Food & Culture

What Language Has the Most Words?

We're nominated for an award! Please click here to vote for Curiosity Daily for Best Technology & Science Podcast in the 2019 Discover Pods Awards.

Depending on which parts of the internet you frequent and how big of a fan you are of Stephen Fry, you may have heard it repeated several times that "English has the most words of any language on Earth." Funny, though, how it's almost always English speakers who say that. Here's what's true — and what's mostly false — about that claim.

Word to Your Mother Tongue

Before you can start figuring out where English ranks among the most word-laden languages in the world, here's a question you have to answer: Is "run" one word, or 645? Got your answer? Here's another question. Is "ran" yet another word, or is it 645 more? You see where things start to get messy. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that homophones (words that sound the same) all count as different words, but different tenses of the same word don't.

Okay, that's sorted out — but we're not out of the woods yet. "Hot" and "dog" are words, for sure. But what about "hot dog"? Or "hot-dog"? Or even "hotdog"? Then there are foreign-derived words like "déjà vu" or "schadenfreude." How about "velociraptor"? It sort of seems like it should count, if only because of the Jurassic Park franchise — but what about more obscure prehistoric creatures like "Therizinosaurus"? This is way more complicated than we thought it would be.

For simplicity's sake, let's just go by the number of words in the dictionary. And fortunately for us, somebody's already done the counting. According to Oxford Living Dictionaries, the 20 volumes of the second edition Oxford English Dictionary contain no fewer than 171,476 words currently in use and another 47,156 words deemed obsolete. Factor in the roughly 9,500 derivative words with distinct entries, and you've got upwards of 228,000 words total in the dictionary. So, is that more than any other language? Well ... as complex as this question has been to answer so far, it's about to get a lot more complicated.

Coming in at Number One ... ???

If you haven't picked up on it yet, counting words is hard work. Yes, English does have a lot of words, thanks in no small part to its hybrid origins in Romance and Germanic languages, plus its tendency to seamlessly steal words from other sources. But each and every language has its own difficulties when it comes to counting words — or, for that matter, when it comes to making up words in the first place.

Take German. Almost anything can be a word. All you have to do is plug known words together, and voila — you've got vocabulary terms like "die Brillenbrillanz," or "the clarity experienced upon putting on a new pair of glasses." So ... does German have infinite words?

Turkish has the same issue, only more so. Entire sentences like "Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovak?" transform into a single word. How is English supposed to compete?

And then there are languages like Mandarin Chinese, which is made up of several thousand characters, most of which function as words on their own — and most of which can be combined with others to form other words. Which ones count and which ones don't? The fact is, when you're counting the words in a language, you have to decide on the parameters before you can start adding them up — and every language is different enough that no one set of parameters can ever be applied across the board. For now, we proud English speakers will just have to content ourselves with our measly couple hundred thousand. They'll probably be enough to get the message across.

Get stories like this one in your inbox each morning. Sign up for our daily email here.

Who are we kidding? We'll never have enough words. That's why there are books like Gabriel Wyner's "Fluent Forever," so you can find (and "borrow") all the words from other languages you'll ever need. It's free with your trial membership to Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 21, 2018

Curiosity uses cookies to improve site performance, for analytics and for advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.