Monday, November 30, 2009

No Russian Thesaurus? Really? (An Incredibly Shrinking Claim)

The original full version of this article is in Russian here. Please contact the Editor if you would like to republish it in English or in Russian. 

Russian is shrinking, losing its lexical richness and there are no Russian Thesauri, because there aren't enough synonyms to put them together.

And English is three to four times lexically richer than Russian. 

These are a few of the claims made by two Russian linguists Alexander Dolgin (State University - Higher Economic School) and Mikhail Epshtein (Emory University, Atlanta) in a discussion published by Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

I am arguing with them in the Russian version of Tetradki on several points:

- There are numerous Russian thesauri published as slovar' sinonimov (dictionary of synonyms) and include the venerable, though largely obsolete Slovar' Zhivago Velikorusskago Yazyka (Dictionary of the Living Language of Great Russia) compiled by Vladimir Dahl.

- Claims that English is lexically richer are founded on dubious counting methods and stem from self-promoting campaigns by groups and persons often mocked by serious linguists. 

- Globalization of English in fact reduces its richness as users tend to stick to a lower common denominator.

- Mass migration of Russian speakers after the collapse of the Soviet Union has created new sources of enrichment of the language.

Please join in the discussion.

Update (December 2010): Johnson, the Economist's language blog, recently showed why claims that English has the largest vocabulary in the world are silly. Johnson points out the problems with counting inflections, compound words, different meanings of the same word and, yes, different approaches to compiling dictionaries in different countries. Read their post here.

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