How Big Is Your Dictionary?

English, unlike a lot of languages, has a rather large inventory of words, mostly in the way of synonyms. Take the word “blue”, for example. “Blue” can also be expressed as “sapphire, cyan, cobalt, aquamarine,” or “cerulean”. And that’s not even all of them! Granted, these are different shades or qualities of the color, but the fact remains that there are many ways to express almost any given sentence in English. This can be a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, it makes expression and poetry more versatile, and can allow people to describe the world and their experiences in a more precise. On the other hand, it makes English very complicated, dense, and difficult to learn past a certain level of proficiency for the non-native speaker. I can’t say for sure what that level is, but this problem is more present in reading than in speech.

The notion of having and using a lot of synonyms in basic, everyday speech is simply not as important in most other languages. The threshold of vocabulary at which one uses new words for things one already knows, such as for colors, is much higher in Spanish or Italian than in English. That is to say, Spanish or Italian looks different only at a very high level of education, somewhere in the realm of PhDs and intellectuals. English, on the other hand, begins employing varied and complex language in high school. Remember, I’m talking about this from the perspective of a non-native speaker.

But let’s consider why this is. A Romance language like Spanish derives most of its lexicon from Latin, as well as from the languages of indigenous people in South America. However, academic, or at least standardized Spanish, may not use these words, even in the country in which those words are in widespread use. It is much the same in English-speaking countries; there is no reason to use regionalisms in formal situations unless it is explicitly required. Now, from the viewpoint of a non-native speaker of Spanish, whose first language is English and has a pretty decent knowledge of English, technical and sometimes formal Spanish can be easily guessed through using a knowledge of Latin roots. This is because English has a technical lexicon drawing from Latin and Greek. However, this is not the case the other way around. English draws from many different languages across the world, due to its multinational presence and imperial history. The fundamentally Germanic vocabulary and syntax of English also prevents most non-natives of English from grasping the grammar and vocabulary very quickly.

The significance of having “larger” dictionary is hard to ascertain, because the use of language(s) varies by country, and even within those countries by region. In the United States, English is the primary language in all cases, and other languages are often used in a semi-official capacity, such as translation or interpretation. In contrast, India has a multitude of different languages within itself. The state languages, such as Kannada, Malayalam, or Marathi, are used on the state level, and are used in semi-official capacities at the federal level, where English is used, with Hindi occasionally alongside it. A larger number of synonyms for any given word may allow for more precision, but to the average speaker, native or non-native, subtle distinctions between such words are irrelevant. Very often, synonyms for things such as color are for descriptive effect and variation, rather than a genuine difference in color.

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A Rundown of Indian Languages

A lot of people are becoming more aware that India has more than a single language that is spoken across the country. Even though Hindi is the official lingua franca, there are twenty-two official languages of India, which come from four different language families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, and Munda, excluding English. 


However, only six classical languages recognized by the government as such, which include Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, and Oriya. In 2006, Minister of Tourism & Culture Ambika Soni defined a classical language as:

“High antiquity of its early texts/recorded history over a period of 1500–2000 years; a body of ancient literature/texts, which is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers; the literary tradition be original and not borrowed from another speech community; the classical language and literature being distinct from modern, there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms or its offshoots.”

This is not to say that the other languages are rich in literature of their own. In fact, many modern works of literature from India were written in non-classical languages, as defined by Soni, including, but not limited to, Bengali and Marathi.

Some history is required to understand why there are so many different, non-mutually-intelligible languages in India. There are at least two major progenitor languages that are seen as major presences in India: Sanskrit and the Proto-Dravidian. It is hypothesized by scholars that migrants from what is modern day Turkey and Iran came to India from the northwest, through Pakistan, settling throughout the north, in around the 2nd millennium BCE. Proto-Dravidian, on the other hand, is native to the subcontinent, existing for much longer in India than Sanskrit. Proto-Dravidian was spoken primarily in the South. The origins of the Munda family are unknown, though it has been shown that they are distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese, as well as  other minority languages through Southeast Asia. And it is important to remember that another large influence on Indian languages are the Farsi and Arabic languages, which came only much later to the subcontinent, through the Mughal empire. It is for that reason that the Arabic and Farsi heavy form of Hindi, known as Urdu, exists today.

Sanskrit is the liturgical language of Hinduism, and is used almost exclusively as such today, though it is an official language of Uttarakhand, and there are efforts to revive its usage. It is the language of the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas, the core texts of the Hindu religion, though all of them have been translated into the other languages. It is also studied as a classical language in schools, in much same way Latin used to be a required subject in Western schools. Many languages, primarily in North India, borrow much of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, so it is very helpful to know. Classical Sanskrit’s formal grammar was standardized by Pāṇini, a Sanskrit grammarian, in his major work, Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”), written in 500 BCE, and is still used as the authority on the Sanskrit language today. Some of the South Indian languages, which are primarily Dravidian in origin, also borrow, to a lesser extent, from Sanskrit. Words from Sanskrit in Dravidian languages are often easily noticed by features such as the presence of aspirated consonants, and the consonant clusters dr as opposed to ḍr, and tr as opposed to ṭr.

Now, Dravidian languages are from a completely different family from the languages of the North, and share no similarities with them. Sanskrit penetrated South India as the language of the Maurya Empire, which included all of North India as well as much of South India, save for the tip of the peninsula, which largely encompasses the Tamil-speaking state of Tamil Nadu today. Tamil is not at all intelligible with any North Indian language, and influenced many Southern languages as well. The Dravidian ancestor language developed solely on the Indian subcontinent, eventually dividing into the Southern languages, such as Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Konkani, and Malayalam. Tamil remains a sort of oddity among the Indian languages, as it is a liturgical language, of the Ayyavizhi tradition, and also exhibits unique traits as a language, because it distinguishes three different forms: a classical form based on the ancient form of the language, a modern literary form, and a modern colloquial spoken form. Tamil is also spoken in other countries as an official language, including Singapore and Sri Lanka, making it more relevant than just within India.


Kuzoian, Alex. “This Animated Map Shows How European Languages Evolved.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 10 Dec. 2014. Web. 26 June 2015.

“Geography and India’s Language Debate.” Z Geography. 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families.” 27 Oct. 2007. Web. 26 June 2015.

“South Asian Language Families” links to:

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