Nothing new here, perhaps, until the Swede said:
“Swedish is the world’s richest language, in fact it’s infinite – and it’s all thanks to compounding.
“This is where you plug any old words together to make a new one, like 'dishwasher' in English. We thrive on this in Swedish, and even words invented on the spot are completely legitimate.
“Look at this menu," he said. “'Shrimp sandwich', two separate things and two words, but one word in Swedish – räksmörgås”.
He opened his bag, and began excitedly pulling things out.
“Nail polish remover – one word: nagellackborttagningsmedel. “The Half Blood Prince,” he said, waving a Harry Potter book in the air –“Also just one word – halvblodsprinsen. These are all singular words, and I’m just getting started.”
I was about to tell him that he needn’t pull out anything else, as the bag’s contents were even more dubious than his claims, but he changed tack.
“Every single number from one upwards is just one word. 125 is one word: etthundratjugifem. 253,125 is one word too: tvåhundrafemtitretusenetthundratjugifem. Think of all those words for a start!”
“You can’t count those!” I exclaimed, but the pun was lost in the heat of the moment.
“Swedish is the most comprehensive language by far. It is factually unlimited. Case closed."
This is a common argument, I later learnt, that ‘compounding’ languages are often considered the richest due to their potential word count. In this group you can find mostly Germanic based languages, such as Danish and Dutch – but also Turkish, and even many of the Indian languages. But is this really an indication of anything other than spacebar laziness?
I talked to a Swedish Professor at Uppsala University, Lillemor Aronsson.
“There are those who say that Swedish is a poor language compared with English, for example, if you count the total of individual words. You can see that Swedish-English dictionaries are often thinner than English-Swedish ones,” she said.
“But then you’ve not considered the infinite number of words that aren’t in the dictionary: subway, subwaytrain, subwaytrainproblems [she said these in Swedish]. In theory these can be indefinite lengths, but are 3-4 words long max in practice. And we take in loan words and make them Swedish, for example “surfar, chattar and messar”.
When pushed for a straight up yes or no answer, she admitted that Swedish (and other similarly built languages) has unlimited possibilities, and in those terms is the richest language.
So while my Swedish barroom friend was on the right track, he may have gotten off at the wrong stop. Surely a person needs to be fluent in all the languages of the world before passing judgment. I talked to other people of different nationalities, and tried to find how they measured language “richness”.
A Greek masters student told me that he thought Greek was far richer than Swedish and English, in fact, the richest and oldest language in existence. Not only is it the language of Plato and Aristotle, he said, but we have words that are untranslatable – such as 'filotimo' which means a person who is willing to do things in a nice way.
Greek is influential in naming things too, he pointed out, especially in science and medicine, and you can find traces of it everywhere.
Slavic languages often operate on separate alphabets, with Cyrillic or Latin letters depending on the occasion. Japanese utilizes three different ‘scripts’ when written.
Mandarin is spoken by over a billion people and is perhaps the most valuable to learn in today’s economic climate, but does this make the language rich, or the speaker?
So is it alphabets that define richness? Untranslatable words? Or is it the language’s worth in the global market? Is it the most pages in the dictionary?
Back in the bar, the Russian shared his thoughts on the matter.
“It's not about the size of your dict," he said, shortening his own words as usual, "It's about how you use it.
“Think of Russian. Without such a limitless language, how could Tolstoy, Chekov, and Bulgakov have created their world masterpieces? In fact, many Russians sneer upon even Dostoevsky as sub par.
“There’s no limit to creativity and no rules in our expression – it’s a completely different way of thinking.
“If you can translate the beauty and aching sadness of a word like toska or poshlost into English or Swedish - words that Vladamir Nabokov himself called untranslatable - then I can accept that Russian is not the richest."
I said nothing, resisting the urge to ask if “Toska” was a brand of vodka. (I checked Google later, it was).
But all this got me thinking. From my own perspective, I knew that English has its advantages – its eagerness to adopt foreign words, its constant evolution, its rich history and famous wordsmiths. But I didn’t say anything.
The fact that our conversation in an Uppsala bar was being held in English was a testament to the accessibility of the language. While it may not be the richest – it certainly must be the most user-friendly on a global level. Just look at the three of us; a Swede, a Russian and your resident Aussie – chattering away in English.
In fact, I was about to comment on this when a Rabbi, a Norwegian and a kangaroo walked up to our table and interrupted my train of thought.
“Are you guys done here, we’ve got a routine coming up,” one of them said.
In English, I should add.