Lifestyle and Culture

Which Language Is Richest In Words?

March 7, 2018

which language is richest in words

Have you heard language experts say that English has more words than other languages? The claim is made but it’s practically impossible to verify.

Steven Frank, the author of The Pen Commandments claims that English has 500,000 words with German having about 135,000 and French having fewer than 100,000.

But wait.

A blog post for The Economist agrees that English is rich in vocabulary, but comparisons with other languages can’t be made for several reasons.

The simplest problem in comparing the size of different languages is inflection.

Do we count “run”, “runs” and “ran” as three separate words? Another problem is multiple meanings. Do we count “run” the verb and “run” the noun as one word or two? What about “run” as in the long run of a play on Broadway?

When counting a language’s words do we count compounds? Is “every day” one word or two? Are the names of new chemical compounds words?

Estoy, Estás, Está—One Word or Three?

Some languages inflect much more than English. The Spanish verb has dozens of forms—estoy, estás, está, “I am,” “you are,” “he is” and so on.

Does that make Spanish richer in word count?

Some languages inflect much less. (Chinese is famously ending-free). So, whether we count inflected forms will have a huge influence on final counts.

Moreover, many languages habitually build long words from short ones.

German is obvious; it is a trifle to coin a new compound word for a new situation. For example, is the German Unabhängigkeitserklärung—declaration of independence—one word?

Given the possibilities for compounds, German would quickly outstrip English, with new legitimate German “words”, which Germans would accept without blinking.

Glasses looking into an open book

A Sentence that Translates as One Word

The Turkish language is similar in this way.

Turkish not only crams words together but does so in ways that make whole, meaningful sentences.

“Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?” translates as one word in Turkish.

You write it without spaces, pronounce it in one breath in speaking, it can’t be interrupted with digressions, and so forth.

Counting the Words in the Dictionary

Another way of measuring the vocabulary in a language and comparing counts is by counting the number of words listed in a standard authoritative dictionary in that language.

From a list on Wikipedia here’s one such comparison. This is a list of dictionaries considered authoritative or complete by approximate number of total words or headwords, included.

These figures do not include entries with senses for different word classes (such as noun and adjective) and homographs.

Wikipedia says it’s possible to count the number of entries in a dictionary, but it’s not possible to count the number of words in a language:

Language Words in the Dictionary
Korean 1,100,373
Japanese 500,000
Italian 260,000
English 171,476
Russian 150,000
Spanish 93,000
Chinese 85,568

Maybe English Does Have the Most Words

The Oxford Dictionary says it’s quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages. The reason is historical.

English was originally a Germanic language, related to Dutch and German. English shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary with those languages.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066 English was hugely influenced by Norman French, which became the language of the ruling class for a considerable period, and by Latin, which was the language of scholarship and of the Church.

Very large numbers of French and Latin words entered the language. This melding of languages means English has a much larger vocabulary than either the Germanic languages or the members of the Romance language family according to Oxford.

English builds its vocabulary through a willingness to accept foreign words. And because English became an international language, it has absorbed vocabulary from a large number of other sources.

Graffiti wall that reads everything has beauty but not everyone can see it

So, which language is richest in words?

Let’s ask a different, and we think more important, question:

Does it really matter?

Whatever languages you translate or interpret in—Chinese, Japanese, Russian, sign language, or others—you’re bound to have a rich body of words to work with.

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Sources:

https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/counting_words

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/does-english-have-most-words

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dictionaries_by_number_of_words

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47 Comments

  • Reply Arun April 17, 2020 at 4:53 am

    I would like to know following:
    How many words are there in Sanskrit and Marathi language.
    Regards,

    • Reply Annie Pagano April 20, 2020 at 6:32 pm

      That’s an interesting question and a tough one to answer as languages are constantly evolving. It would be a great topic to dive deeper in to!

  • Reply anonymous April 21, 2020 at 3:52 pm

    cool

  • Reply Rod April 22, 2020 at 3:53 am

    Another interesting topic is which language has the longest non compound words? To me it seems like Italian and Spanish have too many long words compared to English.

    • Reply Annie Pagano April 22, 2020 at 5:18 pm

      That would, indeed, be an interesting study!

  • Reply Jim April 22, 2020 at 6:42 am

    Hey why have you not put the Greek language in this article ? Its considered to be one of the richest languages in the world and especially in Europe its in first place … at least you could mention that the English language has around 40.000 Greek words or words with Greek routes … i mean your title is about the language which is the richest in words … Greek should be one of them

    • Reply Annie Pagano April 22, 2020 at 5:20 pm

      This article was written based off of just a couple of research sources. It is by no means all-encompassing and meant to be a discussion piece. What defines “richest” and how exactly do you measure that?

    • Reply Human July 8, 2020 at 4:24 pm

      Greek language has 15 million words and 75 million word types

  • Reply Hamza April 22, 2020 at 6:00 pm

    I believe Arabic has the most words in all languages it has over 12 million words, there is no dictionary that includes every word in Arabic, and that shows how many words there are in the Arabic language, Arabic also have its own problem with words, each verb like “كتب” can make multiply other words like “كاتب,مكتوب,يكتب,اكتب,نكتب,كتاب,كتابة,كتًاب ” and way more!

  • Reply mo April 29, 2020 at 6:09 am

    do you Persian language has about 225 milion words ? Persian poetry are like beautiful paintings .

    • Reply Annie Pagano April 29, 2020 at 10:38 pm

      Amazing! Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply Alex May 23, 2020 at 6:22 am

      Hi, IT IS NOT TRUE, but the interesting thing about Persian poetry is some words can have several meanings at the same time and the reader must figure out what is the meaning. it is like a puzzle.

    • Reply Mohamad Nasiri July 9, 2020 at 3:46 pm

      Hi dude, I’m Iranian and know Persian. That’s not true. In Dehkhoda dictionary (The biggest Persian dictionary) there are 343000 words, Plus, Most of them do not have Persian roots or They are no longer used.

  • Reply jeeva May 5, 2020 at 7:51 pm

    tamil

  • Reply Andrea May 6, 2020 at 10:52 am

    Thank you.
    I am persuaded by the Oxford Dictionary explanation as over the years I came across lots of synonyms derived from the romance languages which are not part of the day-to-day English language (e.g. threat and menace, the second resembling the Italian translation of both words: ‘minaccia’).
    By the way, the word ‘furlough’ is in the headlines in these days and I could not recall having seen it before, that triggered the thought about the richness of the English language…

    • Reply Annie Pagano May 6, 2020 at 10:08 pm

      It’s so interesting how languages evolve over time. Thank you for your comment and thanks for reading!

    • Reply Jio May 17, 2020 at 9:33 pm

      Yes, the richness of English comes from the fact it’s a Germanic language and that a lot of words have been borrowed from the romance languages specially french.

      Fun fact: In French “threat” is “menace” pronounced differently but written the same.

      • Reply Annie Pagano May 18, 2020 at 2:25 pm

        Very interesting! Thank you for sharing.

    • Reply dad July 17, 2020 at 11:40 pm

      Arabic ahve actually 12 millions of words without repetition

  • Reply Nour Fadi May 14, 2020 at 12:33 am

    Just saying there are about 500million arabic words and about 500,000 english words and your saying english is the language with the most words . Please double check .

    • Reply Annie Pagano May 18, 2020 at 2:51 pm

      Hi Nour. This is just an opinion piece that is made to stimulate discussion. “Richest” is a very ambiguous term and we are not saying that English has the most words but more analyzing what exactly the term “rich” can be. It’s very open to interpretation.

    • Reply Mohammad May 22, 2020 at 2:34 am

      Classical Arabic is the richest by the number of roots of words and the existing derivations and further possible usage of the same roots to create new words.. but 500 million is an exaggeration.

    • Reply Human July 8, 2020 at 4:26 pm

      Arabic language has 12 million odds and Greek language has 15 words* so…

      • Reply Annie Pagano July 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm

        Stay tuned! We are working on a follow up article to discuss further.

  • Reply nebraskalass June 2, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    Not to be overly critical but “does it really matter?” is not a good answer to a question, especially for a blog.

    • Reply Annie Pagano June 12, 2020 at 9:05 pm

      Blog posts are meant to explore a subject from a variety of perspectives. It’s supposed to be thought-provoking, not a simple Q&A style page. Appreciate your feedback.

  • Reply Said_Hustlr June 5, 2020 at 3:56 pm

    I think the person who made this article didn’t do a proper research on the subject, I’m a native arabic speaker and I cannot speak for the other languages but I can tell for sure that even though I speak Arabic , I only use (or know) quite 7% or so of its vocabulary. it really is a vague language known also for its poetry which I don’t even comprehend without holding a dictionary along which in turn can’t even hold all of the words (lol). English doesn’t even come close I’m sorry to say that. for example the word LION has approximately 150 or such synonyms.

    Best Regards

    • Reply Annie Pagano June 12, 2020 at 9:04 pm

      Thank you for your comment! It seems that it may be time for a part 2 to this article written from a new perspective.

  • Reply معاذ June 9, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    All i’m gonna say is ’اللغة العربية’. The infamous Arabic language…..there is no language that even comes close to it, in terms of the richness of its words and its sheer pure structure and its extraordinary grammar rules. I mean pure arabic by the way. The arabic which the Holy Quran was revealed in and which books are written in and the arabic the scholars speak, not rip-offs of the language which have been wringed and where many grammar rules have been dropped and vocabulary has been emitted with new vocabulary squeezed up from foreign languages
    As it said-
    الحياة أحلى مع العربية
    Indeed life is sweeter with arabic.

    • Reply Annie Pagano June 12, 2020 at 9:03 pm

      Thank you for sharing! It seems that it may be time for a second part to this article 🙂

  • Reply Ian Black June 15, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Ancient Hebrew is the richest language… each letter represents a numeral and a picture too. The potential combination of letters and words therefore creates an innumerable number of meanings and provides a fingerprint of God.

    • Reply Abraham July 2, 2020 at 7:37 pm

      My dear IAN

      The strongest language on earth is Arabic.
      It has 16 thousand roots Unlike all other languages in the whole world. Hebrew is derived from Arabic.it is the oldest language on earth . Since ten thousand years .It is called the mother of all languages. All languages without exception are borrowing Vocabularies from Arabic. Arabic does not borrow at all . It is the strongest language on the face of earth . It has the power and capacity of producing more than 500 million Vocabularies. In the medieval ages it was the language of education and learning in universities and In speech for five centuries . The final testament, the final revelation of Almighty God was sent in Arabic . Two thousand years Arabic is understood but 500 year ago English is difficult to understand . English language has borrowed tens of thousands of vocabularies from many languages . More than 25 thousand words of English language was borrowed from Arabic .Alphabets were invented by Arabs and used by Europeans. The problem of English language that it has 26 alphabets and has 44 sounds . This is its weakness .
      But Arabic has 28 alphabets with 28 sounds .
      It is a long story
      Enough
      Many Thanks

      • Reply Carl Carchia July 6, 2020 at 1:01 pm

        Thanks for reading and for this perspective, Abraham. You are certainly not alone in this thought process, and Arabic figures to be featured heavily when we publish “Part 2” of this blog.

      • Reply Mohamad Nasiri July 9, 2020 at 2:21 pm

        Hi, What are the sources of your statistics? It seems that you are under the influence of nationalism, Arabic is a rich language in terms of the number of words but you’re exaggerating. for example you said that “Arabic does not borrow at all” ! Ferdows (فردوس) in Arabic it’s borrowed from Persian (پردیس), or so many words have been borrowed from Turkic (قزان، سنجق), etc. Vocabulary borrowing is common in all languages.

  • Reply Kyasanku Rashid June 19, 2020 at 6:10 pm

    I’m here to reveal that Arabic is far far away in words, it’s the richest language,
    I mean pure arabic in which the holly qran was revealed

    • Reply Annie Pagano June 19, 2020 at 6:27 pm

      An overwhelming amount of people have commented this so, we are working on a second part to this post to explore further. Thanks!

  • Reply Mehmet June 25, 2020 at 10:44 am

    Millions of words can be derived by different declensions and conjugations in some languages. So we should only take the stem words into account.

    I’m gonna talk about the Turkish language. In recent studies, more than 130.000 or 150.000 words are estimated in the standardized language. And the number of loaned words is approximately 16.000 or 17.000. We get a percentage like 10% or 15%. It’s much less in comparison with the loaned words in the English language.

    Here is a doctoral thesis in German&Turkish. in 2005. It studies the loaned words in Turkish and German. You can search it.
    “Fremdes wortgut im Türkischen und im Deutschen- Eine kontrastive-lexikographische studie
    Türkçe ve Almanca söz varlığında yabancı kelimeler- Karşılaştırmalı-sözlükbilimsel bir çalışma”

    Let me drop a note: “Çekoslavakyalılaştıramayabileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine” is an extreme limit.
    We don’t use such long words in daily life. 🙂

    • Reply Annie Pagano June 25, 2020 at 6:01 pm

      Thank you for your thoughtful contribution to this conversation! You make a good point of only taking the stem word into account. There are so many ways to interpret the question and therefore, a multitude of answers and opinions that can come from it!

  • Reply Moustafa Ayman July 8, 2020 at 2:08 pm

    Lol Arabic Has 12.3Milion Words!

    • Reply Annie Pagano July 8, 2020 at 4:44 pm

      We are working on a follow up to discuss this further, stay tuned!

  • Reply Mohamad Nasiri July 9, 2020 at 3:32 pm

    Hello everyone. I think it’s very difficult to talk about this and it needs a lot of research. Some friends have commented on the issue with ethnic prejudices! that’s not true way.
    Let me share my opinion, I am more familiar with languages of Middle East and Central Asia.
    -Arabic is a rich language in terms of the number of non-loan words. I can say it’s the richest language of Western Asia. Of course, figures like 500 million words are incorrect.
    -Persian is a beautiful classic language but in this case, Almost half of the language’s words are borrowed from Arabic! and so many vocabularies borrowed from Turkic (Doerfer: G. Doerfer, Türkische und mongolische Elemente im Neupersischen. Vols. I-IV. Wiesbaden 1963-1975), French, Russian and English. The number of original Persian words used today is very small.
    -Kurdish is a branch of Persian, but the number of orginal Persian words in it is more! and there are so many Arabic and Turkish words in Kurdish.
    -Tajik (Tajikistan) and Dari (Afghanistan), they are Persian too.
    -Turkish, it is a Turkic language. Origin of the words in Turkish vocabulary, which contains 104,481 words, of which about 86% are Turkish and 14% are of foreign origin! it’s purity is beautiful. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replacement_of_loanwords_in_Turkish)
    -Azerbaijani, Turkmen, Uzbek, Uyghur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tatar, Bashkir, Gagauz, Qashqai, … All of these are Turkic! The Turkic languages are a language family of at least 35 documented languages and Some of the differences between them are so small that they cannot be considered a separate language (Turkish=Azerbaijani=Qashqai=Uyghur=Uzbek=…) . Many don’t know this, If we look at this family together, we find that the number of words with Turkic roots is very high.

    • Reply Carl Carchia July 10, 2020 at 5:09 pm

      Hi Mohamad, thanks for the perspective and information. We are in the process of doing some background research and possibly interviewing some experts for Part 2 of this blog, which will be centered around Arabic. Stay tuned.

  • Reply Felix July 15, 2020 at 10:59 pm

    Very interesting and thoughtful article I liked it.

    However. Does it really matter to know the language with the most words?
    Sort of to me. I (33) am living in Japan since one year. As a native Japanese, French, German and English speaker
    I have lived in many countries before, but the sheer endlessness of Japanese words is driving me crazy.
    I didn’t have this impression of “endlessness” in the other languages.

    Japanese, although I speak it since my childhood my mother being Japanese, is pain to learn there is no doubt about it.

    • Reply Carl Carchia July 17, 2020 at 12:40 pm

      Hi Felix, Thanks for reading and providing your perspective. Yes, our research does indicate Japanese is one of the hardest languages to learn. Stay tuned for our blog on Arabic, we think you’ll find some of then nuggets in there very insightful, particularly when it comes to words that have multiple interpretations.

  • Reply Nishanthan Sathanandasivam July 22, 2020 at 12:31 am

    I thought only Tamils and other hindi speakers are the only ones who are obsessed with their language, but here i see many arabic speakers are became hardcore fanatics about their language. The fact is this
    Hebrew is the oldest and richest language in the world. Arabic is not oldest but rich language. Tamil and sanskrit both are old languages may be similar to arabic. Stop brainwashed by tamil sanskrit or arabic illusion. I am a Tamil speaker from srilanka but i will never say tamil is oldest language of the world

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