From The Economist - Counting Words: The Biggest Vocabulary?
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, as mentioned here
. Are compounds new words? Is the German Unabhängigkeitserklärung
, "declaration of independence", one word? It's certainly written that way
in German. Given the possibilities for compounds, German would quickly outstrip English, with new legitimate German "words", which Germans would accept without blinking, coined every day. Just one quick glance at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung'
s home-page finds Abschiedsvorstellung
("leave-taking performance", about South Africa putting on a display for the departing French in the World Cup), Weltmarktführer
("world market leader"), Stromtarifrechner
("electricity bill calculator") and so on. There's no reason to say "it's incredible how the Germans have a word for 'leave-taking performance'," because to create such words ad hoc
is banal in German. This is even truer for Turkish, mentioned in that posting
above. It 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. We write it without spaces, pronounce it in one breath in speaking, it can't be interrupted with digressions, and so forth.
So Turkish and German and a host of others like them have "more words" than English. And no fair disallowing Turkish and German's flexible word-coinage. If we do that, we have to throw out English compounds, too; no "shoelace", "windowsill", "phrasebook", "boatswain" and so on. We'd also have to throw out foreign-derived compounds like "television" and "geography". A mess.
What about a claim like "English has more basic words" or "word roots" or some such? Now we're in the territory of what linguists call "morphemes", usable roots or pieces of words. But in the domain of morphemes we also have to include "un-" as a morpheme, and "methyl-" and many other things that traditionalists wouldn't include under "words", and it's not at all clear English has the largest number of them either. Meanwhile, this disadvantages the Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew. They use a smallish number of three-letter roots to coin huge numbers of words. ktb
has the basic "to write", but it generates at least 30 words (many of them, like verbs, inflecting into many more forms still). These take up two full pages in my dictionary, from katib
, "writer", to istiktab
, "dictation". So counting only "roots" or "basic words" gets us nowhere either, since counting ktb
just once would be senseless.