You talk a lot. No, seriously. Even if you’re not a chatty person. You, as a human being who has not taken a vow of silence, transmit a lot of information.
Let me break it down for you. I recently did a large chunk of transcription, looking at speech data from four different people. I took a random two minute sample from each of those transcriptions, and they spoke 282, 257, 386 and 357 words in that time, for an average of around 160 words per minute. None of the people were talking faster than what I consider a normal rate, and I live in the South, where speaking rates are lower then they are in, say, California. But let’s pretend that this is your normal speaking rate.
Let’s put this in perspective.
Say you’re one of those brave souls who does NaNoWriMo, and you try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. If you were writing your novel as fast as you speak, you’d finish in a little over five hours. That’s right. Every five hours you speak, you produce enough words to fill a book. Of course, you don’t spend five hours a day talking at full tilt, but even so, most people speak around 16,000 words a day. (The link is a Scientific American summing up of the paper in question.)
If you’re a hacker, you might be a little confused at the “words per minute” figure. (In other languages and for other purposes linguists tend to use morphemes, syllables, or phonemes, and measure them by the minute, second, or even hour.) The unit milliLampson sometimes pops up:
milliLampson /mil’*-lamp`sn/ /n./ A unit of talking speed, abbreviated mL. Most people run about 200 milliLampsons. The eponymous Butler Lampson [link mine] (a CS theorist and systems implementor highly regarded among hackers) goes at 1000. A few people speak faster. This unit is sometimes used to compare the (sometimes widely disparate) rates at which people can generate ideas and actually emit them in speech. For example, noted computer architect C. Gordon Bell (designer of the PDP-11) is said, with some awe, to think at about 1200 mL but only talk at about 300; he is frequently reduced to fragments of sentences as his mouth tries to keep up with his speeding brain.
Yeah… it’s cute, but you’re not really going to see it cropping up in linguistics literature. My guess would be, based on the speaking rate, that a milliLampson is loosely based on words per minute, probably based on Californian speakers (maybe even from, gasp! UC Berkeley), and then inflated by folkloric proportions. But that’s a great example of the type of misinformation that’s out there. Take this for example:
The fine folks at Medical Billing and Coding may have listed their sources, but I’m afraid one of their sources were wrong. Let take a look at this 73 million figure. I will even do all the arithmetic for you. I know, I know, I’m a peach.
Ok, so, let’s assume that their 18,140 figure is right, and that our 160 words/minute figure is right. In that case, we’ve got 18,140 hours per life x 60 minutes per hour x 160 words per minute and do the multiplication and cancel out all the units super nicely, and we come up with 174,144,000 words per life. That’s almost 2.5 times as many as they predicted. Or, hey, since a little more math can’t hurt, let’s assume 75 speaking years per life x 365 days per year x 16,000 words per day and we come up with 438,000,000 words per life. And since I’m far more likely to trust the data from the article published in Science than my own little two-bit estimation, it looks like this infographic is wrong by a factor of 6.
What’s even more amazing, though, is that if you wrote down every single one of those words, it would be as long as 402.5 editions of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the longest novel ever written. Like I said, you talk a lot.