Linguistic Showdown!

By Rob Packer

I was recently confronted and affronted by a friend of a friend. She was from Italy and may have been a plant to ruin my birthday party. It was indeed my party and I could’ve cried if I wanted to, but decided it unseemly for a newly 30-year-old man to blub in a pub in once painfully hip Shoreditch—these days surely merely hip and at some point in the far-off future, just painful. Tears were spared, but teeth were gritted and the anger only subsided when a very good friend I hadn’t seen in six years walked in like a ray of sunshine after the apocalypse.

The party-pooper, who I’ll only refer to as La Ragazza, represented what might be called an interesting thesis, or maybe an “interesting” one. It went something like this: the language of Shakespeare has a narrow vocabulary and not nearly as many as Italian. Seething inside, flabbergasted on the out and secretly wondering if this said more about La Ragazza’s vocabulary than Shakespeare’s, I decided to see where on earth she was coming from. Italy, it turned out: the main crux of her argument was that Italian is derived from Latin and English isn’t. This being, in her view, an open-and-shut case, she then proceeded to shut up expecting me to bow down to her superior language’s vocabulary. Had elaborated to say that Shakespeare derived several of his plots from Ovid, so quid pro quo, I might have been impressed if unconvinced, but she didn’t. As “linguistic altercation” came just above “bar fight” in my list of priorities for the evening, I didn’t bring up the fact that Italian has no word for devolution—it’s normally devolution, when surely its cognate, divoluzione, would do.Nor did I remember my university German teacher who recalled arriving in England from the Rhineland only to discover that English had a word for baby eel, elver. My hands may have been twitching, but I restrained the urge to brain her with—or at least force her to read—an etymological dictionary.

But I digress, quantifying a language’s expressiveness by its vocabulary size is a pseudo-intellectual activity akin to boneheads measuring the size of their bones—and from limited googling, I’ve found out that this is exactly how you measure vocabulary: you check who has the biggest dic-tionary. As far as I’m concerned, the point is moot. While I’m sure someone one day will compare word density between Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Cervantes, Voltaire and any other writer you’d care to mention with the newly invented wordometer, it does—I feel—miss the point. Just because it’s big, doesn’t mean you know how to use it properly. After all, some of the most beautiful poetry in any language is written with some of its simplest words, while language is frequently butchered by leveraging the highfalutin grandiloquence of the most recherché expressions the idiom has to offer. All languages are equally expressive, they’re just expressive in different ways. English famously distinguishes between freedom and liberty; German is infamous for its line-long wonders; Spanish has a beautiful and subtle way with words that also includes verborrea (that’s verbal diarrhoea for people with a word limit in a language that sometimes behaves as if there’s none); and Italian?

Well, Italian is one of the most mellifluous languages that I know (the other is Persian) and—because it’s more of a confederacy of languages than a just one—it has words that no sane person would put in a dictionary. Yes, indeed, it does have a formidable vocabulary, even if in restaurants, it does feel that half of the language is used to describe the gazillions of varieties of pasta (indistinguishable to foreigners but as different as chalk and cheese for Italians). When you read a book in Italian—something I don’t do nearly enough—you’re continually bombarded by words you’ve never heard of, and may never see again. As I write this on my way to Italy, I’m reading Una storia semplice, a novella by the Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, and on page five I was confronted by the beautiful-sounding word, fiumiciattolo: it wasn’t in the dictionary, but it was obvious that it’s a diminutive of fiume (river), so is some kind of stream, but probably one more nuanced than my Italian can even begin to explain—if you know better, please comment.

And I think this—apart from the grow-up argument—was what I should have said to La Ragazza the party-pooper: if you’ve never seen an Italian word, you might be in with a chance of working out what it actually means. In English, however, if you’ve never seen a word like elver, ait or eyot, God help you!


11 Responses to Linguistic Showdown!

  1. Paolo says:

    Hey Rob,

    my feeling is that in Italian the desinenza -ciattolo (only used for a specific set of words) is used to descrive something smaller and weaker than the original thing but also slightly different, somehow imperfect, irregular; in this particular case I would use the word fiumiciattolo to depict a small river, or brook, short and very irregular in its course.

    A few more examples that come to my mind are mostriciattolo and omiciattolo.

    Quanto a ‘La Ragazza’, come scriveva Dante: ‘Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa’.


    • Rob Packer says:

      Hi Paolo,

      Thanks for the comment, and the explanation. I thought there was something funny about -ciattolo. Otherwise Sciascia could have said fiumino, fiumicino, fiumolino, fiumetto, fiumettino, fiumello, fiumicello, fiumerello, fiumicciolo, fiumolo, fiumotto, fiumottino, or any of the other obscure desinenze…

      I love the Dante quotation too – I’ll have to remember that for next time 😉

  2. leifhendrik says:

    As for La Ragazza, perhaps Nabokov’s dictum with regard to irritants would be a apropos: ‘Laughter is the best pesticide.’ Jetting off to Sicily is a good plan too, however, so congratulations on that. And I’d forgotten about ‘elver’. Must use it soon myself.

  3. Paolo says:

    uuuuuu Fiumiciattolo is also one of my favorite words together with borbotto and museruola :). Are you reading Sciascia???? WOW! Impressive. He is an amazing writer but for what I remember he uses a lot of Sicilian words definitively not easy to understand even for an Italian. As for La Ragazza I feel like giving her a raspberry (as a good Italian…. a little bit childish) just because she made you mad during your birthday (Happy birthday by the way :o)

    • Rob Packer says:

      Hi Paolo,
      Thanks for the comment! It really is a beautiful word – and museruola is pretty in a way that muzzle just is not.
      I’m enjoying this Sciascia book (it is very short). Those Sicilianisms do make me feel a bit better about the words I don’t understand 🙂

  4. Marissa says:

    You’re certainly right that the expressiveness of a language doesn’t depend only on the size of its vocabulary. I find Spanish, even with my limited understanding of it, to be more vivid and lyrical than comparable passages of English. Simply for the sake of argument, though, your birthday irritant is wrong–thanks to William the Conqueror and several centuries of empire, English has the largest vocabulary of any European language. I think the endless slightly different synonyms are one of the tools we use in English to manage how polite (or not…) we are to each other, given the absence of a set of formal and informal modes of address, like the romance and slavic languages. (Or either other Germanic ones).

    • Rob Packer says:

      Marissa, I do agree with you about English’s multiple origins has left it with an enormous vocabulary—I had to explain the difference between “shade” and “shadow” today and I never ever want to be asked to give hard and fast rules on the differences between words like “royal”, “regal” and “kingly”. I might be biased, but my gut feeling is that this is right and I’ve seen no explanation at all as to why the Normans, Vikings or Saxons would have jettisoned half their vocabulary in the North Sea or English Channel (which I don’t think they did anyway).

      However, 1) the brief searches that I’ve done on the subject lead to lots of articles by dictionary-measurers and 2) there seems to be a high correlation between the language you search in and the answer you get (dictionary-measuring brigade is particularly keen on discounting archaic words from other languages but would never dream of doing the same in their own). But most importantly, 3) syntax in languages is so different that you can make a word easily in English, in German you create a compound word any time you like and in Spanish or Italian you can choose from a few suffixes but not much else—but not any or all of those would make it to the dictionary.

      Basically, I agree with you, but it’s the kind of argument that quickly leads round in circles and becomes pointless, because people quickly confuse “their vocabulary” with “their language’s vocabulary”.

      [If you want a similarly maddening debate, I can highly recommend playing Count The Continents with someone who happens to not agree with you on how many continents there are in the world. I think the winner in that debate is the first to call a truce…]

      • Marissa says:

        Haha. I’ve never played the continents game, but I’ve had some very pedantic conversations with physicists that might count.

        I don’t think that a measure of a language’s vocabulary is at all a way of quantifying its worth, especially in relation to another language, but I do feel that if someone brings it up and attaches importance to it, and uses it to put down the people in another country, then they should pay attention to the statistics–however meaningless. Particularly if they use Latin origin as proof of superiority.

  5. leifhendrik says:

    It all becomes very crazy and confrontational and reminds me of the ridiculous statements of people who say that English is the language of business, French the language of love, German the language of Science and Spanish…well, I can’t remember now what Spanish is supposed to be. I do become exercised when people start speaking of certain languages as being ‘musical’ simply because they have a lot of vowels and regular word endings and more or less predictable rhythms. That English never seems to make it onto this list always irks me, because I think we have our very own unique rhythm, the result of the welding of the rolling regular rhythms of Norman French and the harder, more guttural and fricative collisions of various Anglo-Saxon and Nordic dialects, among other things. All leading to our marvelous choppiness (I find it marvelous) and unpredictability of intonation which probably sounds anything but musical to some…but of course there are all kinds of music. All of which I’m in favor of.

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