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Updated: Feb 1

There are about six times more words in the English language than in French. As of 2021 the Complete Oxford Dictionary has 600,000 unique words against 100,000 words (totaling 350,000 meanings) for the Grand Robert (the most complete French dictionary). The majority of the people only know from 15,000 to 30,000 words, and even good writers rarely know more than 50,000 words (in a same language). This gives an idea of the huge diversity of vocabulary and nuances available to users of English."

I love it !

I never realized there were so many more words in English than in French. I mean why would I ? I just fell upon the information by chance when I was looking for some info on the English language I could share for a post :-)

OK so once I had that info, I paid attention to when I was talking in one or the other of the languages. I now am aware of the fact that I am a lot more specific in English than in French. I realize that when I disagree with someone, I'm much better at explaining and convincing when I speak English than when I speak French because the words I use are very specific and I waste less energy on giving more context (should I be admitting that?).

Building on this new knowledge, I'm now consciously aware of things I intrinsically knew but that I never stopped to think about. Here are a few words that can get pretty confusing in French if you don't have context. While sometimes the context is obvious, other times you have to make sure you add a sentence that completes the idea you're trying to express.

This is true of any language of course, but a language with less words and therefore more words that can have multiple meanings (ie: French), might need a tad bit more context than one with many very specific unique meanings (ie: English). To be observed more closely by myself when I speak either language.

« 100,000 words (totaling 350,000 meanings) for the Grand Robert », entails that many words have more than one meaning in French and while sometimes which meaning we mean is obvious, other times , context if of the essence.

Here are a few concrete examples of French words that translate into 2 different words in English depending on the context:

Haut et fort, loud and strong

« Strong » vs « loud » which in French both translate into « fort ».

How does the person I’m talking to know, when I use « fort » whether I mean « strong » or mean « loud » ?

Contexte obviously. If I’m talking to someone about the concert I went to and how strong the music was, they would have no doubt about the fact that the music was « loud ».

Livre l'étranger de Camus

Here’s another trickier example: "Stranger" and "Foreigner"

In French there’s just one word « Etranger ». Camus' book L’étranger, was translated in English as « The stranger » although in a way, it’s also about a foreigner. But that’s neither here nor there.

Ok I’m back (bring up one of my favorite books of all times and I get easily distracted).

Now if I tell a child that he shouldn’t talk to strangers, in France the sentence « il ne faut pas parler aux étrangers » could translate into « don’t talk to foreigners » or « don’t talk to strangers ». Contexte here is very very important.

Another interesting example is "wild" and "savage".

Wild animal

In French "wild" and "savage" both translate to "sauvage". A movie title such as "into the wild" can't be translated in French, it would be "into the savage" (in fact it was not translated in France; in Quebec they translated "towards the unknown"). The Wild West would become "the savage west", so it's called "le far west" instead, go figure ! :-)

I've found myself having a hard time explaining the word "wild" to a French speaker.

Wilderness can't be translated either. In French we would say "the savage area" or the "savage area".

There are also words that just don't exist in French while they exist in English (the opposite is also true, but let's stay with French for this blog's sake).

Shallow sea

This following example is the one that resonates most with me because I love being in water and I always found it very strange (étrange) that it didn't exist in French: "shallow".

"Shallow" doesn't exist as an opposite of "deep" when referring to waters.

If we want to refer to the shallow end of the pool, we'd say "pas profonde - not deep". Here we do have to use a little more words, not for context but just because you need 2 words where in English you need just one.

If however, I was referring to a shallow person, I would use the word "superficiel" as I might also do in English.

street art - expensive and cheap

Expensive or "pas cher"

One last example because this one word is so convenient and I never could understand that it doesn't exist in French !

There no word in French to say the opposite of "expensive", we say "pas cher" (not expensive) or "donné" (given) or "bon marché" (good market- not used so much anymore).

The word "cheap" itself is now used in French but to mean "of bad quality", so it's a derogatory term.

While I have to investigate further, I think these 2 types of examples might explain why a French translation of an English sentence is almost always longer. When I was translating 1-page marketing documents from English to French, it was a challenge to have a 1-page French end-result. French texts are always longer than English ones. The French version of books for instance, is always longer than the English version.

  • 1984 (Georges Orwell) : 328 pages in English - 400 pages in French

  • L'étranger (Albert Camus) : 159 pages in English - 194 pages in French

  • The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) : 182 pages in English - 250 pages in French

It could be due to the vocabulary as the few examples above have shown, it could also be due to cultural differences in the way we express ourselves.

When I first moved to France and worked in a French company, I was told my emails were too short. And by short they meant length and tone. I came through as a little rude, maybe to "dry". This was 15 years ago and I'm almost sure that it would no longer be the case today, but it goes to show.

How is that useful for you O language learner or language lover? well knowing that the French need to use more words to explain a similar idea, or that native speakers of the English language have more words to choose from when they want to describe or explain something, might help you understand the language and then some.

It might also help you in one important thing as a language learner: stop comparing your language level to that of natives. While there is an obvious difference in how the language itself is used, culture is also something you have to take into consideration. Maybe you come from a culture where people don't talk as much or on the country from a culture where people talk a lot. Maybe differences in the WAY people communicate are just as important as actually VOCABULARY. The subtleties take more time to figure out, so don't be in a rush, don't be too hard on yourself. By learning a language, you're also learning a culture and that doesn't happen overnight, it happens over time.

I’m curious now about other languages…let me go check 😉

Author: Feriel Temmar

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