Most people trying to learn a new language will have experienced feelings of intimidation at how quickly native speakers seem to talk. But is this just because non-native speakers need more time to understand what is being said?
Not according to recent research, which implies there may actually be some truth to the belief that some languages are spoken faster than others.
Linguists examining language efficiency tend to investigate how many syllables are needed to convey a certain piece of information. It’s true that some languages seem to pack more syllables into simple phrases than others.
A typical Russian greeting ‘Здравствуйте’ (“Zdrastvooyte”) expends a greater number of syllables than the common Portuguese greeting ‘Olá’. If we consider these greetings in isolation, it’s arguable that Portuguese is the more efficient of the two languages in terms of how economical it is with its syllables when it comes to conveying the greeting.
Research by the University of Lyon and the French National Center for Scientific Research seems to show that some languages are indeed spoken faster than others, in terms of syllables expressed per minute during speech. But the flip side of this is that some languages pack greater meaning into a smaller number of syllables.
A recent French study of the density and speed of 20 languages found Mandarin to be one of the slowest languages examined (in a group including French, English, and Japanese), in terms of syllables spoken per minute. However, it was found that Mandarin was made considerably denser through the use of tones, which have the effect of packing greater meaning into fewer syllables.
By contrast Spanish was found to be significantly less dense than Mandarin but with a much faster speed than both Mandarin and English. Researchers concluded that, by and large, the 20 languages studied tended to manage to convey the same amount of meaning in any unit of time, either through speaking faster or by packing more meaning into their syllables.
Efficiency tricks of language
Apart from using tones – modifying the speaking pitch to convey different meanings for different syllables – languages also use other tricks to communicate information efficiently. These include the use of inflections, ways to modify words to express gender or number, which certain languages use to a greater or lesser extent. English uses relatively few inflections, such as modifying ‘child’ to ‘children’, compared to other languages that manage to add in additional information about status or gender via inflections. Italian will use bambini for a group of boy children, bambine for a group of female ones, or use a diminutive inflection to express that it is a little child being referred to, such as ‘bambinello’.
In some cases the use of tones and inflections can improve language efficiency by packing syllables with greater meaning. It’s also the case that some languages have a greater number of letters at their disposal than others with shorter alphabets. Speakers of Khmer or Georgian have much longer alphabets at their disposal than Samoan or Hawaiian, which only have around a dozen letters.
Longer alphabets usually means shorter words, as shorter alphabets force speakers to reuse letters (and hence syllables) to form distinct words. As a result, languages with larger alphabets can be more efficient in their use of syllables during speech.
Are broader vocabularies more efficient?
It could also be argued that languages with a broader vocabulary also have the potential to be more efficient because they can be more specific.
For example, an English speaker might describe themselves as grumpy or cross if they are mildly angry, and furious or livid if they are extremely angry. Having access to these alternative terms to ‘angry’ makes it possible to convey both the emotion and the degree of it in a single word, rather than having to use the word ‘angry’ with a qualifying term that explains to what degree, such as ‘slightly angry’ or ‘extremely angry’.
Most languages in the world have a broad vocabulary for emotions; it’s usually when it comes to more technical language that the vocabulary narrows. It’s fairly commonly said that Inuit people have a broad vocabulary for describing different kinds of snow and frozen sea ice. One term is used for snow that is falling lightly, another for the kind of fallen snow that makes for a fast base for sledging on.
The Sami also have around a thousand words to describe different kinds of reindeer. These huge vocabularies offer greater language efficiency as it only takes one word to describe an untameable female reindeer rather than the three required to describe her in English.
Communities of like-minded speakers with the same vocabulary, such as a group of Sami herdsmen, would perhaps be very efficient speakers when it came to discussing their specific interests in that particular landscape.
But the world is changing quickly. Whilst traditional societies may be able to express fundamental concepts within their terms of reference with great efficiency, once the Sami herdsmen relocate to another environment their vocabulary may be lost.
Perhaps a lack of specialisation, or a relocation to new and unfamiliar environments, diminishes our language efficiency as we take time to access the vocabulary that we need to convey information efficiently. If this theory is correct then a fast-moving society is likely to lose language efficiency as speakers take time to coin new vocabularies for their new circumstances.
It’s generally thought to be pointless to ask which language has the widest vocabulary. Although English is often described as having the world’s largest vocabulary, this is probably erroneous.
English people have certainly been extremely good for a long period of time at recording their language in written form, meaning fewer antiquated words are lost although they may not be in regular use.
Like all of the world’s languages we’ve probably forgotten far more words than we’ve remembered. Examples include ‘fribbler’, a term to describe a commitment-phobic male lover, and ‘mumpsimus’, to describe a false belief that is nonetheless clung to.
Our historic experiences of being invaded by other language groups such as the Normans, and colonisation of places such as India, supply us with vocabulary that a more isolated society might lack. However, it’s arguable that words like fiancé, rucksack, cummerbund, bungalow, dinghy, loot and bangle are really English, even though they pad out our dictionaries.
In times of yore, English probably had a thousand words to describe the equivalent of reindeer, snow and ice for early Britons, many of which are either forgotten completely or known only to linguistic historians.
The German language’s tendency to cobble a string of words together to create new compound ones, such as ‘leave taking performance’ (Abschiedsvorstellung), means that it has a potentially infinite vocabulary if we were to count every potential combination of words.
It’s arguable that this is less efficient than creating new individual words rather than using compound ones, if we’re judging by the number of syllables required to convey ideas. However, even English has to borrow from German in order to describe the act of taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others (Schadenfreude – literally a compound of ‘harm-joy’), suggesting there may be an efficiency to using compound language which our own lacks.
Research concludes that there is little difference in the relative efficiencies of different languages. This may reflect the likelihood that human minds work at a similar speed irrespective of which language group they belong to.