Which language has the most words?

Show us your dictionary! Or dictionaries…

….it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages. English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the … Romance language family to which French belongs. source

Meaningful word-count comparisons between languages are difficult. This is especially the case when there are different writing systems. In Chinese, for example, a word is logographic (combining images) while its German equivalent is alphabetic (combining letters).

Some languages have multiple inflections or variants of a root word: have, had, having etc. Latin and Polish, for example, are highly inflected while non-alphabetic languages — like Chinese and Arabic — have (arguably) no inflections in written form.

Then there is the number of words you need to convey an agreed meaning. Famously the Alaskan language, Yupik, uses one word, Tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq, where English requires twelve: He hadn’t yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer. Or is that thirteen, as some would count contractions like hadn’t as two word?

The term for these linguistic fun and (word) games is morphology — a topic popular with the scrabble-master and pointy-headed communities. Unfortunately morphology — with its endless ‘you can’t compare this language with that one’ objections — is no help in establishing an agreed and reasonably objective measuring stick.

Show us your dictionary!

The twenty volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary

One crude yardstick is to count the number of headwords or entries in each language’s standard reference dictionary. According to this extensively researched dictionary comparison, Korean and Finnish take gold and silver.

Who knows how Korean got to the top of the pile, but there is definitely some funny business involving the runner up:

‘agglutinative’ languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of ‘words’. source

Japanese is another heavily backed contender — boasting a mighty 500,00 words. Yet half of these are in Kanji (Chinese characters) — with around 1200 Kanji words you could manage a newspaper. In English you would need at least double this lexicon to manage a leaflet designed for children.

Clearly a crude headword count is not sufficient in itself to establish the size of a lexicon. Some ‘ghost words’ never make it out of the dictionary — having originally got there through misprint or mishearing. Others become obsolete — Groak, anyone ? Or they can be evolve into a new form ambuscade has been rebranded by the snappier ambush.

Import & Export

No language is an island and there is an extensive world trade in words a phrases. The most useful, however, are appropriated by other languages.

Europe has historically been Silicon Valley of the word generation market. The Greeks and Romans made a solid start in science and medicine. They handed baton to the French bossed the planet in diplomacy (ambassador, detente, charge d’affair) and cuisine. Now English is in the box seat as the de facto global language.

Source

One advantage English has over its European rivals is its flexibility

English accommodates foreign words… it has become an international language {absorbing} vocabulary from a large number of other sources.

The 20 volumes of The Oxford English Dictionary takes up more shelf space than their French, Italian, Spanish and Russian rivals combined.

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Kieran McGovern

Kieran McGovern

I grew up in an Irish family in west London