By Frederic Friedel

How many words comprise a modern language, like English, German, French or Chinese? This is not an easy question to answer. First of all it is difficult to decide what actually counts as a word — is “house” used as a noun and a verb two different words? And then there are inflections, tenses, plurals, and combinations of words: is “housebroken” a separate word, or do we leave the count at two words, not three?

Of course you can simply count the number of entries in the largest dictionary of any given language. But this does not give you an accurate number — it merely reflects how much effort was put into the compilation of the work, and how words were defined. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains 171,476 individual entries, while there is a Korean dictionary, we are told, with over 500,000 words. Apples and oranges.

The first really comprehensive English dictionary was published in the mid eighteenth century by Samuel Johnson, an English poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer — considered “one of the most distinguished men of letters in English history”. It took Dr Johnson nine years to complete his Dictionary of the English Language, and he received 1,500 guineas for his effort — around £220,000 in today’s currency.

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This is what Dr Samuel Johnson looked like in real life…
… and here is how he is depicted (on the right) in a Blackadder sketch, which definitely deserves sincere contrafibularities. If you have half an hour you should watch the entire episode, one of the finest in the Blackadder series. Here’s an acceptable version, but you can search for “Ink and Incapability” for better quality (usually with exotic subtitles).
And for the true story here’s a one-hour BBC 4 film, Samuel Johnson: The Dictionary Man

Johnson’s dictionary contained around 43,000 words, with well over 100,000 quotations from literary sources (e.g. Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Swift), to further elucidate the meaning of the words.

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An entry in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. Note that when a word starts with or contains an s in the middle, this is written like an f, but without the crossbar. It was known as the medial or long s. At the end of words we find the normal “short” s.

Well, is English the richest language, based on word count, as is often claimed? Reasonable comparisons would suggest it has more than twice the number of words compared with French and German. (But note: German, Finnish, Turkish and some other languages have composite or ‘agglutinative’ words, like Weltmarktführer for “world market leader”, which we need to ignore — it would bring the word count of these languages to infinity).

Of course the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language are not in common use. In the late 19th century German-born (British) philologist and orientalist Max Müller estimated that the vocabulary of an illiterate English countryman did not exceed 300 words. Today Sranan, an English-based Creole language spoken by over 100,000 people in Suriname, has 340 words (here’s an example of a Sranan sentence: Mi doifi frei gowe, ma mi xoluk, dati tan ‘My dove flew away, but my luck, that stays’).

In contrast to the above the vocabulary of a well-educated English speaker is around 3,000 to 4,000 words, Shakespeare used around 20,000 — including a number he himself invented, which are now part of our language. Milton used about 7,000 to 8,000 words. There are about 9,000 in the Homeric poems, 5,642 in the Hebrew Bible, and 4,800 in the New Testament.

English was originally a Germanic language, like German and Dutch, with which it shares much of its grammar and basic vocabulary. Then, in the year 1066 came the Norman Conquest, and French became the language of the ruling classes for a considerable period in Britain. English slowly collected two words for individual things or activities, one from the original Germanic and one from the Romance language family to which French belongs. And their meanings drifted apart. Let us take a look at a few examples:

Germanic   English         French     English
Schaf sheep mouton mutton
Schwein swine porc pork
Tier deer veneison venison
Ochse ox bœuf beef
Kalb calf veau veal

Note that “Tier” is the modern German word for “animal” — in Old English deer was Dēor. And Venesoun was deer in Old Norman. But you get the point: the usage reflects who was doing what. The Germanic peasantry was tending the animals, the ruling French aristocracy was eating them.

There are plenty of other examples that reflect the class differences. We have the Germanic “stool” and the French “chair” — the first is a simple seat with three or four legs, the latter has a back and often arm rests. “House” is from the Germanic “Haus”, while “mansion” comes from the French “mansion”. “Book” is related to the German word “Buch” and the Dutch “boek”, while “library” is from the French “livre” — the peasantry usually knew just one book, the bible, the nobility owned many.

In this way a large number of French words entered the English language, which consequently developed a much larger vocabulary than any of the Germanic or the Romance languages. In addition English with its vast colonies was always ready to assimilate foreign words. Here some examples:

  • Ketchup from the Chinese 茄 (ke-jap)
  • Typhoon from the Taiwanese/Cantonese 颱風 (thai-hong)
  • Jungle from Hindi जङल् (jangal) or veranda from बरामदा (baramdaa)
  • Mulligatawny from the Tamil milagu-thanni = pepper water
  • Bamboo from Kannada ಬಂಬು (bambu) or Malay mambu
  • Mongoose from Telugu ము౦గిస (mungeesa)
  • Cockatoo from Malay kakaktua
  • Dingo and wallaby from Australian Aboriginal
  • Bronze from Persian برنج (birinj = copper)

You want thousands more? Here are the Wiki lists of English words by country or language of origin. Some are truly astounding: did you know that “taboo” comes from the Hawaiian “kapu”, which in turn is from the Māori, Tongan, Samoan, Tahitian “tapu” and the Fijian “tabu”? And “Wiki” itself means “quick” as in the “Wiki Wiki Shuttle”, a fare-free bus system at the Honolulu International Airport.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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