Why we think that German has a bigger vocabulary than English (or any other Indo-European language)

(actualisé le ) by Ray

Nov. 10, 2017 – updated with new data from the latest V34 edition of a German-English literary Ædictionary.

While it is generally considered that the almost-universal language of Shakespeare and Bob Dylan has the largest number of words of any Indo-European language [1] - languages of agglutinative language-families, such as Japanese, Turkish and Hungarian, which by construction attach many words to a root as the meaning of a phrase evolves, cannot be compared to Indo-European languages in lexical terms - it seems obvious to us that this distinction rather belongs to the language of Goethe and Thomas Mann, when the following considerations are taken into account:

1. GERMAN DICTIONARIES ARE JUST ABOUT AS BIG AS THEIR ENGLISH EQUIVALENTS

The standard German dictionaries for everyday use, the very comprehensive Duden (500,000+ entries on over 2100 pages) and the widely-used Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch (an unspecified number of entries spread over 4318 tightly-printed, 3-column pages) are quite comparable in size and content to their UK equivalents, the Oxford Dictionary (2100 pages, 355,000 definitions) and the Collins (722,00 “words, meanings and phrases" spread over 2300 pages).

2. THERE ARE WHOLE CLASSES OF OFTEN-USED WORDS WHICH ARE NOT INCLUDED BY CONVENTION IN GERMAN-LANGUAGE DICTIONARIES [2]

  • The nominalized "das" (neuter, no plural) noun form of verbs, adjectives and paticiples

In German there is a basic and intensively-used facility to create nouns from other word forms, especially verbs and adjectives, whereby you take any old word, say the verb abändern (to change [something]), and use it as a noun, of neuter gender without plural, written with an initial capital letter - das Abändern (the alteration) in this case - to express either the act of doing whatever the verb was about, or the result of the said action, and with a nuance suggesting the conceptual dimension of that activity, which can be very useful if you want to sound profound or sophisticated or to dig deep or whatever.

Well, the very many often-used and perfectly-valid "nominalised" nouns formed in this way - often used by the best dictionaries to define other words, they are so useful [3] - are by convention almost never (there are the occasional exceptions) included in the German-language dictionaries! So if we are going to compare word counts, we need to add these very many – tens of thousands, no doubt - undefined but perfectly valid and useful “nominalised” nouns to the German scorecard . . .

  • The other "die" (feminine, plural -en) form of nominalised verbs, with an ending in "ung"

There is a second “die” (feminine) form of nominalised verbs, with an "ung" ending, and with an -en plural ending; ex: "die Abänderung" (the alteration) from the verb “abändern” (to alter). While many of these nominalised verbs are defined in dictionaries [4], there are a great many of them that are commonly used, especially in writing, which are left out of the Wörterbücher as there just isn’t room for all the possible ones. But that gives us an extra lot of thousands of terms to be added in to the count.

  • Compound nouns with sein/werden

The verbs "sein" (to be) and "werden" (to become) are often concatenated to the end of nouns, adjectives, past participles, etc. to form a neuter "das" noun that denotes a process that exists or is in the process of evolving. For example, to define "Ordentlichkeit" (orderliness), the on-line Duden defines it as "das Ordentlichsein" (the state of being orderly) but this defining word itself is not separately defined. For "Veränderung" (change) the Wahrig uses the definition "das Verändertwerden" (becoming changed) - another word you will never find in a dictionary.

Here is a list of hundreds of sein-werden nouns of this type used in the definitions of words in our literary German-English dictionary - definitions which have all been taken from standard German-language dictionaries - and which themselves are not defined in any current German dictionary, by convention [5]:


3. GERMAN DICTIONARIES DON’T EVEN TRY TO DEFINE ALL THE WORDS THEY USE THEMSELVES! [6]

The practically unlimited number of word combinations enabled by the phenomenally flexible nature of the German language is illustrated by the fact that all of the German-language dictionaries routinely use words to define or provide usage examples that themselves are undefined.

A good example of this is the fact that ONE OF THE WORDS ON THE COVER OF THE MASSIVE 500,000-WORD DUDEN DICTIONARY PICTURED ABOVE IS NOT DEFINED IN THE DICTIONARY! The word in question, "Bedeutungswörterbuch" (dictionary of meanings), is an example of how impossible it is to count up all the perfectly-valid and commonly-used long compound words in the language of Goethe and Thomas Mann.

A further illustration of this striking aspect of the language, its agglutinative aspect we might say, is that we have found an amazing number of these undefined words – 3065 [7] and there are others – just in our own 34,000-word German-English literary dictionary! These undefined words can be seen in the list below, with a reference to the word-entry in the Wahrig or Duden dictionary where they are used in definitions or examples. This exemplifies the practical impossibility of including not only all valid German words – a hopeless, quite impossible objective – but even the words needed to define or exemplify the ones you do want to include.


4. THE GERMAN LANGUAGE HAS A LARGE NUMBER OF POWERFUL PREFIXES AND SUFFIXES WHOSE FUNCTION IS TO ENABLE THE FORMATION OF AN OPEN-ENDED NUMBER OF NEW WORDS – MANY/MOST OF WHICH AREN’T IN THE DICTIONARIES

These powerful tools can be added in front of or behind just about anything to create new, usually expressive terms that are so numerous in theory that only a small sub-section of these potential terms are ever included in the dictionaries – there just isn’t room!

Here are summaries (that you won’t find anywhere else!) of the most important prefixes and suffixes, with an outline of their function and examples of their usage:

  • PREFIXES
  • SUFFIXES

An example of the enormous lexical scope of this facility is the prefix “Lieblings...” (favourite …), which can be and is applied to whatever object you care to describe as your favourite one – person, animal, thing, activity, subject etc.

Well, the Wahrig has two “Lieblings” words : die Lieblingsbeschäftigung and die Lieblingsspeise (“favourite activity” and “favourite food”), and the Duden has thirteen of them (the above two and the favourite specialty, colour, male enemy, female enemy, dish, child, place, male pupil, female pupil, theme and word) – and there are obviously hundreds if not thousands of other perfectly valid and useful “Lieblings words” in the language that no dictionary could possibly find place for . . .


5. THE BASIC LEGO-LIKE STRUCTURE OF THE GERMAN LANGUAGE MAKES IT THE MOST OPEN-ENDED EUROPEAN LANGUAGE WE’VE HAD SINCE SINCE THE ANCIENT GREEK WENT OUT OF (DAILY) USE!

While English is rich in compound words, they are much more fixed by usage and the more rigorous rules for sentence structuring – adjectives and adverbs being obligatorily separated from their nouns and verbs by a space or a hyphen – than is the case for German. Here, I mean there, the basic rule is that you must - or at least can – run your adjectives and nouns together, your adverbs and verbs, your nouns and adjectives with the nouns they describe – and not just in ones or twos but as many as you like!

This gives the language a Lego-like structure whereby endless concatenations are possible and very common (especially in the written language), the vast majority of which are never found in dictionaries - something Mark Twain notably complained about in his comments on The Awful German language.

Examples of this basic facility for adding word on word and compound word on compound word – which German shares with the incredibly rich and flexible ancient Greek [8] – to create valid but undefined (for lack of space!) words are the mouth-stopping:

- "die Grundstücksverkehrsgenehmigungszuständigkeitsübertragungsverordnung" [9] ("the decree on the transmission of responsibility for the approval of land transfers");

and

- "das Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz" ("the beef labeling supervision duties delegation law");

and

- "die Bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung" ("the delay in the rerun of the presidential run-off");

but there are zillions of others almost as long!


So there can be little doubt about which is the wordiest language of them all, nicht wahr?



Footnotes

[1the term “Indo-European” becomes “Indogermanisch” (i.e. - “Indo-German”) in German.

[2with some exceptions.

[3for example: "die Abholung" (fetching, the pick-up), is defined by the Duden simply as "das Abholen”, the (undefined) noun form of the verb abholen (to collect, to fetch, to pick up).

[4usually by undefined words of the "das + nominalized verb" type: for example, “die Abänderung” (the alteration) is defined in the Wahrig as having two meanings: “das Abändern (alteration) and “das Abgeändertwerden” (becoming altered), neither of which defining words being themselves defined in the dictionary (!)

[5of course, there are thousands of other (undefined) sein-werden nouns of this type out there elsewhere in the language.

[6let alone all the perfectly good ones that they don’t use in their definitions and examples, but which are out there all the same.

[72145 of these undefined words are used in definitions (!) and 920 in examples of usage of other words.

[8we note that the ancient Greek and the modern German are the languages in which most of the outstanding works of philosophy have been written throughout the intellectual history of mankind.

[967 letters - this is currently the longest German word (but probably not for long!).