Are some languages more verbose than others?
I see that language and culture are intertwined and expressed through mediums that most often involve words. I attempted to answer my own questions regarding this question by looking specifically at culture (see my blog post ). This very question prompted me to explore my own bias and fears related to verbosity.
I often find myself comparing another language or speaker or writer to my own standards and linguistic tastes. I read in English, Spanish and listen to the various dialects and accents of these languages with great interest. I recently started telling myself that wordiness or verbosity provides a wonderful window into culture and the story behind the words.
I wrote this slightly verbose but personal article about this topic after reading this question yesterday. Feel free to read it: Accepting Verbosity, Loving your texy body & Culturally curvy living by Jonathan McCallum on Jonathan McCallum
Yes Portuguese is usually more verbose, with text being commonly twice as long (in number of letters) as in English, although sometimes (not in the majority of cases), sentences can be shorter than in English.
I attribute this to
(1) words in Portuguese usually being longer than in English. While most English words have one or two syllables, in Portuguese it is very common for words to have three, four of even more syllables;
(2) Portuguese morphemes are most usually longer than in English. For example, '-ly' (English adverbiation) becomes '-mente' in Portuguese; '-ing' (English gerund) becomes '-ando' in Portuguese. And son.
(3) Portuguese has full verb conjugation which means dozens of different suffixes according to verb tense, person and number, whereas English mostly has '-s', '-ed', '-ing'.
(4) This last one is more subtle and subjective. Portuguese has many elaborate ways of saying things which adds to the beauty and complexity of the language. English mostly simply says it. There seems to be a care about the way you say things embedded in Portuguese that doesn't seem so intrinsic to English. Of course you can say things in more polite or more elaborate ways in English too, but it seems different. I think this is part of the tradition of romance languages, as you said.
Generally I don't like the fact that Portuguese takes more space to convey ideas than English. I think that if you can convey meaning in less time, even your communication will be faster and more efficient. Imagine a whole society having a more efficient communication system. I think of the ways it can boost its advance.
However from a point of view of information theory, I realize that there are also benefits for a more verbose language. I have noticed than English speakers are much more demanding with the pronunciation of words so they can understand them, than Portuguese ones. Portuguese speakers are much tolerant with bad pronunciation and can fill in the gaps with more flexibility. Because English words are so short, the chance of misspelled or mispronounced word colliding with another existing word is much higher, so one has to make sure they have the correct word. From an information theory standpoint, English has very little redundancy built in, which makes for poor error correction. Portuguese, on the other hand, has much longer words, which means that a misspelled or mispronounced word has a lower chance of being taken for something else.
Also because in Portuguese you convey so much information with verb conjugation and suffixes for gender, for example, you don't need to make the subject or other info explicit in many cases. The fact that you can chain ideas in one single, long sentence makes for incredible flexibility, not done so easily in highly formatted languages like Japanese and German.
I still prefer shorter languages, but I realize that in languages, everything is a trade-off. You gain something but there may be some kind of price.
Ironic that you would include a language (Japanese) that is often not very direct (at least in the way it is habitually used). Japanese often used keigo which tends to overly flowery language that doesn't add any real meaning. That and the Japanese habit of tending to avoid directness leads to some conversations that tend to spend a long time not saying much (really(.
French can be more verbose than English. In fact, in the software that I am testing right now, they have difficulties fitting the text in the French version.
- English: Please
- French: S'il vous plaît / S'il te plaît (If it pleases you)
When writing a letter:
- English: Best wishes
- French: Je vous envoie mes bien amicales pensées
Take Japanese for instance. First of all they have many ways to refer to a person. In English is I, you, he / she, we, they. It is a lot more complicated than that in Japan, you need to address in certain ways to certain people, depending on the relationship to you, if is older or younger, the social status, etc.
And then you suppose to be extremely polite and say things in a certain way to soften some requests or to emphasize your utmost respect for someone.