What is the language with the most words?

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To determine the language with the most words would be a task almost impossible in its objective. Counting words would be like counting the stars in the night sky or the grains of sand on a beach.  It would take many people working for many years and, even then, the conclusion would be ambiguous. The reasons for this are manifold.

Some countries are not as advanced as others in publishing dictionaries and even the most complete, unabridged dictionaries are insufficient and outdated soon after publication. Do we count archaic or obsolete words? Do we add dialects to our number?  And what of words used only in certain fields such as medicine and science? Do we include those words in our count?

And consider this. Comparing one language to another can be like comparing trains to automobiles because of the differences in grammar and nuance.  This growth in diversity has been transpiring since the Tower of Babel and raises many questions. Do we count ‘write,’ ‘wrote’ and ‘written’ as separate words, or the same word?  And what of countries who compound words, such as ‘phrasebook?’  The Germans, for example, are prone to compose words to more effortlessly describe anything, such as ‘umweltverschmutzung ,‘ which is two words joined together to mean “the drying up of the world’s pollution.” Should we count such compounded words as new words?  And what of homophones or words that are spelled the same but have different meanings? ‘Leaves’ means both “the plural of leaf” and “goes away.”  Do we count them as one word or two? In this case, alone the examples are endless, making the job of counting words seemingly unattainable.

There are those who will disagree. A number of them (the English-speaking ones) would say that English is the language with the most words because it seems to be unique in some ways.  The English language has a history that has greatly supplemented its vocabulary. English was originally a Germanic language and shares much of its grammar and vocabulary with German and Dutch. However, that changed after the Norman Conquest in 1066.  At this point in its history, the English language took on Norman French (the language of the ruling classes) and Latin (the language of the church). So already, early in its history, English has a larger vocabulary than German or Dutch.

The size and expansion of English-speaking countries has also added to the English vocabulary possibly making it the language with the most words.  Reflect on the difference between British English and American English. (You shouldn’t sit in a British restaurant and ask for a ‘napkin’ unless you want the waiter to bring you a diaper.) Also contemplate the variations in North American English. There is that which is spoken in the north as well that which is spoken in the south and the west. The discoverers and early settlers of these areas greatly influenced the language as well as the lifestyles of the different areas of this great land.

We also need to take this into account.  As English has been open to foreign influence during its history, even today the English language is ready to accommodate exotic words. The English-speaking people absorb words through the entertainment media, the advertising media, the news media and even our extended family members and neighbors, many of whom are bilingual. While others work to preserve the purity of their language, English-speaking people are easily bored with unoriginality and happily steal words from other languages.  Because of this, English has grown to become an international language.

Take it from me, an English-speaking person. I believe English to be a beautiful language, enriched with dialects, jargons and foreign influence.  I see it as a language that is continually absorbing, evolving and expanding. Therefore I suspect that the English language is the language with the most words.

Do you agree?

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