Is German more 'precise' than English?

I’ve noticed that sometimes we have two or more words in English for different things where in English we have just one word. Does that mean that German is a more ‘precise’ language than English? Here are some examples:
room (Zimmer, Raum)
wall (Wand, Mauer)
nurse (Krankenschwester, Kindermädchen)
belt (Gurt, Gürtel)

I know that the English language has at least as many words as German does. It’s just that sometimes we distinguish between things (as in Gurt/Gürtel) where English speakers don’t. I’m sure it can work the other way round too.

What do you think?

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Hi Torsten,

This is a common notion dispelled in any Intro to Linguistics class. Any language has the sufficient vocabulary and degrees of precision deemed necessary by the native speakers.

What one language ‘lacks’ in terms of specificity in one area, is always balanced out by a higher number of specific number of vocabulary words in another area.

The common (slightly misquoted) example is the difference in winter weather vocabulary between the Inuit language and English. Due the nature of the world the Inuit live in, they have a much higher percentage of their vocabulary dealing with specific types of snow, ice, wind, and other cold weather aspects, where English could be seen as ‘crude’, since we’re limited to relatively fewer distinctions between snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain, etc. Does that mean English is less specific than Inuit overall? No, of course not, but in terms of winter weather phenomena, Inuit has a larger vocabulary with more distinctions than English, because it’s a much more important factor in their lives, due to geography.

To use your nurse example, English does make some distinctions more precise than ‘nurse’. We have CNA, RN, LPN, Nurse Practitioners, and more that I’m not even aware of. These can all be lumped under the general term ‘nurse’, or if you choose to delve into the medical jargon, there’s a wide variety of distinctions available, and necessary for those in the medical field. Not being in the medical field, I personally can get by in my speech calling them all ‘nurses’.

I often get frustrated by my Spanish speaking students, who will use the word ‘calabaza’ for any type of squash or gourd. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to think it important to distinguish between a pumpkin, zucchini, yellow squash, butternut squash, acorn squash, or any gourd. If I insist, they’ll make the distinctions in English, but when they revert to Spanish they’re all just ‘squash’. Drives me nuts, but it’s not my prerogative to change how they use Spanish.

In short, for every case you can find that once language is more specific in vocabulary for a given area than another language, you can find examples where that other language is more precise or has a larger lexicon in a different area.

Now, I would agree that German is a more literal language. :lol:

Put it like this: is language X, which has 10 words and no redundancy, necessarily more precise than language Y, which has 9 words and no redundancy?

No, because we also have to consider the scope for relationships between words, in X and Y.


Coincidentally I had asked exactly same question to one English Bishop,he had been sailing with us for some time as the passanger, he was retired as I remeber and it was around 1995 1998 and he spoke German without accent,that time I have been on a German ship and with German crew and very keen to study German.

His answer was as I can now remember something like.

My poor son You got that impression just because you know so little about English.

of course it was in English.


bless you sinner

Hi Skrej and MrP,

I absolutely agree with you when you say there is no such thing as a ‘more precise language’. The English language has even a larger total amount of words than German. It might be at a more basic vocabulary level that in English you can use one word for a variety of things. Here is another example. In English we just say ‘words’ while in German it can be either “Wörter” or “Worte” depending on the context.[YSaerTTEW443543]

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