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I once read somewhere that Greek used, say, three or four words to express an idea; Latin used five or six words to express the same idea; and nowadays we use eight to ten words to express the same idea.

The numbers need not to be exact: the point is that we use more words today than our cultural ancestors used millennia ago (and the Latin more than the Greek) to make the same statement.

Does anyone have examples of this progression?

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    No, not really. This "fact" is just someone's personal opinion, delivered as a fact, which was seized on and published by someone else. Anybody at all can say anything at all about English grammar, and such is the state of Anglophone education that someone else will believe it is established dogma. Which they therefore need not remember the source or check the details of. And we don't use more words today, by the way. We just write more today. – jlawler Sep 16 '17 at 23:11
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    @jlawler I don't think so. A quick look on the web for "Latin phrases" show how Latin phrases are indeed shorter: "dictum factum" = "what is said is done"; "alis volat propriis" = "she flies with her own wings"; "Vox Populi, Vox Dei" = "the voice of the people is the voice of God". A similar phenomenon happens with old Chinese texts, like Dao De Jing, and their modern Chinese translations. I just would like to see some examples with Greek added to the sequence. – Rodrigo Sep 16 '17 at 23:18
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    Are you referring to the fact that Greek morphology encodes in one word expressions of person, number, gender, tense, aspect etc. which in English take a number of words: e.g. "I have V'd"? Or are you specifically addressing the question of writing style? – user6726 Sep 16 '17 at 23:24
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    If anything, Latin is probably more concise than Greek because it lacks a definite article. But there's no correlation with historical time -- there have always been languages of all grammatical types. – TKR Sep 17 '17 at 2:37
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    ... and nowadays we ... Who is we? – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 17 '17 at 7:09
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An example of change in sentence length over time is discussed here. The number of words per sentence in English in the past 400 years has decreased, which is the opposite of what you predicted. Other studies have shown temporal volatility in sentence length in Latin. The article "On a Distribution Representing Sentence-length in written Prose" (J. R. Statist. Soc. A, (1974), 137, Part 1, p. 25) investigates the matter in English, Greek and Latin texts, and finds that authors vary substantially. It is reasonably well understood for English that the change is a consequence of stylistic norms. I it were to be empirically substantiated that Ancient Greek texts tend to be shorter than Modern English ones, we still couldn't tell whether this has to do with the language, versus the writing style.

  • Thank you! I have found as an example of ancient Greek the opening line in Hesiod's Works and Days: "μοῦσαι Πιερίηθεν ἀοιδῇσιν κλείουσαι" (4 words) has been translated into English as "Muses of Pieria who give glory through song" (8 words) and into Portuguese as "Musas da Piéria, que dai glória com canções" (8 words). Looks like the introduction of articles, prepositions and linking verbs made modern languages bigger, at least sometimes. I gave a few examples from Latin in a comment above. – Rodrigo Sep 18 '17 at 23:15
  • I don't think sentence length is relevant because the OP seems to be asking about the ratio of words to ideas (however defined). A sentence can contain any number of ideas, but the question is about comparing the lengths of semantically equivalent sentences in different languages. – TKR Sep 18 '17 at 23:28
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    But alas, "an idea" is so vague as to be useless. I am also skeptical that "semantically equivalent sentences" across languages will go anywhere, since always it takes more words to translate X into Y and express exactly the same meaning. – user6726 Sep 18 '17 at 23:48
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    I don't think that's true: te amo is one word shorter than I love you whichever direction you translate from. It should be empirically testable by comparing translations of texts bidirectionally (X into Y vs. Y into X). In any case this is independent of "words per sentence", which as you say is obviously a matter of style. – TKR Sep 19 '17 at 0:16
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I'm assuming that the "we" in your question means "English speakers". (ETA: it actually seems to mean "speakers of modern European languages", but the difference doesn't substantially affect my arguments.) If so, the claim you're presenting is partly true, but also partly false, and the part that is true is probably not particularly meaningful or important.

Here's the true part: on the whole, English does use more words to convey a given idea than either Latin or Ancient Greek. This fact is familiar to most people who've studied these languages, and is easily seen in e.g. the volumes of the Loeb Classical Library, which present Greek or Latin texts with facing English translations. The right-hand (English) page usually contains more text than the left-hand (Greek or Latin) page.

The main reason for this is that Latin and Greek are highly inflected languages, which lets them pack more items of meaning into each word. For example, a verb in these languages will include information about person, number, tense, voice, and mood, much of which would in English be parceled out into separate words: e.g. to reflect the single Latin word amabar, English needs a longer phrase such as I was being loved.

The part of your claim that's probably wrong, though I haven't tried to check this empirically, is about the difference between Latin and Greek. As someone who teaches both languages, my sense is that Latin is more compact than Greek rather than the other way around. There are a few reasons for this, such as the fact that Latin lacks definite articles, which are very common in Greek; and that Greek has a large array of discourse particles that add various nuances of meaning, which it uses more freely than Latin.

But the larger question is, given that Latin and Greek really are more concise than English, does that tell us anything important? To this the answer is almost certainly no. First, the difference probably does not represent any kind of general trend over time from higher to lower concision. English happens to be a less-inflected language, but there are many languages spoken today which are just as heavily inflected as Greek or Latin and presumably comparably concise; while on the other hand, of the thousands of languages that were spoken two thousand years ago, there were certainly many that were of the English type rather than the Greek and Latin type. So there's nothing to be concluded from these particular data points.

Finally, the subtext of your question seems to be the idea that a lower word-to-idea ratio in a language is somehow better or more efficient. But this too is difficult to argue for. First, even if we accept that concision is a virtue, why count words rather than some other unit? Why not phonemes, syllables, or morphemes? If it turned out that Greek uses fewer words than English but more syllables to express the same idea, which language is more concise? But more importantly, there's really no particular reason to value concision. The expense of producing words (or syllables, or whatever) is virtually nil, so it's hard to see why the words-per-idea ratio should matter in any way. The extraordinary success of English as a global language suggests that it doesn't.

  • Thank you! I agree that Latin and Greek use less words than English. Portuguese has inflections, but used more words in Hesiod's translation (same number as English, see my other comments). To count phonemes is an interesting idea. From biology, the economy of communication signals seems to be a tendency over evolution course (energy saving), this is discussed in E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology. Chinese has also changed from few words (e.g. Dao De Jing, Zhuangzi) to more words nowadays. Not sure if the dominion of English is due to language. See Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. – Rodrigo Sep 18 '17 at 23:41
  • By the way, English texts are usually shorter than Portuguese, even with Portuguese inflections. This is a point in favor of the theory of smaller words/phonemes-per-idea causing success... – Rodrigo Sep 18 '17 at 23:44
  • @Rodrigo, I doubt evolutionary processes are relevant, both because of the very short timespan but also because (as pointed out in the answer) it's fallacious to assume any overall change at all from this tiny handful of data points. My point about the success of English was that it contradicts any story such as "higher word-to-idea ratio -> lower efficiency -> lesser success" (which you didn't express in the question but which is often implied in such discussions). – TKR Sep 19 '17 at 0:25
  • I think that the evolutionary reasoning may explain why older languages were less verbose (they're still in line with ancestral behavior). The verbosity of modern languages may be a sign of departing from natural ancestry, and maybe a sign of decadence. Dao De Jing mentions twice that "few words are the natural" at the same time that it asks for a return to our inner nature. But of course, that's all conjectures. About your last point, we cannot compare English with Latin and ancient Greek, because they never coexisted. But English is indeed less verbose than Portuguese, at least. – Rodrigo Sep 19 '17 at 0:36
  • @Rodrigo, first we need to establish that "the verbosity of modern languages" is real, which you can't do by comparing 2-3 modern languages with 2-3 ancient languages. There are somewhere around 6000 languages spoken today, and very possibly there were more 2000 years ago. – TKR Sep 19 '17 at 0:42
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there is no such progression. whatever you read is plainly wrong, and easily disproven. find the ancient Greek equivalents of English words like "fun", "guts", "beer", etc. or German "Schadenfreud", French "esprit", etc.

  • Look at my comments above, both in the question (Latin examples) and in the other answer (Greek example). – Rodrigo Sep 18 '17 at 23:16

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