by Jean-Benoît Nadeau

I am always amazed by the number of strong opinions people have about language.

In French, all you have to say is ‘anglicism,’ ‘dictée’, or ‘bon usage,’ and people’s ears perk up. English speakers are preoccupied with Globish. Spanish speakers with Spanglish.

Language is a source of fascination. The more words there are, the stronger the rhetoric gets.

Julie and I thought about calling this weekly blog column “The Language Anthropologist.” But we thought One Million Words said more. We will be writing about linguistics, but our main focus will be interesting facts, as well as the many beliefs, true or false, that people have about language.



So, speaking of rhetoric and strong beliefs…

For the longest time I was convinced that French had fewer words than English.

And I’m not the only one. Every year there is an article in either The New York Times, The Independent or The Globe and Mail claiming that English has a million words, or ten times as many as French.

During our research for The Story of French, we realized that the English to French word ratio was totally misleading.

Why? The number of words in the English vocabulary is based on The Oxford English Dictionary, a quasi-inventory list of the English language. The number of words in French is based on le Grand Robert, with 100 000 words. But the Grand Robert functions is meant to prescribe proper usage. Some words, like technical vocabulary, don’t make it in. The result? French seems to have fewer words than English.

Linguist Henriette Walter opened our eyes about this. If you only count technical terms in French, you easily reach half a million. And then if you add up all the regionalisms and slang words created since the 1960s that did not make it in the Grand Robert, you end up with a grand total of about 1,2 million different words. And this doesn’t include vocabulary “edited out” before the 19th century!

When you compare oranges with oranges it turns out that the French language has just as many words as English.



There is no such thing as a minor language… every language, regardless of the number of speakers, opens a window to a unique universe. Naturally, the more speakers there are to stir the pot, the more words end up in a given language.

Did you know that among the 6000 languages spoken in the world, barely 200 actually have a complete dictionary, a clearly defined grammar, and an agreed-upon syntax?

Among those, barely 15 are spoken by more than 75 million people. Only 25 have official status in more than one country.

In other words, when it comes to languages, you have to be careful about jumping to conclusions based on numbers alone. For example, French is spoken by about 225 million people, and ranks 7th among international languages. Five times more people speak Mandarin than French. But Mandarin has official-language status in only 3 countries – compared to 36 for French.



The bottom line: all major languages have more or less a million words.

One Million Words will take a look at all languages, but with a particular focus on French, English, Spanish and Arabic.

There is a simple explanation why so many people are interested in those languages. They are used all over the planet, and they are constantly evolving. Their millions of speakers use the languages on a daily basis to cook, to build planes, draw up treaties, adjust microscopes, think up new ideas or just get together with friends over a beer or two and decide on the world’s fate.

Many are surprised to learn that Francophones invent between 20 000 and 30 000 new words every year, if we count all the regionalisms, fields of research and jargon. This kind of creativity is a sure sign of life in any language.

More on that next week.