I am thinking that it is English because it has so many borrowed words and most you French, Italian, or German words can be written in English as is. Am I right?

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    Welcome! The short answer is: the "size" of the "vocabulary" of a "language" contains three concepts that are very hard to define, and you would need to establish (fairly arbitrary) definitions on the spot to make any calculations. The result would in all likelihood not be considered very relevant to anything by linguists. Even shorter: it depends and it doesn't matter.
    – Cerberus
    Mar 17, 2013 at 18:02
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    English has a large part a large vocabulary in part because it is well studied-- the OED starts with "aa" a Kentish dialect word meaning river. If all other languages were so well researched as to include words that have fallen out of usage hundreds of years ago, English would look so large. Mar 17, 2013 at 20:55
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    I never implied that Dutch was had a smaller vocabulary or smaller dictionaries. I suspect all languages would have dramatically larger vocabularies if people started lifetime spanning projects to write down every word ever used and there is no evidence in advance which languages would end up with the largest dictionary. (in addition to the problems posed by counting words in non-analytic languages) Mar 18, 2013 at 13:34
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    This question has no answer - on top of what Cerberus has already said, I'd like to add that the vocabulary of any language is not a constant.
    – Alex B.
    Mar 19, 2013 at 17:14
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    Basically the same question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/9674/…
    – fdb
    Dec 12, 2014 at 23:27

9 Answers 9


My opinion is that it depends on what counts as a word. However extensive the English vocabulary is, technically it consists of separate items, each one of them having a large number of meanings. We can learn, say, 500 English words to talk on any subject. The grammar is relatively simple, with a small amount of regular words.

Speaking on regularity; are French ir/je vai/allez, or Spanish ir/yiendo/vaya, two sets of three different words, or are they just two paradigms for ir in two languages?

Is Lakota Waŋyáŋkiŋ... for 'you take a look at it' a single word or a phrase?

There are also languages with 'targeted vocabularies', where lexical items have less meaninings than in English (e.g. Russian, French, Spanish or Finnish) and the lexical stock is bigger even for high-frequency items.

Finally, there are languages with targeted vocabularies and word-merging alchemy producing a new word, e.g. Finnish 'tie' (way) +-to-suffix does not equal 'the way done', but 'knowledge', and 'tieto' plus 'kone' (machine) does not equal 'knowledge machine', but 'computer'. Or 'kilpi' (shield) plus 'konna' (toad) does not mean 'a shield toad', or 'a toad shield', but simply 'a turtle'.

So, as far as a unique lexical combination is concerned as a separate word, my guess is that of all the languages I am familiar with, Finnish has the biggest vocabulary.

  • Thanks for answer. I would like to hear about my native language Armenian (professional opinion like you did with other languages) but I know that is not widely spoken and well studied. I know English and Russian but not as a profession.
    – TIKSN
    Mar 17, 2013 at 18:45
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    Unfortunately, I don't know much of this language (with the exception of some phrases like 'ich e ko anune' and some other words, though I can distinguish Armenian from other tongues spoken at the same region). Perhaps I should make a short study of this ancient language before giving any answer, though it would be hard because of spelling which is not always phonetic ('Akop' is written like 'Iakob', etc.).
    – Manjusri
    Mar 17, 2013 at 19:35
  • "French ir/je vai/allez" : that is what you call French?
    – fdb
    Sep 8, 2014 at 13:46

I would propose a three-way distinction to illuminate the complexity:

  1. Vocabulary - Set of words familiar to any one individual speaker
  2. Lexicon - Set of words available to a particular linguistic community
  3. Dictionary - Complete set of words attested in a language across all linguistic communities

(Note: this is simply for the purposes of elucidating the question of size - not an objective, hard and fast distinction.)

But I would hypothesize that both vocabulary and lexicon would be roughly comparable across similar types of communities over time. So a rural community in modern American will have roughly the same lexicon as a rural community in Ancient Rome. Equally, a community of scholars in a discipline will be operating with lexica of similar magnitude.

If one were to look for a difference, it would be in dictionaries. And here English has the claim to probably one of the largest dictionaries purely by virtue of spanning a number of linguistic communities in many different environments over a long period of time. But the vocabulary of any one individual speaker will be much more limited.

Some of the things people have mentioned here are a bad place to look for size differences:

  1. Identifying any one area where one language has more synonyms than another (e.g. English having multiple words for many verbs) - each language has different areas of diversity and redundancy and areas of compression.
  2. Looking at typological differences (e.g. German creating new words through compounds vs. English using phrases) - these phenomena only account for very marginal differences.
  3. Borrowing or tendency to avoid borrowing (e.g. French vs. Russian) - all languages in contact borrow - or create new words to reflect needs.
  4. Homonyms - some languages (particularly those with more limited phonologies/phonotactics may have more homonyms than others but even that doesn't impact on overall size - unless we limit ourselves to counting unique headwords regardless of sense.

Ultimately, this question has no precise answer nor does it really need one. The important thing for a language is its facility to create as many new words as are necessary to its speakers. And in this all languages are the same.


If you count the number of separate roots, English seems one of those with the highest number. If you count word stems, English is far behind say German and Russian. But in the latter case one cannot make an exact comparison because the later two languages have extensive rules of the formation of the new stems by the use of suffixes and root concatenation, which produces astronomical numbers of possible combinations most of which are meaningless or hardly useful.


Another fact which you have to keep in mind is that there are composed words and multi word-expressions. In languages like German they tend to be written without spaces (German "Mitbewohnerabschiedsfeier" vs. Spanish "Fiesta de despedida de mi compañero de piso") and as there are several millions of common combinations in everyday use as well as in technical language (and several million more that are ad hoc compositions) one could argue that those languages have a significant larger vocabulary. On the other hand, I would say that a word is not definded by surrounding whitespaces ("black hole") so the decision which language has the larges vocabulary is even harder.


The right way to compare the number of the words of each language vocabulary is having this by counting the word entries of each language Greek and Sanscrit language have the most expended vocabulary and the reassons are these:

  1. 120.000 off 250.000 ancient Greek words still using in modern Greek vernacular language (καθ'ομιλουμένη ή καθομιλούμενη).In India (Sanskrit) they use 80.000 from 190.000 ancient words.

  2. Modern Greek language has over 350.000 word entries (λήμματα,ρίζες των λέξεων) so the number of the derivative words in Greek vocabulary is much bigger than 350.000 (translate the page from Greek to English).

  3. One word has the maximum number of different meanings in Greek language (Arab and Sanscrit also).This is what we call * polysemy.

~~~Over 60.000 word entries derived from Greek to English language (also 50.000 words derived to German language).This is a small example.~~~

  1. Most scientific and ** technological words we use in the whole world have their origin in Greek and Latin language.

~~~All languages derivates words from each other!Greeks uses latin(Italian),English,Turkish and many more words in their daily life.~~~

*poly>πολύ (means very,much,a lot,lots of),semy>σημασία (means significance,relevant synonym with sign>σήμα)→poly+semy→ "πολυσημία"

** techni>techne>τέχνη (means art,skill) , logical>λογική (means sanity,reasoning,rationality from the word λέγω [verb](means talk,think)>λογια[adjective]): techno+logical→ "Τεχνολογία"

Hello @robert !!I had to edit the comment in order to answer your question! In "no3" i wrote about 3 languages not only one...Greek,Sanscrit and Arab.I strongly recomment you reading "no2" also!! You have to click at the bold blue words in order to see the references i had in mind.I could write more references but as you know links in comments accommodates up to 2 links for new members beause of their small commenting reputation.

A team of professors of linguistics in philosophical class at the University of Athens (ntua),leading by Dr.Christopher Charalampakis,had a 20 year research about this topic we discuss.This research took place in Greece (NTUAthens) in cooperation with the Irvine University in California and it deals with the number of the word entries and NOT the words of the greek vocabulary!This is where the "polysemy" is a practical problem setting almost imposible counting the exact number of words in any language but is much safer and right to count the word entries of any language!Homonyms,vertical polysemy and polysemy is inseparable of the amount of the word entries every language has.According to this research Arab,Greek and Sanscrit vocabulary have the most word entries so the polysemy in those three languages is in the highest "rank" because of the complex grammar and the complex syntax they use!

~~~Here is a small example of a grammar difference that affects in the polysemy of a word: If you check closer in the English grammar you will find 44 conjunctions,in Greek grammar there are-62,Sanscrit- 49(5th century)-56(17th century),Arab-51.~~~ If you want more references about this you can check documents relevant to this topic from Liddell Scott and Jones,Dr.Francisco Rodríguez Adrados and also Columbia University (edu) researches they had in the past 10 years about the midle eastern and south asian linguistic changes and vocabulary deteriorations they suffer. Thank you very much :)

  • Welcome and thanks for your answer. I've got a question regarding your statement "One word has the maximum number of different meanings in Greek language". Does this mean you think no language other than Greek has more polysemy? If yes, I think you really need to back this up by evidence and/or references.
    – robert
    Dec 12, 2014 at 10:36

The number of words can be easily found if we agree on which dictionary to use for counting. A much more complex task is to compare languages with respect to “polysemy”. It is important first of all to avoid the confusion of considering polysemy to mean number of meanings or concepts covered by a language which is almost impossible to quantify. A more useful but still hard to quantify is the meaning of “polysemy”as a generalization of lexical ambiguity .which strictly means that a word has two meanings (from “ambi” possibly originating from the Greek “αμφι”) but it is occasionally used as a synonym of polysemy.

Considering three examples of English words namely move , mount and make we find in the Collins Pocket Greek-English/English-Greek dictionary the following:

Move translates to 11 Greek words

Mount translates to 12 Greek words

Make translates to 25 Greek words

By picking one of the Greek words that to my mind (a rather arbitrary and unscientific criterion) are closest to to the main meaning of each of the above English words we get from the same dictionary the following results:

Move= Κινώ translates to 1 English word and some synonyms

Mount=Ανεβάζω translates to 3 English words

Make=Φτιά(χ)νω translates to 4 English words

The above results indicate that English is more polysemous than Greek in the sense that it is more ambiguous and hence harder to translate by a computer program. I must emphasize however that this miniscule experiment can by no means decide the matter. A much more complex study is needed before a sound scientific conclusion is reached.

Finally I would be very grateful if someone could provide the full text of some publication of the results of the work mentioned above of Professor’s Charalambakis’ team. Until then I avoid commenting on it.

John Kontos

Emeritus Professor of Artificial intelligence of the University of Athens.


In Chinese you can build words by putting characters together... there are about 100,000 Chinese characters, and the possible combinations are ~2^100,000, as most words are disyllabic; An estimate of number of Chinese words in use that I've seen was about 5 million words.


Although it is hard to prove, there are some indications that the largest amount of expressions is likely English:

  1. Unlike, for example, the French, English speakers have no problem with adopting foreign loanwords into their language.
  2. English is spoken as a first language in many countries on different continents. Each of these countries have one or more unique dialects with their own expressions and slang.
  3. English is the primary language of science and technology. Manuals, tutorials, and other technical documents may require the invention of new words or word forms (e.g. "to google")
  4. English is the universal language of the merchant marine and air travel. The specialized vocabulary used is simply not translatable in all languages.
  5. Because spelling has hardly changed over the centuries, old poetry and literature is still widely read. This prevents older expressions and antiquated words from being forgotten.
  6. The English language has a ridiculous amount of synonyms. See Roget's Thesaurus.

If I'm not mistaken, the Korean language can assimilate any words from any languages on the fly. Vocabulary wise, it has the capacity to be the superset of all languages.

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    Any language can borrow any word from any other language. It's not the structure of the language that determines the extent of borrowing, but social aspects (such as contact with speakers of other languages).
    – robert
    Sep 8, 2014 at 13:43
  • @robert. It is very difficult for the Chinese language to borrow foreign words. On the contrary, the Korean language went through a major reform in 1446AD. After that, it became super efficient to assimilate foreign words. Sep 8, 2014 at 14:13
  • @robert Mind you. The Koreans were never culture-centric. Being able to absorb foreign words was actually at the top of their priority. Sep 8, 2014 at 14:41
  • @GeorgeChen language is not writing. Perhaps the Chinese script may not accommodate borrowed words as easily as other scripts, but that's irrelevant for the question.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 9, 2014 at 6:04

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