Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Precision, nuance and efficiency

From the always rewarding Language Log, Economy of Expression by Victor Mair.

Mair is pointing out one half of a phenomenon which amounts to a paradox. Mair draws attention to the capacity of English for high density communication, also known as terseness. Much communicated with little. He offers these examples.
Flying back from Vienna on Austrian Airlines yesterday, I saw the following notices printed on the back of the seat in front of me:
Gurte während des sitzens geschlossen halten*

Fasten seat belt while seated

*some airlines begin this sentence with a "bitte", which would make the German even longer
Die schwimmweste befindet sich unter ihrem sitz

Life vest under your seat
As so many times before, I was struck by the terseness of English.
He links to a couple of other posts he has done making the same point but comparing English to Japanese, Russian, Chinese and French.

The paradox is that while English is able to communicate with great density (much meaning, few words), it is also the largest language in the world. See my post The English language hasn't got where it is by being pure. English has between 450,000 and 650,000 words depending on which dictionary you choose to use as your base. In contrast, German, according to traditional estimates, has a vocabulary of about 185,000, Russian 130,000, and French fewer than 100,000.

To reinforce Mair's point above about the efficiency of the English language, here is another way of looking at it. Despite having so many more words, fewer words and syllables are required to transmit the critical information. The number of syllables required to translate the Gospel of Mark into each language.
English 29,000
Teutonic languages (average) 32,650
French 36,500
Slavic languages (average) 36,500
Romance languages (average) 40,200
Indo-Iranian languages (average) 43,100
The upshot is that with a much larger vocabulary but also a much more efficient communication structure, English is both highly efficient but also has the capacity for great precision and nuance.

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