By ancient languages I mean in the Antiquity (or before).

They were less rich in vocabulary than modern languages (for instance Indo-European languages if we need a reference), or we could think that because we lost a lot of texts, and lack of dictionaries?

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    I think that's pretty obvious - we still have words for all the kinds of natural things in the world, but also for new technologies like typewriters, computers, XBox controllers, DNA splicing etc.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 20, 2019 at 5:38
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    There are about 24 words "horse" in Sanskrit (one horse as subject; two horses as object; more than two horses as instrument etc...). We have "horse", "horses" and "horse's". It depends on how you count words.
    – user6726
    Nov 20, 2019 at 5:50
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    @user6726 But you wouldn't say Sanskrit is therefore more rich in vocabulary. It seems pretty clear the OP isn't asking about number of inflected forms.
    – TKR
    Nov 20, 2019 at 7:12
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    we may "have" words in some thick dictionaries, but if a technical term was last used 200 years ago by the last surviving members of an ancient profession is it really part of the modern language?
    – Milo Bem
    Nov 22, 2019 at 14:03
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    Additionally, I think people are under-rating the lexical complexity of ancient languages. If modern languages of peoples who have not incorporated modern technology are any guide, we see incredibly complex lexical inventories for talking about the natural world, spirituality, human beings, society, etc etc. Jan 17, 2020 at 21:23

2 Answers 2


Both factors play a role.

It is quite obvious that a modern language with a scientific register (not all modern languages have that) has a richer vocabulary than any ancient language, just enumerate the systematic names for chemical compounds, diseases in medicine, species in biology, etc.

And it is also quite obvious that we know any ancient language only partially, and that a lot of ancient words aren't transmitted to us. Many of them were probably never recorded at all, for other words the loss of texts is the explanation.

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    You're leaving out a key factor here: as the vocabulary of "a language" grows, the vocabulary of the average native speaker does not necessarily grow along with it. Nov 20, 2019 at 19:27

While it's obvious that modern languages like English have way more words than ancient languages due to science and technology terms (and patterns for generating terms like in Chemistry), other than that we have relatively few words for some things. It seems that whatever "technology" that is developed (or whatever thought process is dug into the most), the more terms are created for that thing. For example, in Buddhism (Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, etc.) there are an enormous amount of words, akin to the number of words in our English technical lexicon, for the metaphysical world. Hundreds of thousands of terms here in Tibetan for example.

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