How many words?


It’s often said that English has more words than any other language. I’m not aware of any bona fide linguist who’s said this, but the statement crops up in newspaper articles from time to time.

Is it true? How would you start to count? I suspect that one reason the idea has arisen is that English has the largest dictionary (at least I don’t know of a language that has a bigger dictionary than the OED), and so people make the assumption that the biggest dictionary must represent the biggest vocabulary.

English certainly has an awful lot of different words – but even then, at what point do we separate vocabulary items into different words, rather than different meanings of the same word? Flour and flower are now indubitably two words, but etymologically they both derive from Latin FLOS.

An enormous number of English words are borrowed from other languages. Is this a proof that English has more words than other languages, or is it an admission that English is so word-poor that it needs to borrow to fulfil its purpose as a means of communication?


  1. English has the most words? Or does English simply have a longer history of lexicography and a substantial body of recorded literature? How many words in the OED can really be said to be part of English as you or I know it? Surely the primary measure of the number of words in a language is that contained in any individual’s own vocabulary; I suspect that this number is pretty much the same whatever langauge you speak

  2. What about the “multiple Englishes” business? I live in Scotland, where there are many words used by English speakers that I never heard living in Canada. Native English speakers in Australia, America, Wales, Africa, and elsewhere will all have different vocabularies. As an international language (moreso than any other language, though Spanish may come close), English as a “whole” (ie, everything that counts, in its own context, as English) probably contains more words than languages that are spoken exclusively in one location. But, as Ric says, the language of any individual speaker of English is not likely to contain more words than the language of an individual speaker of, say, Mandarin.

    (Morphological properties may affect this a little, as functional words in English may correspond to affixes in other languages, or vice versa. But functional words, as closed-class items, will not make up a large part of the vocabulary.)

  3. According to Robbins Burling, Garo has a vocabulary larger than English and Bengali put together, because it has its own native vocabulary, but is free to borrow any Bengali or English word according to standard phonological and morphological patterns whenever a new word is needed. He tells an engaging anecdote about discussing satellite TV with the Garos and introducing the word grebiti when explaining why the satellites do not fall down.

  4. Take the time to watch this wonderful talk by Erin McKean. She gets across the point very clearly that the size and scope of a dictionary is a firm indication of the size and scope of that dictionary.

  5. Hola, Graham:
    Feliz Navidad y un buen año 2010, lleno de paz, solidaridad y bienestar os deseamos a ti y a tu familia desde España.
    Un abrazo
    María Victoria y Jesús

  6. Asking how many words there are in a language is similar to asking how long is a piece of string. Or how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. And considering the number of words that appear and disappear on a daily basis, the size of the English lexicon is a moving target, seen from a distance, through out-of-focus binoculars, on a foggy day. Toss in the common practice of borrowing words from other languages and the task of finding an accurate numerical estimate of the words in any language becomes chimeric – and there’s a wonderful word to borrow 😉

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