Foreign Language Question

I was thinking lately how in English a single word can have 5 or more synonyms. I would assume that words inlanguages other than English have synonyms too. However, when I took Spanish or how I am (attempting) to learn Irish Gaelic now synonyms are not covered. So I suppose that my questions in all of this is: do other languages have the number on synonyms that English does? and if they do how does this affect the over all comprehension of the language?

English has more words than any other language. That’s probably because it evolved from a narsty mixture of all sorts of old tongues. Other languages certainly have synonyms, but not to the extent that English does.

I’m not going to claim friedo is wrong, because I honestly don’t know whether anyone has made such a comparison. However, I will put forth an alternative theory:

English is currently the largest language, due to many coincidental political factors–no problem there. However, does English have more words by adopting lots of anglicized foreign synonyms to English words? I would suggest, rather, that the number of synonyms might be fairly constant among a number of languages, but that English has coined more words for events, actions, processes, etc. that other languages would describe using phrases of existing words.

Open a French-English or German-English disctionary and look up a few common words. You will find that those languages have long lists of words to provide translations (with varying connotations) of single English words.

On the other hand, when the French Academy started another round of “purifying” their language by throwing out English borrowings, they had to replace tanker with one phrase for a truck containing a vessel to haul fluids and a separate phrase for a ship containing a vessle to haul fluids (and probably a separate phrase for an airplane, although that was not mentioned in the article I read).

I’ll have to agree with Tomndebb re English winning out on the synonym count (almost certainly, though I’ve no cite) through its promiscuous (indeed, slatternly) acceptance of words from other languages.

I speak four foreign languages to varying degrees (in best to worst order: Russian, French, German, and Spanish). Like English, they’ve all adopted words (especially scientific terms) from Latin/Ancient Greek. Russian also a huge number of borrowings from both French and German, and German a smaller number from French, but none of them have the, shall we say, catholicity of taste that English has in its borrowing. A lot of historical factors involved, of course, starting with the Norman Conquest which all by itself resulted in an extra set of synonyms for most terms (sometimes duplicating existing borrowings in a modified form; e.g. guardian and warden are derived from the same Latin term, borrowed into English at different times by different routes). Add in the fact that Great Britain had colonies in just about every area of the world, and borrowed like mad everywhere they went, and that’s a lot of words. Since synonyms are rarely exact, this allows for a lot more shades of meaning.

Oddly enough, Russians also claim to have the largest vocabulary of any language, if you exclude the technical vocabulary (a big qualification). And true enough, there are plenty of Russian words and synonyms that don’t have a single-word equivalent in English (sobutyl’nik - drinking buddy, usually a casual acquaintance, who you share a bottle of vodka with, usually on the street), but I would tend to put this claim down to unnecessary linguistic nationalism.

Generally though, it’s my experience that anything you can say in one language you can say in another (assuming similar technical levels and excluding cultural-specific resonances).

Actually, Timchik, you appear to be agreeing more with friedo and disagreeing (somewhat) with me.

On the other hand, since I freely admit that was supplying pure conjecture, I am certainly open to correction on the point. If you have found more synonyms in English than in the other languages, then I would think that borrowing would be the principle source.

English also probably has the most homonyms, which can sucker (not succor) even the brightest of its native speakers. Not to question your principles tomndebb, but don’t you mean “principal source”? (Hey kettle, this is pot. You’re black!)

Yeah. I was heading out the door to pick up my kid and didn’t proof it.

I do not know, since I have not done a research about it, if Spanish words have more synonims(sp?) than English. I can, of course, give you an example of a word in Spanish that has at least 5 sinonyms(sp?):

The word is PIG.

Cerdo, marrano, puerco, chancho, lechón.

It could have more, but those are the words I know. It also depends how you learn the language, they do not give a whole list of synonyms(sp?) in foreing language classes. (I know because English is a foreign language to me, I’m still finding new words.) For the record, Spanish has a lot of borrowed words from Arab and Amerindian languages.

Eskimos have over 100 words for snow (so I’ve heard) which would probably be a record, but the rest of their language may not be as rich.

Kniz, 50 lashes for bringing that up. (Go find Cecil’s column on it, then search for other threads on it. I’m too lazy tonight to do it for you.)

I once heard that English and, to a lesser degree, French were the only languages where a thesaurus was a useful tool. But I’ve also heard that some other languages have them, too. Whether they are useful in those languages, I don’t know.

Re homonyms: I would expect Chinese to be the champ with those.

Rubbish, I would love to have a good thesaurus for Arabic alone. Where do such ideas come from?


I think the authors of The Story of English have a lot to answer for.

Not that I want to pile on dtilque, but yes, that’s an absurd statement; you were only reporting it, of course.

Is it really The Story of English to blame for that canard? Shame on my fellow Canadian, what’s his name - the PBS guy - for coming up with that.

I have a two-volume eight-hundred page Slovar russkikh sinonomov i skhodnykh po smyslu vyrazheniy (Dictionary of Russian Synonyms and Expressions Similar in Meaning). I consider my active vocabulary in Russian to be pretty large, but it’s still damned useful.

[tangent]What I find interesting is not so much how many synonyms a language has but where they are concentrated. IANAW (I am not a Whorfian), but I think one can learn a lot about a culture from what subjects it sees fit to give a richly developed lexicon to.[/tangent]

Last time I checked around home, there was a Spanish “Diccionario de antónimos y sinónimos”, a theasaurus, I guess. Is it useful? For me, only when I am doing crosswords.

I state what I said before. For native English speakers, I suppose they found their language to has more synonyms than the others, but I think it is because they KNOW English better than other languages. This is true for every native speaker of a language, then know more about it than other languages. Also, well, foreign classes (so far as I know), do not give whole lists of all the synonyms that exist in that language. They mostly teach the students one or two synonyms for a word, and if there are more, the student will found out by himself/herself.

More words in English than in any other language (or somesuch) Not appreciably more objects lying around in the English countryside than most other realms. That means that the ratio for English words/English stuff is higher, thus more words per stuff. I.e. more synonyms.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Russian really did have the largest vocabulary of any language. I once saw a dictionary of Russian sexual slang – the number of words in that thing was HUGE, and many of the references were unbelievably specific.

If the number of ordinary words is at all comparable, I think Russian probably will take the prize.

bother, try Arabic. The number of synonyms is staggering. Who knows how many synonyms for lion? For author? It’s enough to make one’s brain flow out of the ears. Roughly 1400 years of vocabularly accumulation. Bloody frustrating.

Frankly, I don’t think there is ** any ** good data at all to compare vocabulary sizes between langauges, other in a very, very rough manner.

It’s exceedingly rare for two words to be true synonyms. There is almost always some difference in the denotational or connotational meaning.

Does Russian have an equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary - 20 volumes, each about 3 inches thick? (granted, it includes etymologies and archaic words).

Off the top of my head: cuto, cochino. Plus the ones with more specialized meanings, plus dialectal varieties (RAE says that marrajo is “a bull or ox which attacks with malicious intent and only when he knows for sure he’ll hit; someone who is hard to fool; one specific kind of shark”, but in my dialect it’s “a male pig being used to breed”).