Some languages are known for their tricky grammar rules or difficult pronunciation, but which language has the biggest vocabulary? You might think that this would be a simple question to answer. After all, languages are highly studied and documented. There must be someone who conclusively knows the language that has the most words, right?
While there are theories and arguments from different linguists, the one you believe will depend on your own view of language. Here are some possible answers that reflect different approaches to answering the question:
English has incorporated the vocabulary of many languages, and it has evolved into one of the most spoken languages in the world.
English is a Germanic language that evolved from the same Proto-Germanic language as German and Dutch. As it developed, it was also heavily influenced by Romance languages, such as Spanish and French, and incorporated vocabulary from them.
These international additions continue to add to the already extensive number of words English speakers can draw on, creating what could be the world’s most extensive set of vocabulary.
English has acquired a large vocabulary because of its history. However, if we compare the number of words in the dictionaries of various languages, would English have the largest vocabulary?
Dictionaries are regarded as authoritative collections of words in a given language, so they might seem like a good source to use for answering this question.
This chart shows the number of headwords in a number of authoritative dictionaries. A headword is the form of the word under which related forms of the word are organized. For example, the headword for the noun “badger” would contain definitions for both the animal and and a native of a certain midwestern state, as well as information about compound words and idioms in which those forms appear. The verb form of “badger”, the act of pestering someone, may also appear under that headword, or it may be a separate headword, depending on the dictionary. Take a look:
|Language||Dictionary||Approximate number of headwords|
|Korean||Woori Mal Saem, 2017||1,100,373|
|Kurdish||Authority of Kurdish Language Dictionary, Kurdish Language Unit Dictionary||744,139|
|Swedish||Svenska Akademiens ordbok||600,000|
|Korean||Standard Korean Language Dictionary||511,282|
|Italian||Grande Dizionario Hoepli Italiano||500,000|
|Japanese||Nihon Kokugo Daijiten||500,000|
|Lithuanian||Lietuvių kalbos žodynas||500,000|
It looks like Korean tops the list with over a million words! So, Korean must have the most words of any language, right? Korean definitely has a large vocabulary. Like English, Korean has also been historically influenced by other languages which have contributed to its vocabulary. Korean includes many words of Chinese origin, and borrows words from English and other languages as well.
Still, it’s a stretch to say that Korean has the most words of any language in the world because one of its dictionaries has over a million headwords.
You may have noticed that Korean dictionaries take both first and eighth place in this list, which demonstrates a major issue with this method of measuring the number of words in a language. Different dictionaries for the same language can list vastly different counts of words.
Woori Mal Saem has nearly double the number of headwords as the Standard Korean Language Dictionary, and it’s easy to see why when you look at the differences between the two. Woori Mal Saem is an open online dictionary that lets users add new words. It covers vocabulary specific to both North and South Korean dialects, slang words, and even proper nouns that most dictionaries would not include.
Conversely, the Standard Korean Language Dictionary is published by the National Institute of Korean Language. Its criteria for what constitutes a Korean word is more strict than Woori Mal Saem.
You can see this discrepancy with English, too. The Wiktionary (another open online dictionary) has 578,707 headwords, while Webster’s Third New International Dictionary only has 470,000, and the Oxford English Dictionary lists a mere 273,000 headwords.
Since even dictionaries for the same language differ in how they determine the number of words in the language, how else could you assess the number of words in a language? You could look at a language’s potential to create new words.
For example, in agglutinative languages, such as Turkish, Finnish, and Tagalog, speakers regularly form new words as part of everyday speech. They can do this because agglutinative languages easily combine morphemes—the smallest building blocks of meaning in a language—to create new words.
Some languages can wind up with extremely long words created through agglutination, such as the Turkish word Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmışsınız, which translates to “You are one of those that we were not able to convert into Czechoslovakians.” (Yes, there’s a word for that.)
Does this ability to easily create new words from smaller pieces mean these languages have larger vocabularies than others? Again, it depends on your definition of a word.
There’s no single answer
Though it’s easy to think of a word as a simple idea, what counts and doesn’t count as a word is up for interpretation. Do compound words, slang words, or loan words taken from other languages qualify? Combine this with the fact that languages create words in different ways from one another, and you’re left with a question that lacks a final answer.
Even if we did have a definitive answer, it wouldn’t be particularly useful to most language learners. An English dictionary may have hundreds of thousands of headwords, but the average native speaker only knows about 15,000-20,000 lemmas (think of a lemma as a word and all of its forms, like past tense, plural, etc.). One linguistic professor estimates that people need to know just 800 lemmas of a language to understand most daily conversations.
So, while it’s a fun statistic, knowing how many words a language has doesn’t tell you much about how difficult it is to learn. What matters are the several hundred most frequently used words, which Rosetta Stone can help you understand. Rosetta Stone’s Phrasebook feature works like a set of digital flashcards that helps you learn common phrases you’d use in everyday interactions, and includes pronunciation examples from native speakers. Get started now at www.rosettastone.com