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Anyone who has played scrabble-like games in English and other languages cannot help but notice that English has an extremely high number of two and three-letter words.

Is there a known historic-linguistic reason that English has so many short words?

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Compared to what? I don't think it's very different from any other Germanic language. In some ways it has less because without cases you only have a single article - although this means that "a/the" are more common I suppose –  mgb May 20 '11 at 16:31
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If you're talking about the official list of acceptable two-letter words in Scrabble tournaments, there are so many of them because English-speaking Scrabble players have gone around ransacking dictionaries for two- and three-letter words. –  Peter Shor May 20 '11 at 16:31
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@user9325: It's possible the official Scrabble organizations for other languages have not been so lenient about accepting dubious two- and three-letter words. –  Peter Shor May 20 '11 at 16:37
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Scrabble is a special case. English is very broad in its acceptance of odd spellings of foreign words (because there is no official body to decide they are wrong). So "Qi" for "Chi" is useful in scrabble - but I don't think it implies that regular English has more short words –  mgb May 20 '11 at 16:38
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I can think of ten one-letter words in Russian, but only three in English. Now what? (^_^) Also, for all I know, pretty much every word in Chinese is just a couple "letters" long. (Speaking of which, how the heck does Chinese Scrabble work?) On a more general note, Do most languages need more space than English? (It also mentions why your comparison to German is not really fair.) –  RegDwigнt May 20 '11 at 17:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There's two halves to this: pronunciation and spelling.

English has a lot of monosyllabic words (with only only syllable) due to past sound changes that have chopped off many of the unstressed syllables. This is not terribly uncommon, though, especially since there are languages where every word is monosyllabic.

English spelling has fewer redundant letters than the European languages that would otherwise compete with it in terms of brevity.

  • French has a similar number of monosyllables to English, but it tends to spell its words with piles of silent letters that add to the length. Something like longue is six letters, but just one syllable.
  • German (and most other Germanic languages) tend to use more double letters and digraphs than English. English has its fair share of these, too, but as it shakes out there are more very short English words than very short German or Dutch words.

Nonetheless, English doesn't really compare with, say, Hmong for brevity and unusual letter combinations.

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English has fairly complex consonant clusters, which allow for shorter words because our vowel inventory isn't covered by the Latin alphabet, so vowel-heavy words tend to be longer. Also, Hmong has unusual letter combinations for several reasons, most notably that their phonemic and tonal inventory isn't very well covered by the Latin alphabet either, plus RPA doesn't use accent marks, so digraphs and tone-marking letters are used instead. Also, like Chinese and other languages of the region, Hmong is highly isolating, but not exclusively so: it does have some non-monosyllabic morphemes. –  Jon Purdy May 20 '11 at 18:26

tl:dr; we like things short. Better to say "first come, first served" than to say "the first patrons to be properly presented shall be the patrons who will be serviced first" and extend that shortening to all concepts, including words like "go, be, am" etc.


AFAIK the reason is because English (and most of the other latin-alphabet-based-written-languages) try to capture, as best they can, the sounds that we make using the fewest number of characters.

In English, we have gotten really good at using a few characters to be really expressive, so the word length is shorter when written.

Additionally, as a language, it has generally grown to where we attempt to make our words more concise at any one point in time. Here's an example of a book which references that which I could thumb through and find a reference to this phenomenon if you like. I know that he condensed many other tomes in his writing in that book to glean out the kernels and to make it a good introduction for other readers. I suggest checking his selected bibliography if you would like even more information on the topic.

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