'm mostly interested in adult French native speakers. Approximations are ok since it'd be impossible to obtain the exact number. I'm looking for, given a French word, the probability of a French speaker knowing the meaning of the word. For example, given the word "étrennes", what's the likelihood for a French speaker to know this word. – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 at 10:46
  • What are you going to do with the information? That makes a difference. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 3 at 10:52
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    In that case, with respect, your question should have been, "How common is the word etrennes". That is a completely different type of question. For a word like that, I suggest you search through online news texts. For exmple google.com/… – chasly - supports Monica Jan 3 at 11:11
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Studies tell the average number of words routinely used by most French speaking persons is between 2000 and 5000, with a core of around 600 words, the ones required to be able to have a conversation.

I guess the number of words known is 10 times larger, i.e. someone using 3000 words would probably understand 30000 words. That's still a rough estimation, individual variations would strongly apply.

Verbal forms, singular/plural, masculine/feminine variants are not counted in these figures and would increase them significantly.

There are also many rare or even non existing words people would understand simply by analyzing how they are built.

You can use the Lexique database to get a list of 142k French words with their lemmas (~47k) and usage frequency.

I agree frequency is not necessarily in a strict linear relationship with knowledge, but there is no doubt it is strongly related. Every adult French native speaker will know 100% of the 600 most used words, and a few percent or less of the words ranking 100k or +. On the other hand, browsing the lemmas ordered by frequency, I'm surprised to see the rank of a few of them, for example fuligineux is #17000 but I doubt many people know precisely what it is about while grisé is #28000 but understandable by most kids.

You suggested one word, étrennes in comments. Its lemma ranking is #18420 according to the Lexique metrics (17223 for the verb étrenner) so according to my rough range, it should be known by almost everyone even in the less literate group.

Instead of using the lemma frequency, you might also have a look to the Megalex data which measure words recognition time, both visually or auditory. According to it, almost all of the participants had a recognition rate better than 80% so that would mean they know at least 37000 lemmas. The study is presented in this page.

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  • Fuligineux c'est la science qui le propulse là ou pourquoi de prime abord il apparaît plus haut que grisé ? – Thélée_Lavoie Jan 3 at 16:22
  • @20goto 21 Il doit peut-être son envol grâce à des albatros et des puffins... – jlliagre Jan 3 at 17:08
  • Ou à Jules Verne : Les sapins brûlaient avec un éclat livide et projetaient une flamme fuligineuse, comme eût fait une énorme torche. (Le Pays des fourrures, 1873) – jlliagre Jan 3 at 17:20
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You need to pin down precisely what you want to know and what use you will put it to. The chances are that someone has already done the work for you.

Start with Google Scholar, e.g. french language vocabulary

A vital search term will be vocabulary or in French vocabulaire

Do a similar thing by searching online for French Language research

You must be prepared to read French, as a lot of research on French will be in French. If you are not fluent in French, you can use automatic translation.

For example

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5&q=vocabulaire+francais&btnG=

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  • Thank you! Have you found any research papers addressing the question? – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 at 10:45
  • @Franck Dernoncourt - I have not looked. As I say, you are the one who knows exactly what sort of results you want. You will need to refine your search terms until you find all the necessary key words, both in English and French. Then it's plain sailing. Good luck! – chasly - supports Monica Jan 3 at 10:51
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    Thanks, got it, time to learn how to use GScholar ;-) – Franck Dernoncourt Jan 3 at 10:52
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It is very probably not the utmost that can be done nor a sure means in all cases, but the use of a dictionary such as the TLFi provides some indications such as « vieux », « rare », « archaïque », « régional », and those tell you that the word is not used much. Other indications, such as « familier » and « popular » tell you that it is used rather a lot.
I really don't know of any means of getting a finer appreciation of the importance of the usage of a word.

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    "familier" and "popular" do not tell you that the word "is used a rather lot". It's just an indication of the "niveau de langage". – Bernard Massé Jan 3 at 14:54
  • @BernardMassé It is well known that all of everyday language, spoken, and written in informal contexts, consists for a very great part of it of colloquial and slang terms which are chosen in preference to the corresponding terms in the higher register and it is clear that this everyday language accounts for the greatest volume of communication. Also, even if you do not use these words you are bound to know them well from having heard them a lot. – LPH Jan 3 at 15:12
  • @LPH the TLF doesn't do "spoken" language, it's a dictionary of the XIXth and XXth centuries French language, mostly(?) based on occurrences in literature. You won't find any verlan there apart from "verlan" itself, words like "meuf", "keuf" etc. aren't there, while it will be understood easily in France. Similarly if you search for a word like "gauler", they won't give you anything related to what French people will understand today in "se faire gauler". New words like "kiffer" aren't there, but words like "gourgandine" would be considered as being "used rather a lot" by your criteria. – Kaiido Jan 6 at 6:25
  • @Kaiido The trends you refer to represent very marginal offshoots of the modern language; nobody in their right mind wants to have anything to do with branché and verlan , both particular to a very narrow ethos, and by the way, it shouldn't be too difficult for you to find verified information telling you that verlan is on the decline (a rather sharp decline I think). For people in need of precise information about French, so as to read its recent literature, there is for now no better source of information than the TLFi (one of its problems, as you say: a lack of everyday examples). (1/2) – LPH Jan 6 at 13:19
  • @Kaiido Do not read too much into my answer; I do mention that the means I propose are probably a second best. I must reckon, there can't be too many persons who know the word "gourgandine" unless they read the literature sufficiently. (2/2) – LPH Jan 6 at 13:20

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