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How Many Words Does the German Language Have Compared to English?

When it comes to languages, one of the most common questions that arise is about vocabulary size. Many people wonder how many words a language contains and whether some languages have more words than others. In this blog post, an Oxford-educated native German tutor with over 25 years of teaching experience delves into the German language and explore its vocabulary size compared to English.

1. Problems Exposed

Determining the exact number of words in any language is a challenging task due to the dynamic nature of language and the constant evolution of vocabulary. Worse still, there are several problems in comparing the number of words of different languages.

  • What is a word? Should we include words that are rarely, if ever, used? Have you ever heard of the word 'crapulous"? Me neither, until it came up in my research. It expresses feeling unwell after eating or drinking too much. While it might seem like an ingenious combination of "crap" and "fabulous", is this a word that should be part of an English dictionary, given that it's so rare? A great example from the German language is the word "honnet". It refers to a person being "honest" and "honourable", but nobody knows it exists.

  • Do compounds count? If they did, the German language would win this contest against the English language in the blink of an eye, given the constant creation of new words by putting together individual words. This allows for the creation of highly specific and descriptive vocabulary that may not exist in other languages. So there will never be a complete dictionary of the German language.

  • Multiple meanings: Should we count words separately if their meanings vary in different contexts? Both German and English have many so-called "homonyms" (opposite of "synonym"). The German word "Schloss", for instance, can refer to a lock and a castle. The English word "ring" can be used to say that we call someone or the piece of jewellery on a finger.

  • What about inflections? Surely, it wouldn't make sense to count the different verb conjugations and tenses as separate words, would it?

2. Factors Affecting Vocabulary Size:

Several factors contribute to the size of a language's vocabulary, including historical influences, borrowings from other languages, and the creation of new words through word formation processes such as compounding and derivation. The majority of German words originate from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. The rest are derived from Latin, Greek, or borrowed from French and Modern English. English, on the other hand, derived more than half of its vocabulary from Latin and French, but approximately 25% of words are of Germanic origin.

3. Size of German Vocabulary

One way of comparing the vocabulary in different languages is by counting the number of words in authoritative dictionaries. Linguists estimate that the German language has a vast vocabulary comprising between 350.00 to 500.00 words, of which 15.000-20.000 words are considered to be essential for fluency in German.

4. Comparison with English:

English is often touted as one of the richest languages in terms of vocabulary size, thanks in part to its status as a global lingua franca and its extensive borrowings from other languages throughout history. While English may have a larger vocabulary than German in absolute terms, the difference may not be as significant as commonly perceived. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) contains 500,000 words and phrases past and present, from across the English-speaking world. Only approximately 10.000 words are necessary to reach the level of fluency in English.

5. The Influence of Dialects and Regional Variations:

Another factor to consider when assessing the size of the German vocabulary is the presence of dialects and regional variations. German dialects often have their own unique vocabulary and expressions, adding further richness and diversity to the language.

6. Conclusion:

While it may be difficult to determine the exact number of words in the German language, it is undoubtedly rich and varied, offering a wealth of expression and communication. While English may have a larger vocabulary in absolute terms, German possesses its own unique features and nuances that make it a fascinating language to explore and learn.

As a language enthusiast or a learner, you might be interested to learn more about the difference between the language levels a, b, c and essential German grammar topics that beginners and intermediate students in German have to master.



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