Language with the smallest vocabulary
Posted: 23 January 2017 06:03 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I wanted to find out which language has the smallest vocabulary. Several sources point to Sranan Tongo, also called Taki Taki, a Surinamese creole. It began as a pidgin but is now the native tongue of tens of thousands of people at least, and is used widely in Suriname as a lingua franca. These same sources state that Sranan Tongo has around 340 words.

I suppose it is not surprising that a language derived from a pidgin has a small base vocabulary. Tok Pisin also has a fairly small vocabulary. What language not derived from a pidgin has the smallest number of words?

Side note:
It occurred to me that the great bulk of the words in English are technical terms, and that in most cases as soon as the word exists in English (or even before it does), the word also exists in other major languages.
Piezoelectricity, gabbro, accrescent, zeugma are words in English, and piezoelettricità, gabbro, accrescente, zeugma are words in Italian.
So we might expect that the comprehensive vocabularies of the major languages that are used in technical communication would be roughly similar. Perhaps I should be asking which language has the smallest number of words barring recent technical borrowings. (Sranan Tongo has not been used much as an academic language but a bit of searching shows that technical words are borrowed freely from Dutch and English as needed.

Hmmm, on that topic: are names of biological taxa English words? For example, are Mammalia, Chordata, Canis lupus words? Would you consider them proper nouns?

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Posted: 23 January 2017 06:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Hmmm, on that topic: are names of biological taxa English words? For example, are Mammalia, Chordata, Canis lupus words? Would you consider them proper nouns?

The question of what is an English word appears simple on the face of it but is in fact unanswerable (unless, of course, you adopt a purely arbitrary criterion, like what is in a particular dictionary).  A few years ago there was a long and contentious LH thread on the topic; I stand by what I said there in the second comment:

If it’s used in an English sentence as a word for an object (rather than as an example of a foreign word), how can it not be considered part of the English lexicon?

I was amazed to find that there are people who do not consider “samovar” an English word, but then people constantly amaze me.

As for your original question about what language has the smallest vocabulary, I’m pretty sure that is also unanswerable.

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Posted: 23 January 2017 07:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Not only is what constitutes an English word a problem, but what constitutes a word in different languages is also a thorny problem. You can’t directly compare the number of words in languages that are agglutinative (juxtaposing multiple morphemes within a single word), analytic (morphemes are separate words), or fusional (morphemes are fused within words). (English tends toward the analytic, but has elements of the other two.) This problem is famously illustrated in the “Eskimo words for snow” question.

A language that remains a pidgin is going to retain a small vocabulary, but as it becomes a creole the vocabulary will rapidly expand to equal that of other languages. If one accounts for differences in education, the working vocabulary of any speaker, regardless of language, is going to contain roughly the same number of words. English has so many words primarily because 1) it is the global lingua franca of academic, political, diplomatic, technical, and commercial discourse, and 2) it is better documented than most. But the average English speaker doesn’t use more words than speakers of other languages.

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Posted: 23 January 2017 12:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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OP Tipping - 23 January 2017 06:03 AM

These same sources state that Sranan Tongo has around 340 words.

I would be interested to see these sources. It’s hard for me to believe that a language should have only 340 words.

Anyway, a quick Google search led me to this online dictionary which seems to already offer more than that:
SIL Sranan Tongo Online Dictionary

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Posted: 23 January 2017 06:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I would be interested to see these sources.

http://www.vistawide.com/languages/language_statistics.htm
http://tinyurl.com/theanthropologyofart
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/8558609/The-worlds-languages-factfile.html

In this piece, Robert Lindsay refutes a claim by Marilyn vos Savant that Tiki-tiki [sic] has 250 words, but I can’t find the original MvS article.
https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/tiki-tiki-has-250-words/

It seems to be one of those popular factoids that might once have had a grain of truth (eg perhaps the original pidgin was only designed with 340 words).

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Posted: 24 January 2017 01:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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OP Tipping - 23 January 2017 06:09 PM

In this piece, Robert Lindsay refutes a claim by Marilyn vos Savant that Tiki-tiki [sic] has 250 words, but I can’t find the original MvS article.
https://robertlindsay.wordpress.com/2010/09/25/tiki-tiki-has-250-words/

Thanks for this link. The info there and in linked sources show to me that this claim about 340 words is clearly nonsense.

It may be that the original source of the claim is the 1971 Guinness Book of World Records:
Reddit thread about Taki Taki

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Posted: 03 February 2017 10:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I have alerted Will Self to Taki Taki.

A bit off topic, I remember reading in Peter Farb’s 1970s’ book that Hawaiian has the least number of phonemes, which may be right but isn’t any kind of hindrance, of course.

Indeed, there are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet. Of these, h, k, l, m, n, p, and w are consonants and a, e, i o, u are vowels.
Hawaiian is known for having one of the smallest phonological system inventories in the world, mainly because it has so few consonant phonemes–only eight. Rotokas, a Papuan language, is reputed to have the smallest inventory of consonant phonemes–only six.The dearth of consonant phonemes is due to a number of historical mergers of Proto-Polynesian consonants in Hawaiian (Lyovin 258).

Here.

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Posted: 03 February 2017 02:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Hawaiian does have very few phonemes, but is not quite the recordholder; to quote Mikael Parkvall’s The Limits of Language, which I highly recommend for this sort of thing:

The smallest phonemic inventory of a human language is probably that of Pirahã, a little-known language spoken by a couple of hundred people in the Amazonas. Pirahã has three vowels (/a, i, o/) and only eight consonants (/p, t, k, ɂ, b, g, s, h/). It thus has eleven phonemes, which would put it on par with its close relative Mura and with Rotokas of Melanesia and some Western Lakes Plain languages of New Guinea such as Obukuitai (Foley 2000:367).

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Posted: 05 February 2017 01:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Still, I do wonder what would be the smallest possible vocabulary of a natural human language. Presumably there was some time in prehistory when the biggest language had 300 words, 200 words, 100 words.
Ogden’s 850 word Basic English is not technically a natural language, I suppose, but it would be quite workable as a complete language for a people without much cultural or technological specialisation.

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Posted: 05 February 2017 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I’m not sure about that. Our brains can easily hold several thousand words, so the growth of vocabulary would be rapid. And it would probably happen before the development of the grammatical structures that would qualify it as a “language.” There’s a Jack Russell terrier that knows some 2,000 “words” (i.e., discrete names for objects), but obviously doesn’t have a language.

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Posted: 05 February 2017 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Coming across this thread while scanning my bookmarks labeled ‘’daily’’ I had these questions flash through my mind.  What would our lives look and sound like without superlatives? How import is it consider all these gradations? Does the ‘smallest language’ have a mechanism to to express ‘’smallest’’?

[ Edited: 05 February 2017 08:44 AM by droogie ]
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Posted: 05 February 2017 09:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Evidently there are some Australian Aboriginal languages that lack comparative and superlative forms, but they get around that by using various periphrastic constructions. I don’t know enough to give examples or details.

The general rule is that if a particular grammatical construction is missing from a language, there is still a way to express the concept.

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Posted: 05 February 2017 03:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Dave Wilton - 05 February 2017 06:18 AM

Our brains can easily hold several thousand words, so the growth of vocabulary would be rapid. And it would probably happen before the development of the grammatical structures that would qualify it as a “language.” e.

Could you tell me more about this, please?

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Posted: 06 February 2017 04:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I was just thinking of basic vocabulary. People habitually use about 2,000 words that make up the core of their vocabulary and have about 20,000 that are within their active vocabulary. (These are gross estimates, not precise figures.) Learning words is simply a function of memory, one of the fundamental functions of cognition and one that is shared with many other species.

Grammar, on the other hand, is far more complex. It just makes sense that this aspect of language would develop later. It’s also one that is, as far as we know, unique to humans. So long before you have something that can be called a language, an extensive vocabulary of at least several thousand words has already developed.

If you think of pidgins, they develop a fairly extensive vocabulary, then a simple grammar to go along with it. They remain in that arrested, half-a-language state until and unless they start to have native speakers, at which point a complex grammar develops and they cease to be pidgins (although sometimes they retain that name).

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