How many words in the world?

Words here and there and everywhere, words words words and for some reason they flow so easily in English. Perhaps because there are more than a million of them, according to The Global Language Monitor, a Silicon Valley tech company. The figure is controversial, though – when the English glossary reached a million in June 2009, it was with the word Web 2.0. That words can consist of dots and numbers was new to me.

It is often said that English has the richest vocabulary of all languages on our planet but “this claim is nearly always made by enthusiastic lovers of English who don’t really know how the many varieties of language beyond English work”, writes this blogger of the Economist. Do conjugated words count as different ones? How about words like home run? Two or one words? In French, estimations run between 140 000 and 270 000. Henrik Rosenkvist, associate professor of Scandinavian languages at Gothenburg University, estimates the number of Swedish words to around 80 000 in this Swedish radio show on the topic.

I am not the first one to ask myself how many words different languages consist of and it is certainly possible to dig deep into the subject. English is rich because many words come in one Latin and one Germanic version, for instance. Today’s conclusion is that it is next to impossible to count all words, simply because the definition of what a word is isn’t static. I read somewhere on the internet that the Arabic language has 60 words for camel. Inuits supposedly have around the same amount for snow. And how about Chinese, a language built up by characters instead of words?




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