Is English more compact than other languages?


There seem to be a lot of very short words in the English language. For example, there are lots of words that contain only three or four letters. If you compare English to your native language or any other language you know, do you think that English is a rather compact language? I mean, if you translate a text from English into another language, is the translation longer, shorter or about the same size?[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, photographs: A keep fit class[YSaerTTEW443543]


I think Chinese is the most compact. BTW, coincident or not, many or more than many ‘dirty words’ in English happen to be four letters.


When planning a magazine or brochure layout that is to appear in English and some other languages, graphic designers are told to leave about 25% extra space to accommodate the French, Spanish or Italian translation. However, I’ve seen very good French translators who can create a translation into French that is the same length as the English or shorter. This added length in the Romance languages is mainly due to their use of prepositions where English would instead form compound words.

In my experience, a translation from Czech or Slovak into English comes out about a quarter to a third shorter, often because the formality level of the former languages calls for verbosity that is inappropriate in English. The same is sometimes true of German, but not always. In other instances, Czech, Slovak and German are MORE compact than English, because they use gender and inflectional suffixes where English would use separate words.

Haihao, I think it’s hard to say whether Chinese is more compact or not. If you translate an English phrase like “a boy on a table” or “a man and a woman under an airplane” I think you’ll get a much longer phrase. It’s the same when you want to express the concept of some English verb tense. Other things are more compact, though.

What I think is cool when comparing Chinese to English, though, is how many things are exactly the same. You’ve probably heard in music and slangy speech when English speakers say, “He’s a-running,” or, “That kid’s a-screaming,” or, “I’m a-reading a book.” Do you know where that “a-” comes from? It originally was the preposition “at”. “I’m a-reading,” was originally, “I’m at reading,” which in Chinese is, “Wo zai kan.” The same thing!


Translating into Japanese takes up less space on the page, since there are more, more meaningful, more complex letters, but the Japanese translation may require more phonemes.


O Jamie, you surprized me! “Wo zai kan.” = I at read (I’m at reading), really same thing! Others apply too well too, don’t they? “He’s a-running,” = ta zai pao. “That kid’s a-screaming,” = ta zai jiao.

However, I’d like to try to translate your longer phrase into shorter Chinese. Let’s see:

“a boy on a table” -> nanhai zai zhuo shang. OMG, longer. I lose this one.
“a man and a woman under an airplane” -> yinan yinv zai feiji xia. Hot dog! I don’t lose this one.


BTW, I am also impressed with what Jamie said as “English would use separate words”. I have been thinking of it for a long time whether it’s a feature of modern English to use verb + particle rather than combination words, such as ‘stand by’ rather than ‘bystand’, which I suspect used to be the word because we still have the word ‘bystander’. Except a few words like ‘understand’, English has taken apart long combination word into independent single words so as to become a language excellent in spatial description with so many and so free a combination of verb + particle.

Just FYI, 200 English words would be translated into 400 Japanese characters on average whereas only about 300 Chinese characters are needed to do the same thing.


Here’s an example for more English verbosity when translated from German:

Turnbeutelvergesserfundbüro - lost-and-found office for people who lose their sports bags

The great thing about German is that it can often serve as ‘a device of high potential’ (Potentialträger) for creating compound nouns. But it’s downside potential ( Abschwächungsmöglichkeitpotential) can be seen in brackets here.


Hi, Jamie

I have never heard “I’m a-running” or the like, but I’ve heard expressions like this:

…or I’ma kill you (by Eminem)

I’m sure he’s making a threat by saying that phrase, and I think that what he means is “…or I will kill you”.

Where do you think that way of forming the future tense comes from ? Does that “a” stand for “at” ?


Exactly, Alex
I’d interpret “I’ma kill you” to be a short form of “I’m gonna kill you” – which is, of course, a short form of “I am going to kill you”. 8)


“I am going to kill you.” =>
“I’m going to kill you.” =>
“I’m gonna kill you.” =>
“Ah monna kill you.” (dialect) =>
“Ah mo kill you.” (dialect) =>
“Ah ma kill you.” (dialect) =>

“I’m a-workin’,” “He’s a-runnin’,” “They’re a-dancin’,” etc., come from a construction from hundreds of years ago, in which a present continuous form was made like this: be + at + gerund

So, originally the sentences would have been, “I am at working,” “He is at running,” “They are at dancing,” etc. The “at” got shortened to a schwa, and in this form it survives in a lot of rural dialects both in the UK and the US, and especially in southern US dialects, many of which have forms left over from Middle English or even before.


Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Thanks a lot :slight_smile: