Which language has the most words?

In “How Many Words in English?” I touched on something that makes it difficult to compare the number of words in various languages. Words, and parts of words, operate differently in different languages.

The entry “words” in dictionaries are not just words. Some are word segments that cannot function on their own: prefixes and suffixes.  Root words, prefixes and suffixes — the smallest meaningful units in a language – are called “morphemes.” And some of them do a lot more work than others. These useful units, like the “–s,” which can latch onto a passel of nouns to make them plural, are called “productive morphemes.” Others, like the “cran-“ in “cranberry” – not so productive. It may be the same “cran-“ as in “cranny,” a word found only in the phrase “every nook and cranny,” but it certainly isn’t useful in forming any additional words.

On the other hand, the suffix “-ize” is plenty productive: brutalize, civilize, colonize, familiarize, fertilize, formalize, fossilize, humanize, Americanize. You can slap it on just about any noun or adjective to convert it into a verb meaning ‘to cause (something or someone) to become that thing or have that characteristic.’ In other words, you can stick “-ize” onto a noun or adjective to verbize it. What? Is “verbize” a word? I just used it. If you understood that I meant ‘turn it into a verb,’ then it is a word. It’s a “nonce-word,” a term coined by Oxford English Dictionary editor James Murray meaning ‘a word used on one specific occasion,’ but a word nonetheless. How many words end in “-ize” or the British spelling “-ise”? No telling. More are coined every day.

Spanish has a morpheme that may not be quite as productive as “-ize,” but it is fairly versatile. It’s the suffix “-azo,” meaning a strike or blow with some instrument or part of the body. For example:

Puño ‘fist’ + azo = puñetazo  ‘a blow with the fist, punch’

Cañón ‘cannon’ + azo = cañonazo ‘cannon shot’

Codo ‘elbow’ + azo = codazo ‘a blow with the elbow’

Cabeza ‘head’ +azo = cabezazo ‘a butt with the head’

Panza ‘paunch’ +azo = panzazo ‘a belly slam or belly flop’

Escoba ‘broom’ +azo = escobazo ‘a blow with a broom’

And the list goes on and on. Should every word ending in “-azo” be counted separately? Then what do you do when someone comes up with a new one? Darle un puñetazo en la cabeza?

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1 Response to Which language has the most words?

  1. Pingback: deletible, indelible, delible | Lexie Kahn: Word Detective

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