Which Language Has The Most Words?
The question of which language has the most words is a shockingly controversial one — even linguists themselves often try to steer clear of this debate. Yet when we begin to compare languages, the search to find out which one has the most words becomes inevitable. Despite its seeming simplicity, this is no easy question, and trying to answer it is an ambitious undertaking.
Can We Rely On Dictionaries To Find Out Which Language Has The Most Words?
If we were to base our answer solely on the strict number of dictionary entries, English is among the largest languages by word count. It has more than 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, including 171,476 words in use and 47,156 obsolete words.
This is largely due to invasions of England by the Vikings and then the Normans, as well as colonization and waves of exploration that supplemented the English vocabulary with multitudes of foreign words. Today, with English used as the lingua franca in our global world, new words are being added every day.
Meanwhile, French — for which the dictionary Larousse lists some 59,000 words — appears at first glance to be a language with a much smaller vocabulary. But is it that simple? The fact that words commonly used for years such as burrata, yuzu or covoiturer only recently entered Larousse casts doubt on the idea that dictionaries should be the most valid reference for our measuring. For instance, the dictionary Littré has 132,000 active words, which is more than double the number of entries in Larousse, even though they’re for the same language. And these dictionaries are limited to one country’s words, but French is used far beyond the borders of France. Surely the listings for French would differ between dictionaries made in Québec versus Togo.
Now it’s obvious that this measurement, supposedly a straightforward numbers game, is more complex when you really dig in. But let’s not give up yet!
Is There Another Way To Measure?
If attempting to find the total number of words is complicated, we can still seek an answer another way. Perhaps a language’s capacity to describe, through its vocabulary and idiomatic expressions, is a better measure of breadth.
At the heart of this controversy is the debate over what a word actually is. According to Merriam-Webster, a word is “a speech sound or series of speech sounds that symbolizes and communicates a meaning usually without being divisible into smaller units capable of independent use.” Linguists go a step further and call these smallest meaning-producing units morphemes. Since a word is often constructed of several morphemes — some of which are words in themselves — it can often be difficult to establish firm boundaries between words.
Should we take into account the changes resulting from the inflection of verb roots as different words? This is the case with beso, besito, besar (kiss, peck on the cheek, embrace) in Spanish. A secondary question arises due to the fact that one word can have multiple meanings. There are countless of these in English: the word walk, for example, refers to both the verb (to walk) and the noun (a walk).
Furthermore, some languages make it common practice to create new words by joining other words together. German, with its many Lego-like composite nouns, is a typical case. But can we really say that the simple linking of two nouns forms an entirely new word? Is Unabhängigkeitserklärung, which translates as “declaration of independence,” a whole new word when it’s merely composed of two commonplace words?
Similarly, Turkish, an agglutinative language, allows the construction of words from many suffixes stuck together. The very colorful muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmişsinizcesine, which means “as though you are from those whom we may not be able to easily make into a maker of unsuccessful ones,” has 70 letters. Should we regard it as a separate entry, or count it solely on the root word muvaffakiyet (success)?
What About Languages That Use Other Writing Systems?
The problem gets worse for languages where combinations are necessary. The Chinese aren’t concerned about the concept of a word because the basic unit is a character (or a logogram, from a technical perspective). It is its use, combined with another logogram, that creates meaning. 中国 (Zhōngguó) is the word for China. “Empire of the Middle,” although more colorful, is only a literal translation of each character, yet it combines the words middle and empire. Does this mean that Zhōngguó is not a word in its own right?
Rather than measuring languages against one other, why don’t we ask how foreign languages enrich one another? So, while English is a clear contender for having the most words and German and Turkish have a large capacity for infinite combinations, all languages end up influencing others. Each of them represents a unique universe, comparable to a piece of a puzzle in which every language contributes towards completing the big picture. Perhaps a more enlightening exercise than counting words would be to ask this: How many languages do you need to speak before you can convey the full range of human experience?