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Linguistics: The Hardest Languages

Published by marco on

In search of the world’s hardest language (The Economist) is an interesting read, proposing candidates based on number of sounds, number of genders or genres, number of individual sounds, number of difficult-to-make sounds, number of consonants, consistency of spelling (adherence to consistent phonetic rules) or agglutination (combining of words to express concepts).

So, for example, spelling in French and English are not particularly predictive, so that makes them difficult to write error-free without a lot of practice. While French has two genders for nouns, English has none, which makes it much easier in that regard. None of the major western languages have a lot of sounds, with languages from Eastern Europe, Africa and South America providing languages with many more sounds.

As far as declension goes, English is an absolute godsend, with very little to worry about in that regard, compared to a nightmare like German, which has several generally used cases, each of which has different rules depending on noun gender (three of ‘em: masculine, feminine and neutral) and there are, of course, exceptions. While German is in the witness chair, we’ll also note that genders are pretty much randomly assigned, with very few rules to guide a non-native speaker to the right one. Then there are the many foreign words (Fremdwörter) that are generally neuter … unless they’re not. In some cases, the foreign word is so strongly assimilated that it gets a masculine or feminine gender, sometimes—but not always—taken from the gender of the word in German that it replaced.

The Economist article notes that Tuyuca has a “feature that would make any journalist tremble”, which is a requirement that a verb ending correlate to whether or not the implied speaker of the sentence knows something happened or whether the speaker is positing that it did. German’s got this one too: It’s called the subjunctive. For many common verbs, the subjunctive shares a suffix with the case of other non-subjunctive cases so, when you’re first learning German and you’re reading a newspaper, you keep thinking someone doesn’t know how to write German because they keeping screwing up the cases. Later, when you learn about the subjunctive, you realize that all those times you read something as fact, it was actually an unsubstantiated allegation.

Though Tuyuca gets the prize for hardest language—it has between 50 and 140 noun groups (or genders)—German gives it a run for its money. German is much more common and yet contains a large number of the features that make a language hard to learn and master. The article didn’t even mention different verb forms depending on relationship of the addresser to the addressee. Here, German mercifully has only two (formal and informal), but it adds another layer of complexity to the act of properly conjugating and declining a verb or choosing a pronoun or possessive. The romance languages have this as well, but they’re missing some other tricks that make German so much fun.


Another very interesting article on a language not mentioned in the Economist article above is Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard? by David Moser

“There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far – I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”

Another very common language not mentioned in the Economist article is I’m Trying To Learn Arabic (Slate):

“MSA [Modern Standard Arabic] has about the same role in the Arab world that Latin had in medieval Europe: It’s the language of writing, religion, and formal speeches, but it is no one’s native spoken language any more. Arabic has long since become a series of “dialects,” which are actually more like separate languages, as many varieties are mutually incomprehensible. […]

“So, if I go to Egypt or Lebanon in a year, having managed to get some near grip on my classroom language, I will be walking down the street asking people for a bite to eat in something that will sound almost as conversationally inappropriate to them as Shakespearean English would to us.”

 

 

Comments

#1 − German

Marc

So you finally in a german class now? :) *takes cover*