I'm not a linguist, but really curious about how different languages measure up in terms of how many different ways of expressing the same notion they offer. For example, Chinese is definitely a more difficult language for L2 learners than English, but do native Chinese people express themselves in a greater variety of ways than native English speakers? Of course we have to compare the same education level of the speaker.

My native language of Hungarian happens to offer a great variety of expression, I would say it is more nuanced than English in general. Maybe very highly educated native English speakers speak at the same level of variety as an ordinary Hungarian. Other languages, such as creoles are clearly less varied and lack the expressive power of ancient languages. Spanish and Italian in particular also come across as a less varied languages.

I'm guessing a way to measure this would be to take a bunch of things commonly expressed and see how many ways people can are able to say it. Or to focus on concepts, like how many ways are there to say the concept covered by the word "although" in English.

Are there any linguists who do this kind of research ?

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    The term "sophisticated" is meaningless in linguistics. Stupid people all over the world think their own language is better than all others. I have voted to close this question.
    – fdb
    Mar 9, 2015 at 21:42
  • I wouldn't use sophistication as a term for variety, because it carries the notion of education, so you are likely to be undestood as saying "English people talk in a less sophisticated way than Hungarians", when you are actually trying to say "English has less variety of expression than Hungarian". Also, variety and expressive power are two distinct aspects of a language. You can have 100 words for "although" or one, but you'd still have the same expressive power. Are there any sources for your estimation of English, Spanish and Italian as less sophisticated aside from your own experiences?
    – user9315
    Mar 9, 2015 at 21:43
  • @fdb I have to disagree with you. The term is not meaningless at all, in fact I offered some tentative approaches to defining it. But it's common sense that the expressive ability of languages differs highly. Stating that a creole or esperanto is as expressive as English of Hungarian would be ridiculous. Sorry to hurt your pride in your language, I'm a bilingual Hungarian-English speaker, and English is not as sophisticated. At least not at the level ordinary people use it, which I stated above.
    – user9324
    Mar 9, 2015 at 21:45
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    Languages have different levels. If "sophisticated" means complex then yes, Hungarian morphology is pretty complex. But at the level of syntax, English seems to be more complex (here it "compensates" for its "poorer" morphology). All human languages are equally complex as to what can be expressed in them. Spanish can be quite difficult if you dive into the details.
    – Atamiri
    Mar 9, 2015 at 21:53
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    @Florian Your personal experience might be correct, and even by chance representative of the actual state of things, but a) expect people to be insulted when you tell them their language is less sophisticated, much more than when you use the term varied, b) don't insult people for no reason at all (your question is no worse off for refraining from questionable terms like sophistication) and c) be aware that you'd have to reduce complexity when translating the other way round, because every language has explicit ways of expressing relations or states that other languages lack.
    – user9315
    Mar 9, 2015 at 21:57

1 Answer 1


The central notion behind your question, of being "less/more varied", could maybe refer to something meaningful and testable, but the claim that Hungarian is "more nuanced" than English, or that creoles are "clearly less varied and lack the expressive power of ancient languages" (like, Latin, Greek, Arabic, Sumerian, I would suppose), or that Spanish and Italian are "less varied" is lacking in empirical support.

The linguistic domain that you're roughly pointing to is crosslinguistic semantics. If you want raw variation, English has the terms "sofa, couch, davenport, divan" which refer to the same object. I imagine there is some similar situation in Hungarian where there are 3 or 4 words for the same thing where English has 1. English also has the words "knife, machete, sword", but they refer to similar things, not the same thing. So you need to clarify whether you are looking for sets of semantically-related words, or absolutely identical words. And you need to also clarify whether you include social-register distinctions, since there are many verbs referring to the sex act and nouns referring to male anatomy in English which have different social consequences -- connotation rather than denotation. So what distinctions are you asking about?


Based on your later replies, I think I understand the distinction you're looking for. Words and morphemes can be organized hierarchically in terms of what things / actions / states they refer to. For instance, "mammal" refers to a very large set of warm-blooded animals, and the term subsumes "goat", "reindeer", "sheep" and other things under one word. In English, we just have "reindeer", but in North Saami, there are dozens of terms for reindeer depending on sex, age, and body properties (there is also a general word boadzu that simply means 'reindeer'). Thus the entities identified by "reindeer" in English can be further subdivided by selecting one word vs. another in N. Saami, and N. Saami has a "more-nuanced" vocabulary for reindeer: the set of real-world things identified by English "reindeer" can be further distinguished in N. Saami by selecting other words. Similarly, in Somali, there is a word ari which refers to goats and sheep, so English is "more nuanced" in terms of these animal identifications (there is no common English term generalizing over goats and sheep, though there is a Latin terms that biologists can use, Caprinae). The Somali term *ari *is a superset of goat and sheep.

This kind of subset / superset analysis can be applied to any collection of words and morphemes, hence 3rd person pronouns may simply be undiftinguished "3rd person", or they can be further distinguished "singular and plural", or "masculine and feminine", and that allows further distinctions "masculine singular", "feminine plural" and so on. There are many, many ways of subdividing concepts. English pronouns distinguishes between male and female singular 3rd person referents, and Saami does not.

Languages do not differ in their net expressive capacity, so where they can use a single word-choice between vuonjal and varit, we would have to use phrases like "female reindeer between a year and a half old and two years old" and "male reindeer between a year and a half old and two years old".

I don't see any realistic hope of computing a general "degree of nuance" value for two entire languages (nor do I see that it would tell us anything about the languages -- just because you can define a function doesn't mean that it refers to something useful). One problem would be in comparing a tense-based inflectional system versus as aspect-based system. In the cases of 3rd person pronouns, reindeer, and goats, we were dealing with subset relations in the referents, but the things that perfective / imperfective refers to is incommensurable with what past / present / future refers to.

  • I didn't mean ancient, as in Latin, etc. but being an old language as opposed to a creole. I don't just mean variety of ways to say things, but the amount of nuances of communication. For example when we have three modes to address someone in Hungarian indicating their status, that aspect of the language is more nuanced than Spanish which has two modes ("tú" and "Usted"), and even more than English, which has two modes at best (familiar "you" and workaround using Sir,Ma'am, etc.). Anyone who's a native bilingual knows that the expressive ability of languages differs. Is there research on this?
    – user9324
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:48
  • I don't understand what you mean by "nuanced". Let's see if we can clarify the matter. In Shona, there are 20 distinct 3rd person pronouns, depending on what thing you are referring to (e.g. a person, a tree, a rock, a spoon, and so on). Is Shona more nuanced than Hungarian?
    – user6726
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:52
  • Yes, that's exactly what I'm referring to. A single Shona pronoun therefore communicates way more information than a Hungarian one.
    – user9324
    Mar 10, 2015 at 4:54
  • Okay, so likewise, Shona has multiple past and future tenses depending on how far in the past or future the event is, and would be more nuanced. Compared to Arabic, Shona is less nuanced in expressing 2nd person pronouns, because it only has singular / plural but not masculine / feminine as Arabic does. Then one could theoretically enumerate how many sub-distinctions are made within a particular grammatical category. I'll have to think about how to put this more precisely.
    – user6726
    Mar 10, 2015 at 5:07
  • Also, is German more nuanced than Hungarian because nouns and pronouns communicate gender? But gender is no directly real-world related concept, so does that count to expressive variety or being nuanced?
    – user9315
    Mar 10, 2015 at 11:33

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