Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Is it true that Hebrew has the most adjectives words in the language in the world?

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Despite the flattering allusions to the superlative virtues of the Hebrew language—and setting aside the sweeping and unfounded generalisations that Hebrew [people?] are the smartest or have superior emotional intelligence—I doubt that it could be said that Hebrew has the greatest number of adjectives of all languages. This, for three reasons, off the bat:

  1. No one can claim to know all languages of the world, so such a claim is at best questionable
  2. The number of words for a given thing is a function of culture and environment: the Inuit, for example, have far more words to describe various types of snow and ice than most languages. Hebrew, on the other hand, has innumerable names for God (which tells you about the importance of that concept in Judaism).
  3. Hebrew has a limited number of synonyms for the word red—e.g., adom, admoni, argaman, ḥakhlili, samuq, saraq, sheshar (the last four being virtually unknown to the average speaker), whereas a casual reference to an English dictionary reveals 23, most of which are familiar to most English speakers: scarlet, vermilion, crimson, ruby, cherry, cerise, cardinal, carmine, wine, blood-red; coral, cochineal, rose; brick-red, maroon, rufous; reddish; rusty, cinnamon, fulvous; damask, vermeil, sanguine. This is true for most words. The number of words in Hebrew is currently estimated at around 70,000; English is estimated to have at least a quarter million — do the math.

(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com)

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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