The most compact language

Discussion in 'All Languages' started by JLanguage, May 16, 2005.

  1. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.

  2. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    German - because you can always create megawords:)

  3. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    But seriously: I believe it won't be any of Slavic languages. Whenever I translate something in English, I end up with a shorter text.

  4. melusines Member

    Belgium French
    Have you thought about Hebrew? Due to the grammatical particularity of Hebrew that allows the concatenation of prepositions, pronouns etc to the nouns, verbs etc, the ultimate of words used to build a sentence is drastically reduced. From experience, I know that translation from English to Hebrew gives 2/3 of the number of words.
  5. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    No definitely not! When I translate any English text into German, it looks much longer and the English one looks totally compact.
  6. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    What about Latin? From what I've studied so far, it seems like it's more compcact because it doesn't need as many linking words.
  7. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Yes, you're right. Only think of the ablative:

    mercatore (= by/through the merchant)
  8. ayed

    ayed Senior Member

    Here are some Arabic joined words:

    1-Bowl dog : Meelughuh"ميلغه"

    dog laped up some water .So, laped up here means"walagha""ولغ"

    2-Incense burner: Mibkhuruh "مبخرة"

    3-Predawn repast "suhoor""سحور".It comes from sahar , the wee hours of dawn.
    4-Morning skimmed milk"laban" called "subooh""صبوح"It is derived from "sabah"morning"
    5-Sunset skimmed milk"laban"called "ghubooq"غبوق"

    just keep this topic up.
  9. germinal

    germinal Senior Member

    Bradford, England
    England English
    Why not set a sample sentence or maybe a paragraph and invite translations so that we can compare the results directly? :) Germinal.
  10. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Yes, good idea.

    Let me begin with Jonathan's first sentence:

    Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.

    In German:

    In welcher Sprache lassen sich die Gedanken in so wenig wie möglich Worte fassen? Ich hoffe auf eine schöne Diskussion.

    Hm... German is longer.
  11. JJchang Senior Member

    NZ - English, Chinese
    Chinese is very space efficient.

    哪種話可用最少的字表達意見? 希望這討論會很有意思.
    Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.

    et voila.

    The classical Chinese can shorten the length even further, but I don't want to embarrass myself in case someone else writes the classical Chinese better.
  12. germinal

    germinal Senior Member

    Bradford, England
    England English

    Interesting Chang- you appear to have 27 separate ideograms there, as opposed to 18 words in English. Is one ideogram, which expresses an idea, the equivalent of one word or maybe several words?

    It is difficult to make a comparison between two entirely different systems.

    I have often wondered how easy it is to read as the ideograms are drawn very finely in newspapers etc.

    Germinal :)
  13. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    Well, I think Chinese might win this competition, but we shall see.
  14. elroy

    elroy Imperfect Mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual

    .في أي لغة يعبر عن الأفكار في أقل عدد من الكلمات؟ أتشوق إلى نقاش جيد

    (15 words)

    In general, Arabic is a very "compact" language. For example, the sentence "I will help you" is expressed with one word in Arabic. For starters, there is one word for "I help" (a letter is added to the stem for "help" to indicate the first person singular). Another letter is added to the end of the word to indicate a second person singular object. Then another letter is added to the beginning to indicate the future tense.

    Another example from colloquial Arabic. There is a one-word expression, transliterated "tistahbilnish," in spoken Palestinian Arabic that means "Do not treat me as if you thought I were stupid." It literally means "Do not consider me a fool." Either way, that's a lot of compact information in one word.

    I obviously don't know all of the languages in the world, but if I had to vote for the most compact language I would choose Arabic.
  15. JJchang Senior Member

    NZ - English, Chinese
    germinal, theoretically one character has one meaning, but I was writing in colloquial way and use two words to repeat the same meaning twice (表達, 意見 etc.) so people won't find it awkward to read.

    They are all just symbols, so you can tell which word is which really quickly. It's like male and female sign, all of us can recognise instantly which one is which, right?:D
  16. germinal

    germinal Senior Member

    Bradford, England
    England English

    Er.....Right!! - thanks. :) Germinal.
  17. Jana337

    Jana337 Senior Member

    Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.

    In Czech:

    Který jazyk umí vyjádřit myšlenky nejmenším počtem slov? Doufám v hezkou diskusi. (12)

    Better (=shorter) than I expected! We do not use articles and do not have to use personal pronouns in the nominative.
  18. winnie

    winnie Senior Member

    italy, italian
    quale lingua può esprimere i concetti con il minor numero di parole? spero che la discussione sia proficua. (18)

    same as the original one.
  19. JJchang Senior Member

    NZ - English, Chinese
  20. gliamo Senior Member

    France, French
    Quelle langue permet d'exprimer des idées avec le moins de mots? J'en attends une bonne discussion. (18 words)

  21. Tabac Senior Member

    Pacific Northwest (USA)
    U. S. - English
    It's what is called agglutinative (adding suffixes to change the part of speech, the use in the sentence, or to make what English would call a relative clause).
    Here's an extreme example, not a very likely sentence, perhaps, but totally possible. (2 words)

    Gidemiyeceginizi bilmiyordum = I didn't know that you wouldn't be able to go.
  22. AkErBeLtZ Member

    Euskara; Euskal Herria
    Zein hizkuntzak adieraz ditzake ideiak hitz kopuru txikienean? Eztabaida on batez gozatzea espero dut. (14 words)
  23. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    First a small note: Chinese characters aren't ideograms. Or rather, only a few characters could be labeled as such. See also here.

    In modern Chinese, there isn't always a one to one correspondence between a character and a word.
    A simple example:
    我 wo3 = I (me, ...): one word, one character
    我们 wo3men = we (us, ...): one word, two characters.
    One of the most striking features of Chinese throughout history is the (ever) increasing use of polysyllabic words. Here you find some more information.


  24. linguist786 Senior Member

    Blackburn, England
    English, Gujarati & Urdu
    I haven't read the whole thread, but I would definitely say Arabic.
  25. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    Okay, we have mentioned Latin, so here you go:

    Quae lingua sententias exprimere potest in quam paucissimis verbis? Sermonem iucundum spero. (12 words)
  26. DrWatson

    DrWatson Senior Member


    Mikä kieli voi ilmaista asioita vähimmällä sanamäärällä? Toivon saavani nauttia hyvästä keskustelusta. (12 words)
  27. karuna

    karuna Senior Member

    The planet Earth
    Latvian, Latvia

    Kurā valodā idejas var izteikt vismazāk vārdos? Ceru uz interesantu diskusiju. (11 words)

    But this is a very small sample. Latvian translation normally has less words than English but the translated text is approximately of the same length. It would be interesting to compare which text would take less time to read it loadly.
  28. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    And how would you do that? Do you want everyone to record the text and attach it to his/her post? :)
  29. karuna

    karuna Senior Member

    The planet Earth
    Latvian, Latvia
    No, recording would probably be too difficult for most forers to do.

    I mean, we know that translating from language X into language Y in general the text becomes longer or shorter if counting by words or by characters. But this is rather meaningless between languages with very different writing systems, for example, English and Chinese. The time required reading each respective text could be more informative.

    The idea is that we would need a text about one paragraph or several sentences long that is already properly translated into many languages. And then each forer could record the time in seconds it took to read it loadly with normal speed. And then post the results here for comparison.
  30. Ander Senior Member

    Isn't it possible to say in German: "Welche Sprache fasst Gedanken mit den wenigsten Worten?"

    That's 8 words instead of 11 or 14.
  31. Whodunit

    Whodunit Senior Member

    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I think that's not always very reliable because I may read much faster than my neighbor or my classmates. On the other hand, there are many people who read much faster than I do.

    The first part is possible, but I don't like the second. My suggestion, based on your version, would be:

    Welche Sprache fasst Gedanken in die wenigsten Worte?
  32. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)

    Que língua consegue exprimir ideias com menos palavras? Espero gozar de uma boa discussão. (14 words)
    There are other ways to say this, though.
  33. Joannes Senior Member

    Belgian Dutch
    Yes, I guess so too. After non-verbal communication and pragmatics, but I suppose they don't count? :D

    The test sentences in Dutch, by the way:
    Welke taal kan ideeën uitdrukken met het minste woorden? Ik hoop op een goede discussie. (15 words)
  34. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    That depends on how you define "word". Also, separating an utterance into words is very much a matter of convention (e.g. in Croatian, it can be a major pain to remember if a preposition should be written separately or as a prefix of the following word; the rules for this are often arbitrary). In some languages, single "words" can be as internally complex (and long!) as whole phrases and sentences in others.

    There are languages that make German look quite simplistic in this regard. :D
  35. Qcumber Senior Member

    UK English
    Arabic, Chinese and Hebrew point at the necessity to reformulate the question in linguistic terms. For instance: what language uses the smallest number of morphemes (lexemes and grammemes) to express the following idea: "Women spend more time than men in the kitchen."?
  36. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    This would unfortunately still be far from a controlled experiment. We would have to control for at least two important additional effects:

    (1) Similarity to the original language of the text. When translating into a language with a very different grammar and vocabulary, there is a strong tendency to make translations too long, sometimes much longer than if someone were expressing the same thoughts via an original text in the target language.

    (2) Individual stylistic differences between translators -- some people (e.g. me :D) have a tendency to always be long-winded in writing.

    Here's my idea for a controlled experiment: show a few simple pictures to a mixed-language audience and ask them to write down precise descriptions of what's being shown. Check each text that it indeed covers all the necessary details, and nothing else. That way, we avoid the effect (1). Also, make sure that there are at least ten people independently producing texts in each tested language, and take their average to avoid the effect (2). This is of course impractical without a substantial budget and effort, but alas, it usually takes a lot of both to do good science.

    I strongly suspect that the results would be more or less even across languages, because the human brain always requires a specific level of redundancy in information to be able to communicate reliably, and more redundancy than this necessary level is wasteful.
  37. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Very true, and this is a problem I've always had with attempts to compare the length of sentences in two languages. The translator just has to come across an idiom for which he can't recall an equivalent expression in the target language, and bang! -- you get a much longer periphrasis. Also, I feel that native speakers can usually express themselves in a more concise way that non-natives. :thumbsup:
  38. jonquiliser

    jonquiliser Senior Member

    Svediż tal-Finlandja
    Anyway, there seems to be some unclarity here about what constitutes brevity. I'm pretty sure Finnish can shrink the number of words a little, but often the text as a whole (the number of letters) might be longer than, say, an English equivalent text.

    Anyway, true as you say that in translating, sometimes the translation takes too much from the original and thus isn't as it would be "spontaneously" said.
  39. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Yes, it would be interesting to investigate whether shorter sentences correlate with longer words. :)
    Across languages, I mean.
  40. karuna

    karuna Senior Member

    The planet Earth
    Latvian, Latvia
    This is what an inexperienced translator would do. Professional translations should never show the influence of the source language. In fact, it is harder to hide this influence between more similar languages because you invariably tend to follow the source language structure. On the other hand while translating between dissimilar languages you can focus more on the actual ideas.

    However, the problem is with the cultural differences; when one language has certain notions and idiomatic expressions etc. that does not exist in another language, then it requires more words to explain them.

    How much impact comes from the translation process could be analized by performing translations in both directions with different texts.

    While individual styles and preferences certainly exist, I would suspect any translation that is considerably longer or shorter than average. While it is not scientific, it is a well accepted fact among Russian translators that the Russian translation by character count is about 10% longer than the English source but in the terms of the word count it is about 15% shorter. At least the tendency is very clear.

    I just want to know the ballpark figure of the third parameter: how much time it takes to read the same text in different languages. This information could be very useful for interpreters.
  41. Daimflo New Member

    Chile, Español
    I agree with Karuna. The length of a sentence can vary depending of the dialect, and an unexperienced translator will also make longer sentences. For example:

    "Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion."

    What I would say, neutral:

    "¿Qué idioma puede expresar ideas en el menor número de palabras? Espero disfrutar una buena discusión." (15 words against 18, but the sentence is written with longer words)

    And shortened:

    "¿Qué idioma expresa las mismas ideas en menos palabras? Espero gozar de una buena discusión." (now I've got less characters than the English sentence)

    The length of sentences greatly depends of the translator, and the context (or lack of it) of the sentence, translated and not translated.

    Anyway, regardless of the "context compression" and the "translator compression", Spanish is a long language, and I've heard that is the most difficult language to learn.
  42. Athaulf

    Athaulf Senior Member

    Toronto, Canada
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    Does this really generalize to all sorts of texts? I'd be really surprised if these figures turn out to be the same regardless of whether one translates a novel, a scientific article, an everyday conversation, etc.

    Assuming exactly the same information content, I would expect the time to be approximately the same for all languages. Human brains are the same everywhere, and demand the same level of information redundancy and the same rate of information flow to achieve the same level of reliability and clarity in communication. Different amounts of information per unit of time would mean that some languages are inherently clearer and more understandable than others, which would be surprising for natural languages. Although I don't know much about linguistics, this conclusion seems to directly follow from information theory and some common-sense assumptions.
  43. ham_let Member

    Ottawa, ON
    Canada / English
    Are we talking about words, syllables, or space-wise?

    Chinese saves A LOT of space as far as written text is concerned (although many languages can be written much smaller and still be legible, while chinese has to be at least a certain size for it to be legible)

    English is efficient in that a lot can be said in just a few syllables.
  44. tom_in_bahia Senior Member

    Teixeira de Freitas, BA, Brasil
    South Florida/Phoenix-Tucson/the Adirondacks. Native of North American English
    Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.

    Ki lang ka eksprime ide-yo ak mwenn mo? M' swete jiwi youn bon koze.
    (Haitian Creole)

    -one word infinitives
    -no conjugation for persons
    -static verbs (no copula necessary with adjectives)
    -verb tenses are marked with pre-verb particles (te, ta, pwal, ap)
    -isolating language and most words are mono- or bisyllabic
    -definite articles and demonstratives are suffixed
    -Subject and object pronouns are the same
    -Allows for single consonant sound contractions of pronouns
    -*In comparison with French (one of the derivative languages), the orthographical reform makes the following words much shorter:

    Example with a sentence:

    Je ne serai pas capable de vous aider à écrire cettes petites histoires pour votre cours d'espagnol.
    M' pa pwal ka ede'w ekri ti istwa-sa-yo pou kous panyol'w.
  45. linguist786 Senior Member

    Blackburn, England
    English, Gujarati & Urdu
    English: Which language can express ideas in the least amount of words? I hope to enjoy a good discussion.
    Gujarati: કઈ ભાષા માં કશું વસ્તુ બધા કરતા ઓછાં શબ્દો માં બોલાય શકે છે? હું એક રસિક ચર્ચા ની આશા રાખું છું.
    Hindi: कौन सी भाषा में किसी वस्तु को सब से थोडे शब्दो में कही जा सकती हैं? मैं एक विनोदी चर्चा की आशा रखता हूँ.
    Urdu: كون سى زبان ميں كسى چيز كو سب سے تهوڑے الفاظ ميں كہى جا سكتى ہے؟ مي ايک دلچسپ مناظره كى اميد ركهتا ہوں

    English: 18 words
    Gujarati: 21 words
    Hindi: 24 words
    Urdu: 24 words

    I think all Indo-Iranian languages (Punjabi/Bengali/Farsi, etc) will be really uneconomical in terms of number of words used. We have a lot of functional words I think, which may be one of the causes.
  46. Kael Member

    Quae lingua informationes minimis numeris verborum effari potest? Bonum consilium fuari spero. (12)

    Edit: Didn't see someone already posted a reply in latin! Same number of words though.
  47. Alijsh Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    kodâm zabân mitavânad andishe râ dar kamtarin vâže beguyad? omidvâram bahse khubi dâšte bâšim. (14 words)

    کدام زبان میتواند اندیشه را در کمترین واژه بگوید؟ امیدوارم بحث خوبی داشته باشیم.
  48. Alijsh Senior Member

    Persian - Iran
    As for the most compact languages, I say agglutinative languages like Turkish. Persian has agglutination but not as extensively as in an agglutinative language. For example, khândeamash is a single word and means "I have read it". As you see it's expressed with four words in English. Arabic has also some degree of agglutination.

    An example from Turkish: Evinizdeyim (I am at your house). Colloquial Persian: khunatam (it's also a single word as in Turkish because tu which means at drops in colloquial. So in the end it will be two owrds: tu khunatam).

    But Turkish gelememiş (I gather s/he couldn't come), gelebilirsen (if you can come) can no longer be expressed in a single word in Persian.

    - Turkish examples were taken from here
  49. Staarkali

    Staarkali Senior Member

    It's hard to tell, some languages as German can have compound words but they are very long, some others express the same idea with a lot of little words, such as French or Italian (some words only got one letter)

    In term of space efficiency, Chinese is far away from all others, for at least 2 reasons; the 1st is that there is not articles and there is no compound verb forms ("would have been coming" => no).
    The 2nd reason is that there is thousands of "letters", thats exactly the same difference binary and hexadecimal: the bigger is the base, the smaller are the number to express the same value.
  50. Honour Senior Member

    Türkçe, Türkiye

    I agree with you. In agglutinative languages many states, cases, conjugations get together to form s single word.
    For instance, konuştuklarımızdan hiçbir şey anlamamıştım.

    From what we had talked nothing i hadn't got.

    Disassembly:D of the word konuştuklarımızdan takes place in the following order:
    konuş-tu-k-lar-ımız-dan: talk-ed-(we)-s(plural suffix)-our-from
    it is something like from, our, we have talkeds.

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