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I only know English as a language aside from classes in Spanish and French and the typical stuff learned through movies and the like. To people who are multilingual, is English the most descriptive language? I wouldn't be surprised if it's up there but I never really hear of other languages having such a diverse vocabulary.

To be specific, I mean how many different ways of expressing a thought. For example, I know "ja" means yes while "jawohl" is a very-affirmative yes. Now I don't doubt there are more variations of it and not knowing much German, I can't really say. I do know in English, you can say things such as: yes, sure thing, absolutely, affirmative, and at once.

I've also noticed that when looking for translations, I'll sometimes get the same results for two similar phrases or words, hence indicating that maybe there isn't much of a variety in vocab for the destination language.

EDIT: The idea of asking wasn't to boast about English at all. And of course of all the languages both past and present, it's nearly impossible to get a definitive answer. But all I'm asking is in one's own experience, is it at least a plausible assumption. It's not something we can actually quantify or qualify, but something we may gauge roughly.

  • This is an interesting question about a rather intuitive and difficult to formalise feature of different languages. I tend to say yes, based on experience with some other European languages. – jk - Reinstate Monica Mar 12 '18 at 14:28
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    Even if we found a quantitative framework for your question, I'd wager that among the thousands of languages spoken on this planet, it'd be extremely unlikely that English in particular just so happened to be "the" most descriptive one, notwithstanding how widespread it currently is. Since you say English is the only language you know, is it possible perhaps that your impression of it having comparatively many different ways to express a thought mainly stems from your lack of knowledge of ways other languages do have (perhaps in different contexts, further complicating the perceptual issue)? – LjL Mar 12 '18 at 17:13
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    Is French the most academic language? Is Italian the most romantic language? Is German the most businesslike language? Is Mandarin the most philosophical language? Is Murrican the most patriotic language? Is Greek the most hilarious language? Is Japanese the most adorable language? Is Arabic the most complicated language? Is Hebrew the most concrete language? To all of these questions I give a resounding shrug, though they once fascinated linguistic commentators. To be fair, your question includes no hint of the stereotyping behind some of them. – Luke Sawczak Mar 13 '18 at 13:28
  • The thing is, personal experiences are not really allowed in SE answers. My opinion is that expressiveness varies more by culture and from person to person. Fisherman have a lot of words for fishing, but it is not a property of their language per say, if by language we mean something with an ISO code like English or German. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 14 '18 at 20:36
  • For multilingual people, different languages almost always have different roles in our lives. Their expressiveness definitely varies for us by domain. It is not an inherent property of the language though, it is because of the experiences - family and early childhood, songs, cuisine, university, career and so on. So it is not any sort of scientific experiment, quite the opposite. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 14 '18 at 20:40
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No, but if it were, it would be very hard to objectively prove it.

Now I don't doubt there are more variations of it and not knowing much German, I can't really say.

Off the top of my head there is the famously untranslatable doch, and also sicher, absolut, definitiv, Stimmt., eben, klar, selbstverständlich, genau, freilich, mit Freude und sofort, Passt., Das schon... some of which are also hard to translate perfectly.

But trusting my memory of one language of thousands is not a great approach to this question.

I've also noticed that when looking for translations, I'll sometimes get the same results for two similar phrases or words, hence indicating that maybe there isn't much of a variety in vocab for the destination language.

Languages are not 1:1, and 1-n and n-1 happens in both directions. Naturally produced content in any language uses words and phrases without perfect equivalents in all other languages.

Imagine the mappings from the words in one language to the words in another, assuming both languages have the same number of words. enter image description here

If you pick a subset of those points on only one side, then follow the mapping, you could easily come to the false conclusion that one language has more words, or fewer words, for each concept. The exact skew depends greatly on the domain.

If you are using Google Translate or Wiktionary or nearly any online tool, you should also consider that the dictionary data for each language and language pair are not created equal.

There are also inherent structural differences. Some languages express in one long word what others express in a few short words. So an adverb could map to a tense, or a compound noun could map to a phrase, or a noun ending could map to a preposition. The definition of a word is subjective and varies across languages. Total unique word counts measured over large corpora are also subjective and incomparable.

One example of this would be the translation of umbrella. The German word is Regenschirm (rain screen), but Schirm can be used by itself in context, and a good dictionary will give you both translations. Many other compounds are formed with Schirm, including Sonnenschirm. So you will encounter Schirm again and again. English compounds do not necessarily get their own entry. And I find Sonnenschirm very descriptive.

As the above example hints, languages borrow and calque words, some more than others. If they co-exist with another word but with another shade of meaning then they do tend to increase the expressivity. umbrella is a borrowing, so is parasol, and dentist, but their roots are opaque to monolingual native speakers, not descriptive, and have replaced another more descriptive word if one ever existed.

On the other hand, to your point, I think you could make the case that Standard German specifically is traditionally a bit of an artificial language, but it would be hard to argue that total expressiveness in diglossia is less.

Prescriptivism is also varied and arbitrary and would be hard to apply consistently anyway, so a typical bi-lingual dictionary would have standard American and British terms and standard Swiss, Austrian and German, but not all the German dialect words for chicken or potato. Google Translate does not even have the standard Swiss and Austrian words.

We can also observe that large polycentric languages with multiple standards and variants, like English, but also German, Spanish, Arabic and Serbo-Croatian, do have more words total in their theoretical dictionaries than those that are more narrowly defined, say Icelandic, but the passive and especially active vocabulary of any given speaker is a smaller subset of that total.

The definition of language, word and expressiveness are just too varied and too subjective to make a strong claim about this. My personal subjective opinion is that expressiveness varies as much by culture, milieu and person as by language.

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  • A good answer, but I'm confused by your opening line that states proving the positive is impossible while asserting the negative unequivocally. – Nuclear Wang Mar 12 '18 at 18:24
  • @NuclearWang 1. I said very hard, not impossible, depending on how much more expressive. One could try with English vs Russenorsk. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 12 '18 at 18:39
  • 2. Very hard to prove applies to all languages, whereas not more expressive applies only to English. If it were possible, what is the chance that the all-time global winner would be English? – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 12 '18 at 18:39
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    3. If it is not possible to prove, then effectively they are all equally expressive, then effectively English is not more (nor less) expressive. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 12 '18 at 18:42
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There is no realistic prospect for comparing languages in terms of number of ways to express a thought, because every language has infinitely many ways to express any thought. "A thought" isn't a quantifiable units. You might, however, be able to quantify the synonym-density of a language, taking a clue from your example: how many words are there for "couch", "dog" and so on. That is, how many expressions are there that refer to more or less the same thing.

Your specific example also points to the problem of defining what you're looking for. You left off an infinite set of expressions which express that same thought: "yupparoonee; roger; ok; mhm; yeah no yeah; but of course; naturally; is the Pope Catholic; that should be obvious; and that's why were here...". In other words, are we counting communicative uses, or literal meanings? Let's say we exclude questions about the Pope's religion, which are used to communicate "yes".

Then we have to decide what level of officiality to insist on. Apart from the normal word for "dog", we have "hound, mutt, mongrel, canine, fido, bowser, pooch, flee-bag, shit-factory. Once you pry into the Urban Dictionary repository, you discover that English has literally zillions of words that you probably didn't know, like zab (I'm not zab, so I didn't know this). If you allow this set, then English almost certainly wins hands-down, because the world spends much of its free time populating UD with new putative English words. The competing Kamusi ya Jiji project (sorry about the 404) hasn't gotten very far off the ground.

If you insist on a fairly high degree of officiality to purge zab and the like, a possible competitor would be Javanese (there are other languages that do this, so it might be that Balinese wins the count-contest). This is because there are a number of official social register variants.

There is no scientific answer, because the question isn't yet made precise enough that it can be addressed, but I've indicated the main issues that need to be addressed: "same" in what sense, and level of officiality.

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  • I see what you mean and I know the concept is vague so I guess any well-reasoned answer is as good as any. I supposed a better way to ask would be in an official language sense, so to disregard uncommon slang, highly-similar synonyms, and idioms would be helpful. I didn't even think about "is the Pope Catholic?" as an option for 'yes', but in that case, a sarcastic "what do you think?" would qualify as well. The dog case may be a good example. Some are literally synonyms for "dog" (e.g. canine, hound) and some are, not sure what the word will be but basically known substitutes which require... – Greg Mar 12 '18 at 16:58
  • ...some sort of known context (e.g. Fido, Spot, shit-factory) as any non-native English speaker would probably clueless as to what someone was talking about. And people are constantly making up new words like pupper and fur-baby (oh god). I'm just not really familiar still with the level of diversity in other languages. – Greg Mar 12 '18 at 17:04
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There are two fallacies in your argument which both bear pointing out separately, though I think the other answers here already answer the overall question adequately.

A common observation in translation is that the source language tends to be more succinct, irrespective of which language you are translating from or to. The translator simply has a harder job than the original author, because they have to attempt to preserve the original author's intent, while at the same time adapting it to the cultural framework of a new audience and the structures of a different language.

This is routine, to the point where many localization agencies will allocate 120% of the source language's area to a text box in a layout which is going to be translated. (The factor will need adjustment up or down depending on circumstances; for example, if the target languages are all like Chinese where the orthography will typically make the translation fill up a smaller area more densely than alphabetic writing, it makes sense to go negative, assuming obviously that we are talking about translation from a language with alphabetic orthography here.)

The fallacy is the supposition that the source language is more succinct, or more precise, or richer.

On one hand, your data may be dominated by translations from English. On the other, it's not hard to find individual examples of sentences which are very succinct in some language, and cannot be expressed shortly and elegantly in English.

On the vocabulary level, for example, some languages contrast the inner vs the outer corner of something and can't say "inner or outer corner" in one word; they are not "better" or "worse" than English, just different, and you can often find examples where the opposite holds ("sky" vs "heaven" is just "cielo" in Spanish; "roof" vs "ceiling" is just "tak" in Swedish). Which is more succinct depends on what you happen to want to talk about. If you want to highlight the contrast, and your language allows you to do that easily, good for you; conversely, if you want to ignore it, you have to use a longer phrase, or live with some ambiguity.

Structural differences can be much harder to cope with for a translator. In Russian, your choice of verb indicates whether an action was successfully completed or not. Languages with gender can use it to convey undertones which aren't possible in English, which doesn't mark gender for nouns or verbs. Languages which don't have gender in their pronouns can say "his or hers" with a single word, or intentionally fail to reveal the gender of a person as a convenience or as a plot device.

What is objectively and measurably true is that English has a large vocabulary, measured in number of entries in dictionaries of the language. But what does that mean? As the linked article explains, that's only one way of counting among many.

The "many Eskimo words for snow" parable aptly illustrates the second fallacy (even though you should be skeptical of this anecdote as well 1). A particular concept may be more succinctly expressed or have a finer granularity in one language's vocabulary than another. The fallacy is generalizing to "all concepts" or "all important concepts" or "all culturally significant concepts" etc, when there are many reasons why vocabularies have gaps, including pure chance and cultural conventions.

(In my language, we have a word in my dialect for "being forced to" which isn't part of the main dialects in my country. Many people know this, and many people agree that this is an inconvenient gap, but still, you can't just convince people to adopt this, even though they would find it convenient on a personal level, and the dialectal word is completely transparent to speakers of those other dialects because it's just an inflection which is just not used by their convention.)

So in conclusion, it is possible that English is more succinct or more "descriptive" than many languages in some particular register or domain, but generalizing to the most descriptive language in all domains appears to be an obvious over-generalization.

These arguments by themselves do not prove you wrong; but as they say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I have pointed out some problem areas where at the very least you would have to collect a substantial amount of proof and counter-arguments to really support your hypothesis.

I should add that early linguists 2 had an embarrassing tendency to postulate superiority of their own language, in what now, with modern eyes, can only be characterized as an inexcusable naïvety about cultural bias and perhaps even xenophobia. Any claim that your language in particular is somehow remarkable should be examined with the utmost prejudice.


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskimo_words_for_snow -- I was mainly referring to Pullum's seminal article when I looked this up, but there's more in the Wikipedia article so I'm linking there for context, though not necessarily as an authoritative or credible academic source.

2 I should say "early Western modern linguistics" at the very least but I recall scholars in antiquity who had the same bias, in spades; it's of course still possible that this is a purely European problem, and not a feature of human nature (and I shall be duly embarrassed, but unsurprised, if it should turn out to be so that I myself am unaware of my biases here).

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    I recall reading about a serious endeavor by French scientists to prove that their language was the perfect or ideal language for science, but alas, I cannot find any good sources. This would have been the late 18th century or slightly later. – tripleee Mar 14 '18 at 19:49
  • See also now linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/27437/… – tripleee Mar 16 '18 at 17:56
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I think your experience reflects... your experience: you are a quite proficient speaker of English, but your knowledge of other languages is sketchy. You can easily find the most succint wording in English, and if needed, you can add variety and subtlety. While in other languages you just know the most common words, and so it seems to you that they are less "descriptive", as you name it.

A. M. Bittlingmayer reports the many ways one can give an affirmative answer in German:

doch, and also sicher, absolut, definitiv, Stimmt., eben, klar, selbstverständlich, genau, freilich, mit Freude und sofort, Passt., Das schon...

though my very limited knowledge of German - apparently similar to yours - only informed me of ja and jawohl. In my first language, I would say

sim, claro, como não, óbvio, evidente, naturalmente, de fato, e muito, com gosto, não diga, estou dizendo, é, é claro, com certeza, é fato, pode ser, só se for agora...

not to mention that Portuguese also allows me a different, context-related affirmative by merely repeating the verb of the question:

Posso ir? - Pode.

Sabe falar javanês? - Sei.

Fala javanês? - Falo.

Eles já chegaram? - Chegaram.

Vamos ao cinema? - Vamos.

Another issue is that while English can be more concise than most other languages, it trades that for ambiguity:

Pretty little girls school

Where I can't know, except contextually, if we are talking about a pretty little school for girls, a pretty school for little girls, or a school for pretty little girls. Wouldn't that make a language less, rather than more, descriptive?

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  • Right, I'm not expecting a fully-fledged conclusion as the only way that would possible is by complete knowledge and fluency in multiple, if not every language. I'm aware of a bunch of the little quirks in English as such, but am not with other languages. However, I think your example about ambiguity is all about phrasing. Alternatives could be: Pretty school for little girls, pretty, little girls school, school for pretty little girls, etc. but I see what you mean. – Greg Mar 16 '18 at 22:36
  • And surely even the most multi-lingual person will have some sort of bias unless he/she grew up learning multiple languages in a fashion that allows fluency and a native-like speaking tenacity. – Greg Mar 16 '18 at 22:37

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