The first word that I have decided to write about is not even English, but Norwegian, like myself.
As a Creative Writing student writing in my second language, I have had a lot of opportunities to think about how the way we use words changes from language to language. When I try to describe some of the differences to others, a thing that I often find myself saying is that you ‘use fewer words’ in Norwegian.
On one of these occasions, I was told, by a lecturer, that the idea of English as richer than other languages is a cliché, that although there might be more words in the English dictionary, the average Englishman does not have a richer vocabulary than the average Norwegian, or Frenchman, or German.
This is of course true, but I never meant to indicate that Norwegian is a lesser language. My point was that because we use our words differently, we sometimes need fewer of them.
Take the sentence ‘Is that what it is?’ In Norwegian it would be ‘Er det det det er?’ The words ‘that’, ‘what’ and ‘it’ have all been replaced with the same word, ‘det’, which thus comes three times in a row. Weird! Notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to wrap their heads around, ‘det’ can refer to several different things in the same sentence; in the example sentence it is an objective personal pronoun, a demonstrative pronoun and an interrogative pronoun, all at once. Personally I find that quite impressive.
Other, similar sentences are ‘Det er det det er‘*, ‘Det er det‘** and ‘Er det det?‘***
Whether one language is richer than the other, I don’t know – generally, I think Norwegian has some words English lacks, and English has some Norwegian does not have – but this three-letter word, ‘det’ is certainly not poor.
* ‘That is what it is’ ** ‘It is’ or ‘That is it’ *** ‘Is it?‘ or ‘Is that it?’