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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Synonyms: A Good Thing or Just Extra Stuff?

When looking through dictionaries of different languages, you begin to notice that for several languages, there aren’t too many words for the same thing. In Romance languages, there are never more than two or three words for the exact same meaning. If there are more words that translate to that meaning, the extras most likely have a different nuance.

Take the word, “blue.” In English, we have several words that can be this color: “azure,” “cerulean,” “sapphire,” or “cobalt”. While these words do have distinct shades when physically represented, we often use these words interchangeably, often for poetic or literary value. Sure, you could say that the night sky is blue, but that doesn’t provide nearly as much beauty or aesthetic depth as saying that it is sapphire. There are many words with such synonyms and interchangeability. This is not to say that English lacks nuanced vocabulary, because it doesn’t. Much of the nuance in English is implied through context, intonation, and emphasis.

I can’t say for every language, but many Romance languages, Hindi, and Kannada don’t have many synonyms. In literary works, there are a few more for writers to work with, but even those can have other meanings attached to them. But first, let’s define what a synonym is: a word that is identical in meaning and differs little otherwise. If a word has an extra nuance or meaning to it, then it’s a not a synonym.

For example, there are three words in Kannada that can be translated as, “embarrassment.” However, only one, talebaagisu, actually means “embarrassment,” as in, “humiliation,” or, “chagrin.” The other two, sankocha and aumana, are, “embarrassment,” when you receive a service or offer that is overly grand for the occasion and when you receive help when you don’t want it (a blow to your pride). As you can see, the nuance is very heavy, and all three words are very different.

We use synonyms all the time in English, whether it’s just another word or a euphemism. While other languages certainly have euphemisms, the ones that I’ve read and learned about have considerably fewer words of identical meanings used interchangeably. So the question is: What’s the point of having synonyms? Tell me what you think in the comments!