Dear Matthew Alice: What language contains the greatest number of words? I say our very own English language does. However, a sour co-worker of mine insists that the Arabic language is, in fact, composed of the greatest number of words. Am I happy and smart or is he crabby and correct? — J. Goodwin, San Diego
We’re all just dazed and confused, at this point, I think. As simple as this question looks on the surface, it is apparently unanswerable in any meaningful way. Despite my usually effective three-step information-gathering technique (flattery, then wheedling, then threats), 1 could find no source for the number of words in the Arabic language. And estimates for English vary all over the lot First of all, we’d need your friend to qualify what he means by Arabic. Contemporary or ancient? And which dialect? There are many. And are we counting only tHe root words in the language, or can we count all variations of the root words formed by adding special endings that transform the root into other parts of speech or lend nuances of meaning? Arabic is much more flexible than English in this way; the two languages are structured differently and so are difficult to compare. Do we ignore borrowed words? Egypt and Syria have their own government committees that monitor language. One of their duties is shepherding foreign words into their own dialects by transforming each into an official Arabic equivalent. But in other countries, foreign words are simply borrowed without benefit of official discussion.
After considerable arm-twisting, I did get two librarians in charge of Middle Eastern languages at two universities to guess that English is quite a bit larger than (contemporary) Arabic, mostly because of how dynamic English is, particularly in the areas of science and technology. Those words eventually find their way into other languages, but they belonged first to English.
Of course, it’s not always the size, it’s what you do with it, and Arabic does contain some vocabulary from the world of philosophy and religion that English can’t touch. Consider the word baraka, a sort of spiritual energy that can be bestowed on the things of everyday life. Howard Rheingold (in They Have a Word for It) quotes poet Robert Graves’s thoughts on baraka, “the Moslem sense of blessedness that attaches itself to buildings or objects after years of loving use by noble-hearted people.... Few practical people will deny that to break in a new guitar, typewriter, or car and, as it were, humanize it so that it never lets one down, takes a long time....” Rheingold cites the “oneness” created momentarily at Woodstock as another example. The African Bantu language is no contender for largest, but consider its handy word mbuki-mvuki, which encapsulates the idea of partying so hearty that you tear off all your clothes and start to dance. Not a people to ignore a good thing when we hear it, Americans borrowed mbuki-mvuki to name a popular music and dance style: boogie-woogie.