Most of the words in English are just quicker ways to express things that otherwise needs many words to describe. So, what is the minimum number of words or smallest dictionary that one can use to describe any thought they have? I have looked into Charles Kay Ogden's Basic English. But, I also read that many linguists do not like the word choices of Basic English (Why?)

  • Toki Pona is a conlang constructed with the goal of having a pretty minimal vocabulary from which other concepts must be derived. It is estimated as having around 123 root morphemes. By all accounts it takes quite a lot of getting used to to be able to communicate with any degree of effectiveness in it – Tristan Jan 28 at 14:42
  • Where to start? First, there are lots of languages without what English speakers call "words". Second, there is no way to count real English words; they vary a lot -- is "cuss" the same as "curse'? Is COPD one word or four? Third, concepts are even harder to count - how many types of emotion are there? And are there words for them all? And how many complex thoughts are there? Alas, it doesn't work that way. A language is a shared set of habits, not a spreadsheet. – jlawler Jan 28 at 16:03

I don't like it because there's no word for giraffe, salmon, reindeer, four or angstrom. I tried a few two- or three-word expressions that might describe giraffe, but there was nothing satisfactory. It is so much simpler to just add a word "giraffe", but that apparently violates a rule of the system that the lexicon is completely closed – a very unnatural state of affairs for a language, or for human cognition. It's not just that there are many words needed to describe giraffe, it's that there is a conventionalized and precise description available in that one word. Please don't get me started on numbers.

The more important question is, why would one do this in the first place? You only need 26 "words", – a, b, c, d...z and with combinations of those "words" you can form any existing English word (and a number that don't exist). True, the semantics of this much "simpler" system is worse than the semantics of Ogden's simplified system, but isn't the goal to reduce the size of the lexicon at the expense of all else? However, if the goal is simply to identify the most useful 850 words to know if you're learning English, it's not so bad, but still there are a bunch of words that you need to know, like "police, arrest, court, jail".

  • I like your answer, but the point is not to make a language that is simple to use. It is to make a language that will be hard to use but nevertheless can express complex thought. – AnanthaKrishna K Jan 29 at 3:10
  • It's easy to make a language that's hard to use, but impossible to prove it can express complex thought. Because complex thought can't be observed. – jlawler Jan 29 at 18:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.