The Grammarphobia Blog

Word counts

Q: My wife is from the Czech Republic and she says her native language has more words than English. I’ve always thought that English had more words than any other language. Who’s right?

A: We don’t know much about the Czech language, but from what we’ve read it does indeed have a lot of words. We suspect, however, that English may have more, including a few borrowed from Czech, like “howitzer,” “robot,” “pistol,” and “polka.”

The Czech version of the Oxford English Dictionary is P?íru?ní slovník jazyka ?eskéhoa, a nine-volume work known in English as the Compendious Dictionary of the Czech Language. It’s said to contain about 250,000 entries.

The 20-volume second edition of the OED, on the other hand, has full entries for 171,476 words in current use and 47,156 obsolete words, as well as subsidiary entries for about 9,500 derivative words.

However, those OED figures don’t include all the different senses for the different parts of speech. A word like “trick,” for example, can be a noun as well as a verb. The same goes for “tricks.” And a trick can be a prank, a feat of magic, an act of prostitution, and so on.

If distinct senses are included, according to the OED‘s lexicographers, the total number of English words would probably approach about 750,000. And that’s not including a gazillion or so scientific, medical, and technical terms.

Does English have more words than any other modern language? Ask Oxford, the website of the Oxford dictionaries, says “it seems quite probable that English has more words than most comparable world languages.”

“This does, of course, assume,” Ask Oxford adds, “that you ignore ‘agglutinative’ languages such as Finnish, in which words can be stuck together in long strings of indefinite length, and which therefore have an almost infinite number of ‘words.’ ”

In case you’d like to read more, we’ve written a blog item about whether English is growing or shrinking, and another about the myth that it has reached a million words.

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