Dec 17th 2009 | NEW YORK
From The Economist print edition
In search of the world’s hardest language
Illustration by W. Vasconcelos
CERTAIN genre of books about English extols the language’s supposed
difficulty and idiosyncrasy. "Crazy English”, by an American
folk-linguist, Richard Lederer, asks "how is it that your nose can run
and your feet can smell?”. Bill Bryson’s "Mother Tongue: English and
How It Got That Way” says that "English is full of booby traps for the
unwary foreigner…Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in
English one tells a lie but the truth.”
Such books are usually harmless, if slightly fact-challenged. You tell
"a” lie but "the” truth in many languages, partly because many lies
exist but truth is rather more definite. It may be natural to think
that your own tongue is complex and mysterious. But English is pretty
simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add "s”,
mostly) and there are no genders to remember.
English-speakers appreciate this when they try to learn other
languages. A Spanish verb has six present-tense forms, and six each in
the preterite, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive and two
different past subjunctives, for a total of 48 forms. German has three
genders, seemingly so random that Mark Twain wondered why "a young lady
has no sex, but a turnip has”. (Mädchen is neuter, whereas Steckrübe is
English spelling may be the most idiosyncratic, although French gives
it a run for the money with 13 ways to spell the sound "o”: o, ot, ots,
os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö. "Ghoti,” as
wordsmiths have noted, could be pronounced "fish”: gh as in "cough”, o
as in "women” and ti as in "motion”. But spelling is ancillary to a
language’s real complexity; English is a relatively simple language,
Perhaps the "hardest” language studied by many Anglophones is Latin. In
it, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function
the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so
on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining
verbs into them. This system, and its many exceptions, made for years
of classroom torture for many children. But it also gives Latin a
flexibility of word order. If the subject is marked as a subject with
an ending, it need not come at the beginning of a sentence. This
ability made many scholars of bygone days admire Latin’s majesty—and
admire themselves for mastering it. Knowing Latin (and Greek, which
presents similar problems) was long the sign of an educated person.
Yet are Latin and Greek truly hard? These two genetic cousins of
English, in the Indo-European language family, are child’s play
compared with some. Languages tend to get "harder” the farther one
moves from English and its relatives. Assessing how languages are
tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages
Even before learning a word, the foreigner is struck by how differently
languages can sound. The uvular r’s of French and the fricative,
glottal ch’s of German (and Scots) are essential to one’s imagination
of these languages and their speakers. But sound systems get a lot more
difficult than that. Vowels, for example, go far beyond a, e, i, o and
u, and sometimes y. Those represent more than five or six sounds in
English (consider the a’s in father, fate and fat.) And vowels of
European languages vary more widely; think of the umlauted ones of
German, or the nasal ones of French, Portuguese and Polish.
Yet much more exotic vowels exist, for example that carry tones: pitch
that rises, falls, dips, stays low or high, and so on. Mandarin, the
biggest language in the Chinese family, has four tones, so that what
sounds just like "ma” in English has four distinct sounds, and
meanings. That is relatively simple compared with other Chinese
varieties. Cantonese has six tones, and Min Chinese dialects seven or
eight. One tone can also affect neighbouring tones’ pronunciation
through a series of complex rules.
Consonants are more complex. Some (p, t, k, m and n are common) appear
in most languages, but consonants can come in a blizzard of varieties
known as egressive (air coming from the nose or mouth), ingressive (air
coming back in the nose and mouth), ejective (air expelled from the
mouth while the breath is blocked by the glottis), pharyngealised (the
pharynx constricted), palatised (the tongue raised toward the palate)
and more. And languages with hard-to-pronounce consonants cluster in
families. Languages in East Asia tend to have tonal vowels, those of
the north-eastern Caucasus are known for consonantal complexity: Ubykh
has 78 consonant sounds. Austronesian languages, by contrast, may have
the simplest sounds of any language family.
Perhaps the most exotic sounds are clicks—technically "non-pulmonic”
consonants that do not use the airstream from the lungs for their
articulation. The best-known click languages are in southern Africa.
Xhosa, widely spoken in South Africa, is known for its clicks. The
first sound of the language’s name is similar to the click that
English-speakers use to urge on a horse.
For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a
few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual
sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy,
and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying
ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on
his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed
that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed
Beyond sound comes the problem of grammar. On this score, some European
languages are far harder than are, say, Latin or Greek. Latin’s six
cases cower in comparison with Estonian’s 14, which include inessive,
elative, adessive, abessive, and the system is riddled with
irregularities and exceptions. Estonian’s cousins in the Finno-Ugric
language group do much the same. Slavic languages force speakers, when
talking about the past, to say whether an action was completed or not.
Linguists call this "aspect”, and English has it too, for example in
the distinction between "I go” and "I am going.” And to say "go”
requires different Slavic verbs for going by foot, car, plane, boat or
other conveyance. For Russians or Poles, the journey does matter more
than the destination.
Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke
about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to
do with physical sex. "Gender” is related to "genre”, and means merely
a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes. Linguists
talk instead of "noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or
size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see.
George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal
(spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including "women, fire and
dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they
are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.
Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single
words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them.
Linguists call a single unit of meaning, whether "tree” or "un-”, a
morpheme, and some languages bind them together obligatorily. The
English curiosity "antidisestablishmentarianism” has seven morphemes
("anti”, "dis”, "establish”, "-ment”, "-ari""-an” and "-ism”). This is
unusual in English, whereas it is common in languages such as Turkish.
Turks coin fanciful phrases such as
"Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmissiniz?”, meaning "Were you one
of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?” But
Ilker Aytürk, a linguist, offers a real-life example:
"Evlerindemisçesine rahattilar”. Assuming you have just had guests who
made a mess, these two words mean "They were as carefree as if they
were in their own house.”
Yes we (but not you) can
This proliferation of cases, genders and agglutination, however,
represents a multiplication of phenomena that are known in European
languages. A truly boggling language is one that requires English
speakers to think about things they otherwise ignore entirely. Take
"we”. In Kwaio, spoken in the Solomon Islands, "we” has two forms: "me
and you” and "me and someone else (but not you)”. And Kwaio has not
just singular and plural, but dual and paucal too. While English gets
by with just "we”, Kwaio has "we two”, "we few” and "we many”. Each of
these has two forms, one inclusive ("we including you”) and one
exclusive. It is not hard to imagine social situations that would be
more awkward if you were forced to make this distinction explicit.
Berik, a language of New Guinea, also requires words to encode
information that no English speaker considers. Verbs have endings,
often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened;
telbener means "[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects,
an ending will tell their size: kitobana means "gives three large
objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the
action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena
means "to place a large object in a low place nearby”. Chindali, a
Bantu language, has a similar feature. One cannot say simply that
something happened; the verb ending shows whether it happened just now,
earlier today, yesterday or before yesterday. The future tense works in
the same way.
A fierce debate exists in linguistics between those, such as Noam
Chomsky, who think that all languages function roughly the same way in
the brain and those who do not. The latter view was propounded by
Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist of the early 20th century, who
argued that different languages condition or constrain the mind’s
habits of thought.
German has three genders. Mark Twain wondered why "a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”
Whorfianism has been criticised for years, but it has been making a
comeback. Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University, for example, points
to the Kuuk Thaayorre, aboriginals of northern Australia who have no
words for "left” or "right”, using instead absolute directions such as
"north” and "south-east” (as in "You have an ant on your south-west
leg”). Ms Boroditsky says that any Kuuk Thaayorre child knows which way
is south-east at any given time, whereas a roomful of Stanford
professors, if asked to point south-east quickly, do little better than
chance. The standard Kuuk Thayoorre greeting is "where are you going?”,
with an answer being something like "north-north-east, in the middle
distance.” Not knowing which direction is which, Ms Boroditsky notes, a
Westerner could not get past "hello”. Universalists retort that such
neo-Whorfians are finding trivial surface features of language: the
claim that language truly constricts thinking is still not proven.
With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The
Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound
system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard
to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating,
so that one word, hóabãsiriga means "I do not know how to write.” Like
Kwaio, it has two words for "we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun
classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close
relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare,
such as "bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be
extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has
begun to peel apart.
Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble.
Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker
knows something. Diga ape-wi means that "the boy played soccer (I know
because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means "the boy played soccer
(I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that
is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force
speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.
Linguists ask precisely how language works in the brain, and examples
such as Tuyuca’s evidentiality are their raw material. More may be
found, as only a few hundred of the world’s 6,000 languages have been
extensively mapped, and new ways will appear for them to be difficult.
Yet many are spoken by mere hundreds of people. Fewer than 1,000 people
speak Tuyuca. Ubykh died in 1992. Half of today’s languages may be gone
in a century. Linguists are racing to learn what they can before the
forces of modernisation and globalisation quieten the strangest
Категория: Лингвистика | Добавил: sveta (23.12.2009)
| Автор: From The Economist print edition
| Рейтинг: 0.0 |
Вы овладеете английским!
Вы верите, что всего за несколько часов можно понять, как поставить правильное произношение, не изучая долго и нудно теоретическую фонетику, а всего-лишь поймав "фокус" языка?
Вы верите, что за несколько часов можно понять всю систему английских времен, которую безуспешно учат годами в школе, институте или на курсах?
Вы верите, что вместо скучных учебников можно заниматься по Вашим любимым фильмам и сериалам, испытывая при этом восторг и наслаждение от занятий английским?
Мы не только верим, а и твердо убеждены, так как уже сотни людей прошли по этому пути и поделились с нами своми успехами и достижениями!
И мы верим в Вас, потому что Вы легко научились говорить на языке, который на порядок сложнее английского!
Поэтому более простым и логичным английским Вы овладеете гораздо быстрее и легче! Конечно,если будете делать это правильно, естественным путем - моделируя носителей языка. Руководствуясь при этом не громоздкими правилами, а простыми и понятными визуальными моделями!
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