Does Spanish Have Fewer Words Than English?

There's No Way To Determine an Exact Number

Spanish and English speakers probably have a comparable number of words in their spoken vocabulary. Juna Pablo Lauriente/Creative Commons

There's little question that Spanish has fewer words than English does — but that doesn't make Spanish inferior.

There is no way to give an exact answer about just how much larger English is. Except perhaps in the case of some minor languages with a very limited vocabulary or obsolete or artificial languages, there is no agreement among authorities about which words are a legitimate part of a language or how to count them.

Furthermore, any living language is in a continual state of change. Both Spanish and English are continuing to add words — English primarily through the addition of technology-related words and words related to popular culture, while Spanish expands in the same way and through the adoption of English words.

Here's one way to compare the two languages' vocabularies: Current editions of the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española (the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy), the closest thing there is to an official list of Spanish vocabulary, has around 88,000 words. In additional, the Academy's list of americanismos includes about 70,000 words used in one or more Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America. So to round things off, figure there are around 150,000 "official" Spanish words.

In contrast, the Oxford English Dictionary has about 600,000 words, but that includes words that are no longer in use.

It has full definitions of around 230,000 words. The makers of the dictionary estimate that when all is said and done, "there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary."

There is one count that puts the English vocabulary at about 1 million words — but that count presumably includes words such as Latin species names, prefixed and suffixed words, jargon, foreign words of extremely limited English use, technical acronyms and the like, making the gigantic count as much of a gimmick as anything else.

All that said, it is probably fair to say that English has about twice as many words as does Spanish — assuming that the conjugated forms of verbs aren't counted as separate words. Large college-level English dictionaries typically include around 200,000 words. Comparable Spanish dictionaries, on the other hand, typically have around 100,000 words. Of course, many of those words are seldom used. Most estimates indicate that Americans typically have a speaking vocabulary of around 20,000 words, although in a typical day they actually use far fewer. The same is almost certainly true of native Spanish speakers. In either language, it is possible to communicate reasonably well with fewer than 1,000 words.

Latin Influx Expanded English

One reason that English has a larger vocabulary is that it is a language with Germanic origins but a tremendous Latin influence, an influence so great that sometimes English seems more like French than it does like Danish, another Germanic language.

The merging of two streams of language into English is one reason why we have both the words "late" and "tardy," words often interchangeable, while Spanish (at least as an adjective) in everyday use has the only tarde. The most similar influence that happened to Spanish was an infusion of Arabic vocabulary, but the influence of Arabic on Spanish isn't close to the influence of Latin on English.

The fewer number of words in Spanish, however, doesn't mean that it can't be just as expressive as English; sometimes it is more so. One feature that Spanish has when compared to English is a flexible word order. Thus the distinction that is made in English between "dark night" and "gloomy night" might be made in Spanish by saying noche oscura and oscura noche, respectively. Spanish also has two verbs that are the rough equivalent of the English "to be," and the choice of verb can change the meaning (as perceived by English speakers) of other words in the sentence.

Thus estoy enferma ("I am sick") is not the same as soy enferma ("I am sickly"). Spanish also has verb forms, including a much-used subjunctive mood, that can provide nuances of meaning sometimes absent in English. Finally, Spanish speakers frequently use suffixes to provide shades of meaning.

All living languages seem to have the ability to express what needs expressing; where a word doesn't exist, speakers find a way to come up with one — whether by coining one, adapting an older word to a new use, or importing one from another language. That's no less true of Spanish than of English, so Spanish's smaller vocabulary shouldn't be seen as a sign that Spanish speakers are less able to say what needs saying.