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.

About Interpreters and Translators, Inc.

iTi’s dedicated and experienced team offers a wide range of multilingual solutions for domestic and global corporations in a variety of industries. Do you require translation services to enhance your global marketing and sales initiatives or interpreter services to communicate across languages? We specialize in custom language solutions and work with over 200 languages so regardless of the barrier you face, we will work together in synergy to bridge the gap to ensure success. Please feel free to contact us through a message or by calling 860-362-0812. Our offices are open 24/7/365 so we can respond immediately to your interpreting or translation needs anytime, anywhere

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

You Might Also Like

19 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 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 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 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.

    Leave a Reply