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January 3, 2010 10:16 PM   Subscribe

In search of the world’s hardest language
posted by Gyan (148 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite

 
Isn't there a suffix in Inuit that tells you if an item was home-made or bought at a store? I always thought that was neat.

Besides, everyone knows the hardest language is Magyar cause if you say it wrong a dragon appears and eats you.
posted by The Whelk at 10:21 PM on January 3, 2010 [15 favorites]


The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140.

Wow.

Neat article, thanks for posting.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:30 PM on January 3, 2010


Spoiler::

It's probably not yours.
posted by oddman at 10:31 PM on January 3, 2010


how is it that your nose can run and your feet can smell?

I stopped reading there, because I'm pretty sure they ripped that line from Gallagher. Gallagher.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:37 PM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Acquiring a language is probably approximately the same for every language. How difficult it is to learn a language is largely a function of how similar that language is to one you've acquired. So, by any objective measure, the "hardest" language ought to be one that (a) has very few native speakers and (b) is mostly unrelated to other languages.

Preliminarily, I'm going to go ahead and nominate Basque. Then I'm going to go read the link!
posted by jock@law at 10:40 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


SPeaking as someone running through French drills getting cold sweat flashbacks to Latin class, I can say any language I try to learn is a hard one.

Oh, and when your boyfriend takes you to Italy and waits until the end of the trip to admit he's fluent in Italian but wanted to let you have the experience of struggling with a new language for the first time so that's why he made you do all the talking for a month, please feel free to hit him
posted by The Whelk at 10:41 PM on January 3, 2010 [11 favorites]


Besides, everyone knows the hardest language is Magyar cause if you say it wrong a dragon appears and eats you.

In that case, I am pretty lucky that dragons are nearly extinct.

I'll read anything about languages, but these articles are nearly always just silliness. Take the thing about the number of "cases" in a language. Hungarian has a lot. It would seem intimidating to an English speaker. But would those cases be hard for an English speaker to learn? Not really. Basically you stick a suffix on the end of a word to describe position - that's considered a "case." But it's fairly regular, there are usually only two forms of the suffix, and the rule for how to use them is learned in a fraction of a lesson. I grew up speaking a language much more like English than Hungarian, but frankly I find those Hungarian "cases" more intuitive and logical in some ways than the much less precise English prepositions. The difficulty in properly using Hungarian cases is (to my mind) equivalent to knowing whether to use "a" or "an" before a noun or adjective. Pretty straightforward, even if there are questions about some words, like "historic."

I think jock@law's probably got it, but even his suggestion is more of a polled consensus than a real answer. The reality is that there's no objective way to quanitfy this.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:45 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


If our language were one of these it would probably be dominant and that article would say something like:
Consider Engilish, which has a million different words, no regular spelling rules and hundreds of regional dialects. As one scholar has noted: "English syntax is so weird that its speakers literally don't understand what they're saying!"
Quote gotten through languagehat's blog, which also discussed the article linked in this post.
posted by Kattullus at 10:45 PM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]



In that case, I am pretty lucky that dragons are nearly extinct.


Exactly, they'll talk your ear off.
posted by The Whelk at 10:52 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I was in Tanzania, I was greeted in Iraqw and I thought the guy was having a coughing fit. He wasn't. He was poiltely welcoming me to the village. To give you an idea, here's a site in Iraqw and Norwegian
posted by quarsan at 10:55 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


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.

Awesome-hiyi?

Awesome-wi.
posted by water bear at 10:56 PM on January 3, 2010 [12 favorites]


quarsan: When I was in Tanzania, I was greeted in Iraqw and I thought the guy was having a coughing fit. He wasn't. He was poiltely welcoming me to the village. To give you an idea, here's a site in Iraqw and Norwegian

Norwegian reading from the Iraqw bible.

It's amusing to me that I can hear the Norwegian accent clearly.
posted by Kattullus at 11:00 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bill Poser posted about this article on Language Log a couple days ago. (Basically he agrees with jock@law.)
posted by nangar at 11:11 PM on January 3, 2010


In that case, I am pretty lucky that dragons are nearly extinct.

Except for the ones that want to have sex with you.

Sorry.
posted by bwg at 11:15 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting article. It was a surprise to me as I learned other languages and met foreigners to realize that English is, in fact, incredibly easy to have a working grasp of (although to get all the nuances of total fluency is still quite difficult).

I was under the impression that Russian was incredibly difficult, and that in general, native Russian speakers had a similar grasp of the language at age 9 (or something surprisingly high) that native English speakers have of their own language by age 6. Has anyone heard something similar? Or is that just anti-Russianist tripe? Or maybe the opposite: Russian bragging about how complex the language is? I know that Russian has hard and soft versions of every consonant, and that there are a lot of cases and verb tenses.
posted by molecicco at 11:22 PM on January 3, 2010


Whoa. This is thought-provoking.
posted by Night_owl at 11:23 PM on January 3, 2010


I know that Russian has hard and soft versions of every consonant

Is this like voiced and voiceless consonants, like "b" vs. "p"?
posted by Night_owl at 11:25 PM on January 3, 2010


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, Tony Traill, has some sound files of !Xóõ. Listen to entry 21 - the story - and try to repeat it back, I dare you.
posted by twoleftfeet at 11:28 PM on January 3, 2010 [16 favorites]


I think the hardest language to learn is Sentinelese.

That's because they're incredibly hostile to foreigners, and if they can kill you, they will.

Good luck learning that language.
posted by fontor at 11:30 PM on January 3, 2010 [13 favorites]


I know that Russian has hard and soft versions of every consonant

Is this like voiced and voiceless consonants, like "b" vs. "p"?


"Soft" consonants in Russian are palatalized ones, meaning that the consonant is pronounced with a simultaneous "y" sound (sort of). This is why the Russian word written as "нет" ("net") sounds like "nyet" to English speakers -- the N is soft.
posted by decagon at 11:42 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's because they're incredibly hostile to foreigners, and if they can kill you, they will.

It's just a little subtle.
Brandished Spear = Hi! How was the trip?!
Thrown Spear = Dinner's going to be a little while, but come on over, let's chat and have a few drinks.
Arrows = Where are you going? Come back!
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:47 PM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


I know that Russian has hard and soft versions of every consonant

Not of every consonant. In fact, I think it would be easier if every consonant had a hard and soft version, because although there would be more pronunciations to learn, the system would be nicely regular.

Is this like voiced and voiceless consonants, like "b" vs. "p"?

It's a different distinction than voiced and unvoiced: palatalized versus non-palatalized (or velarized).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palatalization

there are a lot of cases and verb tenses.

Russian doesn't have that many cases or tenses compared to many other Indo-European languages, but it takes dedication to memorize, and become comfortable in, all of the different case forms of the four noun declensions, and to get a handle on subtle differences between what seems like a dozen different verb conjugation patterns.

(I once made a flow chart for the genitive plural.)

Personally, I think it's less difficult than Korean, but infinitely harder than German. That matches up with the familiarity-breeds-ease theory of language learning.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:50 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mefite linguistic expert showing up to comment in 3...2..1...

srsly please any mefites who study linguistics, show up and blow us away with an awesome story
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 12:04 AM on January 4, 2010


Wow. That article is an absolute mess. It read like this to me:

MetaFilter is a community weblog. It is the best of the web, because that's where the best is, and it's found on the web, where MetaFilter lives. But most people call it a blog, leaving off the 'web' part of the word. This is because 'blog' is easier to say, and people like to follow conventions. Except when they don't, resulting in yaaaaaaay flameouts! MetaFilter has five isms, listed here: declawing, sexism, SLYT, and vaccinations. Flameouts aren't a feature unique to MeFi, the short name for MetaFilter, but found in other strange locations such as Digg or World of Warcraft forums. In the land of Warcraft, generally basement-dwelling, there is an average of 12 flameouts, whereas MetaFilter only has 3. Nobody knows what taters are. World of Warcraft is also rich in trolling, where this is encouraged, because killing is good. MetaFilter's hex code is #006699. Other featured colors are green and gray. This is like German. All of these colors are contrasted with white and yellow, which makes the screen vibrant. Many would argue that this makes MetaFilter special, and hard to understand, since the majority of the world's websites are based in white and demonstrate vibrant through monochromaticity or the use of pictures. MetaFilter's 3 main backgrounds, 2 accents, and dearth of Graphics's Interchange Formats (called DJIFFs by native speakers), allow for sixcolors combinations. YouTube has a million colors, which swirl like a turd in a bowl, making pixels hard to count accurately. Nobody understands goatse, populating Christmas Island - a special place just for "women, fire, and dangerous gaping anus." In conclusion, MetaFilter is the best!!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:15 AM on January 4, 2010 [67 favorites]


I can hear the Norwegian accent clearly.

In one of my linguistics classes, we watched a movie that (merely incidentally) included an Australian woman speaking in Japanese. I could clearly hear the Oz accent...but when I asked my teacher, a Japanese national, about it, she claimed she couldn't distinguish an Australian accent from an American accent in Japanese.

As far as difficulties in language go, I think that it's easier to learn to get around in a language that's close to your own, but harder to learn to speak it well. If the language is very different from your native one, you aren't tempted to simply impose the new vocabulary onto your old grammar.

But then, I can get around OK in Japanese (though I can't read it) and can read French fairly well, but can't speak it to save my life. That may, however, have something to do with learning most of my Japanese in Japan, and all of my French in America.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 12:21 AM on January 4, 2010


Linguistics grad student here, so I wouldn't go so far as expert, but...

Jock@law is basically right on. If you look at the timeline of kids learning different languages, it's remarkably similar in both "what order things are learned" and "at what age things are learned" no matter what the language. This gives us the "objective way of quantifying things" Dee Xtrovert is looking for above. There are all sorts of interesting things to learn about here, like the fact that infants can differentiate between way more sounds than adults (ie, your 6 month old can discriminate between those 78 Ubykh consonants). The timeline is also very similar for signed languages, with a few early steps occurring slightly sooner due to the fact that we develop motor control over our hands sooner than over our mouths.

From a given starting point though, yeah, similar languages tend to be lot easier to learn than dissimilar ones. If you know English, German isn't bad, but Mandarin is tough. The Foreign Service Institute has a breakdown of which major languages are easier/harder for English speakers here and I remember seeing a more extensive version, but can't quite put my finger on it.

But man, that !Xoo is one I don't want to attempt.

More tomorrow when it's not 3am.
posted by krakedhalo at 12:33 AM on January 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, the premise of the article is off and I get pissed every time I see the "which language is the hardest" trope trotted out and presented as if it were a valid question. Making a claim about the 'simpleness' of one language over another is inherently making a claim about the thought processes and capabilities of its speakers, and ignores the whole driving force behind it all. Humans have similarly complex brains and are constantly coming up with creative ways to use the resources available to them. To say new things, to change things, to be a part of the flow of evolving language as a reflection of our culture.

It's like seriously asking, "Which culture has the easiest food to make?" And then answering with all sorts of random facts about what grows where and why making ice cream in the desert is impractical.

That said...I love language, and this article does bring up a lot of really fun and interesting factoids about several languages...even though some of the terms, theories and linguists' ideas were misrepresented or contextually unrelated from one point to the next.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:33 AM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


There are languages that are hard to learn and those that are hard to pronounce, depending on your starting point of course. And there are both.

For my money, the indigenous languages of the west coast of Canada are almost totally inaccessible to me as an English speaker. They are devoid of vowels, have many gutturals and other unusual sounds and the grammer is just alien. I haven't made a concerted effort to learn Kwa'kwa'la, Haida, Halkomelem or Nklakapmuxw, beyond rudimentary pleasantries like "hi" and "thank you" and pronouncing place names like "Xwlil xhwm" (meaning "clam bay" in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, above which sits my house on Bowen island. And yes, the 7 is a letter, a guttural, actually). I know very few other non-native speakers who have learned these languages, other than anthropologists. And this is where I work and live! Even members of these First Nations who are learning these languages have a hard time.

So that's me.
posted by salishsea at 12:42 AM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


That said...I love language, and this article does bring up a lot of really fun and interesting factoids about several languages...even though some of the terms, theories and linguists' ideas were misrepresented or contextually unrelated from one point to the next.

Me too, language is fascinating. And I wouldn't mind reading an article just listing random, oddball facts about obscure languages. No theme necessary, as far as I'm concerned. But I expect a little more than this twaddle from the Economist, and I'm disappointed that they - like most periodicals with an every-so-often article on language - feel compelled to hang it on something as absurd as the idea of the "hardest" language.

iamkimiam: Your, umm, "paraphrasing" of the article was dead-on. That's how it read to me too, and now I won't even have to try to convey that, because my version would have been wildly inferior to yours. And now I have a new personal mantra, which came without warning, a sort of satori . . . which is:

Nobody knows what taters are.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:45 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Engish is hard to learn (at least for me) for the remarkable differences between the oral and the written.
posted by - at 1:01 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


"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."

There were so many things to say about so many parts of that article, but this paragraph above, a part of the article found in the article referred to above...well it just made me want to make sounds similar to the click that Australian speakers use to refer to an experimental music group in Melbourne in the 70's.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:02 AM on January 4, 2010


How difficult it is to learn a language is largely a function of how similar that language is to one you've acquired. So, by any objective measure, the "hardest" language ought to be one that (a) has very few native speakers and (b) is mostly unrelated to other languages.

This is largely true, but if you look at the foriegn service institute list you see there are a lot of exceptions. Despite being more closely related to English, German is harder than Spanish or Romanian to learn. And there are langauges like Malay or Swahili that are relatively easy for English speakers to learn despite being in completely different families.

There are a few things to look at to see if a language will be easy or not. Is the grammar complicated, (irregular verbs? lots of arbitrary genders), is the Phonology complicated, (unique sounds? tones?). So it isn't as simple as merely counting how many branches away a language is on the family tree of languages.
posted by afu at 1:10 AM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Like others have said - the author has just listed a bunch of rather random factoids about different languages and then called them things that make these languages hard. You could just as well say that these are some of the things that make those languages cool. For instance, I find it incredibly cool that "slavic languages force speakers, when talking about the past, to say whether an action was completed or not." Even better - and this is something I would definitely point out if I wanted to show how complex these languages can be - at least in Russian, the complete and incomplete forms of a verb can be stacked pretty much infinitely, giving you an incomplete form of a complete form of an incomplete form of a complete form of an incomplete form...
posted by daniel_charms at 1:26 AM on January 4, 2010


My brother who worked with translations for the European Council used to say:

" A language is a dialect - with an army"
posted by jan murray at 1:26 AM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


As a native speaker of Frisian -- a dying minority language -- I have to say, any language that doesn't have an immediate use will be incredibly hard to learn. Hardly any Frisian can be bothered to learn and write it, because there is not a lot one can do with that.
posted by ijsbrand at 1:43 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


ijsbrand, I had a co-worker who spoke Scots Gaelic and was pretty passionate about it. He was always talking about how disappointing it was that the Scots Gaelic version of Wikipedia was so limited in comparison to English. It really is a question of everyday utility (do you speak the language at work? at home? how about with your children? do you know the whole language, or just the useful everyday words? would you ever write poetry in that language? good poetry?).

Also, 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.

I would love to have this as part of my regular choices (that is, without having to resort to clarification). This was something that really bothered me about learning Spanish, because for whatever reason it seemed like a natural fit for the language and yet it's not really there.
posted by librarylis at 1:58 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Doesn't Chomsky hold that all languages have a common deep structure, built into the human brain, with the grammatical differences resulting from differences in a number of basic options? If that's right, all human languages should be about equal, at least in terms of grammar. But alien languages might well be permanently unlearnable by humans. Not incomprehensible; intelligible as an intellectual exercise, but never able to be uploaded into our 'language module'.
posted by Phanx at 2:19 AM on January 4, 2010


It really is a question of everyday utility (do you speak the language at work? at home? how about with your children? do you know the whole language, or just the useful everyday words? would you ever write poetry in that language? good poetry?).

That's simplifying the problems at stake here. Since Frisian, and Gaelic no doubt as well, is primarily an orally used language, it's rather incomplete when it comes to writing it. There are too many strata in life not using Frisian, so there is an enormous lack of precise idiom. Which means a new Frisian dictionary doesn't only show the words that are used, but shows many invented words as well; because some committee thought that those represented the pure language the best.

So one dictionary will call an internet provider a ynternetkedizer. Whereas everyone will talk about his or her provider. Ynternetkedizer didn't exist as a word before that dictionary was published.

It is the fanaticism of those who are passionate about it, and their tendencies to purify the language in order to preserve it, that are putting off everyone not as passionate about the languages as them as well. That, and because there's no use for it, apart from the conversations in daily life.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:29 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


What, no mention of truly odd programming languages? Must be because they're so easy even a computer could learn 'em.
posted by juv3nal at 2:54 AM on January 4, 2010


No mention in Economist article of American Sign Language or any other sign language. Not saying it is the hardest, but it does have some challenges for the non-native. And some unique features. There are inclusive / exclusive / directional forms of you, we and us. "You and that second guy to your left but not the one in the mddle" can be a single sign. Oh I could go on and on. Professional ASL/English interpreter here.
posted by eccnineten at 3:01 AM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'll read anything about languages, but these articles are nearly always just silliness. Take the thing about the number of "cases" in a language. Hungarian has a lot.

Exactly. Most articles like this fall into the trap of just listing linguistic peculiarities and differences without really thinking about how they relate to difficulty.

Take a language that I'm learning at the moment, Arabic, I'm told that Arabic grammar is hard. People like to illustrate that by listing features which they suppose are hard: the dual, irregular plurals, the writing system, verb forms, etc.

The truth is that I find Arabic a relatively easy language grammatically (compared to Russian). Arabic verbs only have two tenses present/future and past both of which are highly regular. There are noun cases, but not only are they not pronounced - they're not even written except in the Quran. As a non-Muslim speaker of Arabic you can comfortable complete a university education without knowing them. The verb forms are actually quite wonderful.

Another thing that is missing from these discussions is the idea of a learning curve, most of the hard bits of Arabic grammar appear only in the written language which means that it takes less time than other languages to reach the crucial point where you can hold basic conversations, on the other hand it takes longer than other languages to reach the point where you can write "proper" prose.
posted by atrazine at 3:35 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


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.

Pro-tip: Just because your Russian grammar book says that you use the word Ha (sorry, no Slavic fonts on this computer) when talking about going to Ukraine1 doesn't mean you should do that when in Kiev.

(1) Not "the" Ukraine, please. I know it's customary - but many Ukrainians don't appreciate it. The reason is that "Ukraine" means frontier in Russian, and obviously (especially Western) Ukrainians don't think of their own country as the frontier of greater Russia.
posted by atrazine at 3:47 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


What a weird article. It's like "Look! I learned some facts about different languages! ...uh, I guess the Economist probably wants a thesis or something too."

I always feel very split about articles of this nature. As some have mentioned here, it operates on a pretty bunk premise (the concept of languages being "harder" or "easier") or at least one that needs to be dramatically clarified. It also does a real exoticization job on other cultures/languages. So an Aboriginal language use absolute directions like north and south instead of relative ones like left and right? I can imagine a similar article in Kuuk Thaayorre that's all like, "English speakers use 'back' even when referring to chairs and buses! It's like these people think those objects are alive! lawl". And some tidbits really demand more information; like when the author refers to the Tuyuca noun class of "“bark that does not cling closely to a tree” which can also be metaphorically extended to other objects, what does he or she mean? Noun classes often seem to be organized around a theme, but is that what the Tuyuca call the noun class? If yes, he or she should say so, and if no, stop playing cutesy. I guess it bothers me to see topics that are so complicated and generally riddled with exceptions and caveats dealt with in such a breathless and frankly sloppy manner.

On the other hand, these types of things probably get people interested in linguistics, which is a good thing. I know my sixteen-year-old self would have had heart palpitations reading this article. So you win some, you lose some.
posted by threeants at 4:01 AM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


eccnineten: "... Oh I could go on and on."

I'm really enjoying the comments in this thread so would all of you please?
posted by vapidave at 4:03 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, In Kwaio, spoken in the Solomon Islands, “we” has two forms: “me and you” and “me and someone else (but not you)”.

This made me wonder about gender-neutral pronouns, and I discovered that not only do several languages lack gendered pronouns, the cultures that use them apparantly are as sexist as anybody else...
posted by Harald74 at 4:04 AM on January 4, 2010


I did Chinese with Tibetan for my degree, including classical and modern forms of both languages. Stuck with the Chinese rather than the Tibetan as despite the obvious leap for someone used to alphabets of learning the characters (which actually happened to suit how my memory seems to work) I found the grammar of verb-final Tibetan much trickier to get my head round. There's also lots of cases, various shifts due to honorific usage and so on that you don't get in Mandarin, plus obviously just the fact that it has fewer nominal speakers. Lots of very appealing peculiarities (peculiar to the learner, that is) to Lhasa Tibetan of course: as I recall the verbs of knowing distinguish between hearsay and what you've seen for yourself, which struck me as conducive to honesty in discourse, and the alphabet which can pile up letters with sub- and super-scripts to create a single morpheme. The spelling is still stuck back in the pre-10th century so most words are written in a way that barely resembles the pronunciation in the major dialects, though of course the shifts do have a pattern to them and you can make a fair guess at how to read a new word once you know that.
posted by Abiezer at 4:22 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harald74, or then there's Mandarin, which has pronouns for male, female, and neuter, 他, 她, 它, all of which are pronounced ta1.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:31 AM on January 4, 2010


There's some obscure versions of with the radicals for 'animal' and 'God' too: 牠, 祂 - the latter was just made up for Bible translation IIRC, and the gender distinction is a post-May-4th innovation by and large (stand to be corrected there but seem to recall something along those lines is the case).
posted by Abiezer at 4:43 AM on January 4, 2010


Looked it up and I see it's claimed Liu Bannong invented the character 她 in the early years of the last century.
posted by Abiezer at 4:56 AM on January 4, 2010


afu is correct. Amended:

Acquiring a language is probably approximately the same for every language. How difficult it is to learn a language is largely a function of how similar that language is to one you've acquired. We could take a utilitarian/J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. approach to this, and plot each language along the axes of difficulty to language x and the number of speakers of language x. The sum of the areas under such points, for all the worlds' languages, would be the overall difficulty of the language in question. So, by any objective measure, the "hardest" language ought to be one that minimizes the product of (a) has very few the number of native speakers and (b) is mostly unrelated to the similarities to other languages.

Preliminarily, I'm going to go ahead and nominate Basque. Then I'm going to go read the link!
posted by jock@law at 5:32 AM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


how is it that your nose can run and your feet can smell?

I stopped reading there, because I'm pretty sure they ripped that line from Gallagher. Gallagher.


Nah, that joke's way older than Gallagher. I remember it from the Sea Monkey handbook when I was a kid.
posted by JanetLand at 5:35 AM on January 4, 2010


Preliminarily, I'm going to go ahead and nominate Basque. Then I'm going to go read the link!

You said this 7 hours prior. Why don't you just read the damn article rather than nominating a language that isn't even close to being a "hardest" language? Or at least give a reason for your nomination!
posted by explosion at 6:08 AM on January 4, 2010


Based on an episode of Speaking of Faith I heard recently, I'd think that Ojibwe would on a list of Very Difficult Languages.
posted by jquinby at 6:18 AM on January 4, 2010


Linguistic anthropologist here: I work on the Iñupiaq (Alaskan Inuit) language. It's beautiful and ferociously difficult for my Indo-European-socialized mind to grasp its logic, let alone its poetics. Or its phonology.

I think it depends what your native language (family) is. As the article says, for a speaker of an Indo-European language to master an agglutinating (or rather, polysynthetic) language is a whole other level of "hard" from learning a language with a familiar (analytic) grammar but unfamiliar sounds. I suspect it's always true when crossing out of a language family.

I'll recommend my favorite writing on an Inuit language: Anthony Woodbury's 1985 article: "The functions of rhetorical structure: a study of Central Alaskan Yupik Eskimo discourse." Language in Society 14(2):150-93.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:27 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some folks are complaining about the fact that he uses the sort of silly question "what's the hardest language" as an excuse to talk about a lot of fascinating trivia about some of the unusual features of world languages.

That's not a bug, that's a *feature*. It's a fun and interesting article, loosely arranged around an interesting but not really answerable question.

Who cares what's the hardest language? The author doesn't seem to. But he does seem to think it's worth noting that the differences between languages are a lot greater than many people would think. I agree with him.

The Language Log guy even agrees he's got his facts basically correct, and complains only that he glosses over some distinctions and fails to qualify everything he might have. (And also that he gives any credence at all to the possibility of Sapir-Whorf type effects, but then, such ideas are taboo amongst professional linguists so that's not too surprising.)

Seriously, there's no pleasing some people.
posted by edheil at 6:30 AM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

I'm going to go ahead and declare this the most fascinating thing I've learned of in 2010. To make including this evidence mandatory and grammatical seems to me to require a presence of mind that is rare in native English speakers. More often than not, people state as facts what are really their assumptions or impressions. I don't really know what the implications are of this, but this seems endlessly fascinating to me, much more so than the fact that some languages have clicks or bizarre noises.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:43 AM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

Fascinating indeed. I wonder then, if this is a language in which the concept of bullshit doesn't exist.
posted by ob at 7:05 AM on January 4, 2010


Ah, that's the technical term for that thing in Tibetan I mentioned above. Thanks!
posted by Abiezer at 7:08 AM on January 4, 2010


I couldn't comment on which language is hardest, but I do know that the use of tones in the thai language, and the different meanings of each, is notoriously hard for foreigners to get to grips with.

A friend of mine in Thailand grew up there, moved and away and then moved back. By getting the tones wrong he would ask, with astonishing regularity, for a bowl of penis ice cream when he wanted a banana-flavored dessert. Much to the mirth of thai waiters everywhere.

Also, I liked the article. It may be a set of random language facts spun into a half-baked question, but I liked those random facts.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:10 AM on January 4, 2010


I think a lot of people nominate English or Chinese as hard because the writing is in Chinese's case ideographic, or in English's case, bizarre.

But that isn't a feature of the language or how difficult it is. That is more historical accident. You could create a logical spelling for English tomorrow that would rival Finnish or Spanish. The only problem is the number of Enslish speakers who are invested in the old writing. Hence, I suspect that there is a critical mass of literacy where after that, changing the orthography is hard. I am guessing that a larger proportion of English speakers were literate in the 15th century than, say Russian speakers. Even up to 1917, there were probably a lot of illiterate Russians, so it was easy to change the orthography.

Turkis was written in the Arabic script and they changed to the Latin script. *Writing* Turkish might have gotten easier but the language?

Point being crazy, difficult writing != difficult language.
posted by xetere at 7:15 AM on January 4, 2010


By transitivity we know that Heavenly Script is the hardest language, after Hindi.
posted by Nelson at 7:46 AM on January 4, 2010


Awesome-hiyi?

I thought Hopi had a similar feature but I can neither recall where I heard that nor scare up any confirmation of it.

In English we are permitted to assert wildly without attribution!
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:51 AM on January 4, 2010


Metafilter: There's no use for it, apart from the conversations in daily life.
posted by Rat Spatula at 7:53 AM on January 4, 2010


> My brother who worked with translations for the European Council used to say:

" A language is a dialect - with an army"


Your brother was ripping off Max Weinreich.

I agree completely with edheil: This is a very good article compared with 99% of what the press says about language; it basically has its facts right and the examples are well suited to getting people interested in languages. I realize there's nothing MeFites love better than snarking, but seriously, you're not being as clever as you think you are.
posted by languagehat at 7:55 AM on January 4, 2010 [10 favorites]


In 1994 or so, I started to collect the phrase "my brain is made out of cheese" in various languages. My requirements for learning a phrase was that the translation supplier had to be a native speaker of the language (not simply an avid lover of the language) and that I had to be able to generate the phrase in a way that was as unaccented as possible. I collected 18 or so, including Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Finnish, Icelandic, Russian, Polish, Slavic, Dutch, and Hindi. I'm truly sorry that I have yet to have the opportunity to learn it in !Kung or Navaho.

Still, based on my decidedly small sampling, I could not get Mandarin. For the most part, it was a classic translation issue between me and the native speaker. I wanted it in the most commonly spoken way (for which cheese would likely be a cognate), but he thought that the long form language construct (more or less, preserved dairy product) was appropriate. I couldn't get it to my satisfaction. The result was too accented to my ears. Of course, this says nothing about the difficulty of getting the entirety of the language, just a small and decidedly limited-use corner of it. Some things that some people think are hard, I found easy - for example getting the distinction clear between ちず (chizu - file folder) and チーズ (chiizu - cheese).

And though it's been quite a few years since I've exercised these, at my recent 20th high school reunion, I ran into a woman who moved to Holland shortly after graduation and my Dutch rendition was clear enough to get the standard "your brain is made out of ch...what the hell?!" response. I was pleased to discover that Greg Knauss had a similar hobby at one point.
posted by plinth at 8:28 AM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Everyone knows that the hardest language is Hardtalky, the native tongue of Gondwanaland.
posted by Mister_A at 8:37 AM on January 4, 2010


Tonal languages and non-tonal languages do indeed present particular problems of calibration. The distinction has been the subject of a lot of recent research on the neurobiology of language. Interestingly, the non-segmental tonal phenomena in non-tonal languages (sentence intonation, accent, sound symbolism, possibly melodic processing in music cognition) appear to rely on a different neural infrastructure than phonological tone (which, as I recall, relies on the same neurological infrastructure as any other dimension of phonological cognition).

Ah, evidentials. Always good for the "wow" factor. I remember encountering the concept first in Athabaskan languages in grad school. Just to wax a wee bit anti-Whorfian, though (I'm basically way over on the relativity side), all languages can express all concepts by some means or other at a first semantic approximation. The expression of evidentiality in English is not grammaticized directly, but our use of sentence intonation, tone of voice, kinesic set, and syntactic constructions for reported speech, tense, active/passive, and transitive/intransitive distinctions combine to do a good job of contextualizing our claims of fact. We also make evidentiality an explicit concept in discourse where its value is clearly relevant, for example in legal contexts. So one wants to be careful of mystifying supposedly exotic concepts. What's exotic to us is the way a concept is grammaticized. It's the rare (or non-existent, the point is debatable) concept that we simply have never encountered before hearing it expressed in a new (to us) language.

Grammaticization powerfully naturalizes concepts, making their expression obligatory and non-optional. Whorf's argument was that this drives concepts deep into our perceptual and experiential minds, where they condition the way we think in abstract categories. The debate is hard to unpack, let alone settle, but to me the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that humans *do* in fact experience grammaticized concepts differently than concepts articulated at other levels of expressive structure. But, for example, no known language makes a grammatical distinction between edible and non-edible objects, which would seem to be an absolutely primary category of experience, certainly up there with number, tense, abstract vs. concrete nouns, evidential status, etc. But the concept is abundantly clear, of necessity, to any human being, and also deeply culturally specific in its elaboration and specific content (a key mark of cultural difference is what others are said to eat -- the word "Eskimo" comes from the Athabaskan word for "cannibal," via French, for example, and is an ethnic slur as a result in some contexts).

My favorite subject of all time. For those really interested in this subject, I recommend the work of John Lucy.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:54 AM on January 4, 2010 [16 favorites]


Language dork here. In order of acquisition: French, German, Latin, Chinese, Russian, Czech and now, post-educational system, a bit of Hungarian. German's my most fluent, Chinese was a joke class taught one semester by a visiting teacher in high school, so not exactly intensive. Lived in German- and Czech-speaking cities for nearly 2 years.

* I can still read French even though I stopped formally learning it ca. 20 years ago. I didn't do terribly badly on a visit to St. Martin in 2007.
* Germans think my Bavarian/west Austrian accent is hilarious. Thanks SO much, earliest teachers.
* Czech is harder than Russian...Cyrillic characters are NOTHING compared to vowel-less sentences. Strč prst skrz krk, anyone?
* Hungarian is harder than anything, though I can figure out enough in context to know that my mother-in-law is talking about our cats (macska). I can also be really nice to old ladies at her hair salon, I know all the ultra-polite ways to say "delighted to meet you."

I had a lot of resistance from my school when it came to taking so many languages (at one point in high school it was French, German and Latin back to back), which I thought was just stupid. I was planning to go into the Foreign Service and thought getting the broadest possible exposure as soon as possible was the way to go. I don't think I was wrong -- I have a fairly easy time picking up new languages or puzzling things out based on what I do know (Dutch from German, Polish from Czech, Spanish from French, etc...).

The US needs to get its act together when it comes to teaching languages younger. My boyfriend barely spoke English when he went off to kindergarten and now speaks both English and Hungarian well. I can only hope that if we have kids I can manage enough to get them some German, too. It just makes it so much easier when you get older, your brain is already much better at language acquisition.

I remember reading a book that had the basic thesis that kid's brains learn languages as if the person or people speaking it to them "just speaks that way." So, mom speaks German, dad speaks Hungarian, Grandma speaks English? Dude, that's a Katze, macska, cat. Dad's word just sounds a little different from mom's and Grandma's. Concept of "cat" is still solid in the kid's head no matter which language is referring to it. I'd be curious to hear from those of you who were raised in multi-multilingual households if that was the impression you did get as a kid or if that author was full of crap.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:56 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


As a native speaker of Frisian -- a dying minority language -- I have to say, any language that doesn't have an immediate use will be incredibly hard to learn. Hardly any Frisian can be bothered to learn and write it, because there is not a lot one can do with that.

I think the Frisian language should be promoted to English speakers because it is probably the Germanic language that is most closely related to English.

But this reminds me of a story that a German friend of mine was telling me during a conversation about German dialectical differences and how she accompanied her grandfather on a trip to his home village in German Friesland. She said, "and when he was talking with his friends, it was like he was talking in a completely different language!" To which I replied, "Well, he was."
posted by deanc at 8:57 AM on January 4, 2010


A cute story. In my first seminar in grad school, we were learning the concept of the phoneme. There was a Mexican woman in the class who spoke very heavily accented English.

Upon learning that in Mexican Spanish, there is no categorical distinction between the voiced bilabial stop and the voiced bilabial fricative, she suddenly lit up with new awareness and exclaimed, "Now I know why people look at me funny when I tell them I have trouble with my vowels."

OK, we're nerds.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:58 AM on January 4, 2010 [7 favorites]


In 1994 or so, I started to collect the phrase "my brain is made out of cheese" in various languages... I was pleased to discover that Greg Knauss had a similar hobby at one point.

Heh. In my case, it was "That's a nice hat."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:21 AM on January 4, 2010


Ok, it'd be one thing if this article got it right, but was badly structured, or just contained a loose collection of ideas without a central point. But, this isn't that article. Not only does it not have a point, but it is based on a dangerous premise, is misleading, reduces languages to exoticized features, and doesn't fully get its facts right. It sends its readers down a faulty path of thinking about language that frankly undermines the work of linguists, anthropologists and cognitive scientists, and especially to those misrepresented in the article. How is this acceptable? I'm sorry, but I call bullshit.

Take these paragraphs:
"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.

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."


I'm going to look at this from the beginning to end, pointing out a few things along the way. Bear with me please.

1. "A fierce debate exists between..." what, Noam Chomsky and the rest of the world? No, it doesn't anymore. This is a pretty outdated characterization. The field has generally moved on from this idea. The 'fierce debate' is pretty much over and everybody's recognized that while there's no specific 'language mechanism' in the brain per se (as Chomsky put forth), there are a headache's worth of cognitive and social factors to consider. This has kind of kicked off a few new branches of linguistics here and there in the last 30 years.

2. The latter view is not quite what Whorf purported. And it's not in direct opposition to Chomsky. These two linguists had ideas that presented challenges for each other's theories, but to pit them against each other is rather insincere. Also, what about Sapir?

3. I appreciate that this article did not mention "The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis", since that is an unfortunate misnomer...neither one of them came up with an actual hypothesis. Rather, they wrote a groundbreaking (but now outdated an very problematic) and often misunderstood article that others misrepresented, spurning this idea of linguistic determinism/relativity, which was attributed to them and named as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Oh the irony.

4. There's a huge difference (plus implications) between Linguistic Determinism and Linguistic Relativity. This article does not make a distinction and smashes both of them together, in theory, time, and favor.

5. "The Kuuk Thaayorre, [...] who have no words for [...]" is getting into the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax territory. When you say 'a language has no words for...' it's a lazy way of putting forth an idea about how a particular community's culture is structured. Lera Boroditsky didn't just discover that these people 'have no words for such and such', but rather that their culture is oriented to geo-spatial orientation (fixed landmarks) over ego-centric orientation (things relative to my body in space). Why couldn't they just say that? It's more accurate, and frankly interesting. Also a good point that being 'oriented' to one thing or another does not preclude you from learning how to take another perspective. If I spend enough time outdoors, paying attention to landmarks rather than my own location in space, I'll get good at referring to things geo-spatially. Hooray for humanity!

6. Lots of languages 'don't have words for certain things.' Just because something isn't lexicalized (has a distinct word form for the concept), doesn't mean it isn't expressed in the language somehow. English doesn't have a commonly recognized 2nd person plural, or a gender neutral 3rd person pronoun. Are we to think these people are being ignored? Also, when we don't have words for something we need, many times we'll invent them or borrow them (computer, fax, shadenfreude, etc.).

7. "Ms Boroditsky notes, [...]" She's young and potentially available fellas!

8. "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”." Because we'd be stuck looking at the sky. I mean really, "What IS up?"

9. Universalists? Neo-Whorfians? Who are these people? Where did this author get these terms? Maybe I'm the one clueless here, but I've not heard the 'debate' framed this way and using these terms anywhere but in old linguistics books. I certainly wouldn't call myself a Universalist any more than I would label Lera Boroditsky a neo-Whorfian.

10. And the paragraph ends with another black and white "truly constricts thinking" narrow view of Linguistic Determinism. Yikes.

The sad thing is, just about every paragraph in the article is like this. Yes, the facts are more or less correct, the people said the things they said, the big pits of snakes were avoided. But I wouldn't call it a success.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:30 AM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


Hungarian has a lot. It would seem intimidating to an English speaker. But would those cases be hard for an English speaker to learn? Not really.

Exactly. The article talks about Spanish having 48 forms for every verb, but ignores the fact that many of those forms (even with irregular verbs) are often identical; there are patterns to the forms, and once you are aware of the patterns, it's not as much of a problem to learn the forms. And most of the verbs are regular, which gives even more order to the patterns.

I have heard that Russian and Arabic are devilishly hard to learn. The hardest language that I ever tried (and failed) to learn was German, not because of the declensions and conjugations, which were difficult, but because of the rules of syntax, which were (to me) impossible. I found Latin comparatively easy to learn, but I was in high school when I learned it and would bet that I would have a much harder time re-learning it now (I've forgotten most of it but the very skeletal basics).
posted by blucevalo at 9:47 AM on January 4, 2010


Brava.

Yeah, this caricature of linguistic/cultural relativity just WILL NOT DIE. It was hackneyed 20 years ago when I started grad school. But it keeps regenerating.

Tricky though. For those of us, like me, who work in the "endangered languages" or "language rights" areas, the romance of the exotic is powerful magic when it comes to interesting the public in our work, raising grant funding, and making the basic intellectual case for saving languages (it's the wrong case, as it turns out -- a major goal of my work is to make a much more pragmatic case for working to sustain indigenous languages spoken by small communities, one not based on the argument that we are somehow preserving a scientific inventory of priceless concepts useful for western philosophy or science to understand).

And as someone steeped in the relativity debate as a student, I wound up 20 years later working with the canonical exotic linguistic other, namely, Iñuits or "Eskimos." I've gone hunting on the sea ice with elders and *heard* the subtle mapping of grammar (and every other level of language structure) to task and environment that makes the Iñupiaq language such a powerful tool for survival in the Arctic, but conjoined to a much broader conceptual and cultural elaboration of the visual environment, especially, one that carries over to the Iñupiaq way of speaking Engish, in fact, and I'm sure to the Yup'ik way of speaking Russian, etc. I've had friends point across the tundra and tell me something is there -- a small herd of caribou, say -- between this or that landscape feature in what looked to me like an undifferentiated landscape of white or green, and been unable to see what they were pointing to until I'd looked through binoculars, and sometimes not even then, until the herd of caribou came into visual range for this urban tanik. I've been able to deploy specialized conceptual knowledge (of things like mechanics or kinship) obtained from familiarity with other cultures and languages, and they have too, which means we can meet on common conceptual grounds -- properly so, since the vast majority of Eskimos are native English speakers and American citizens, just like me. And I've heard the two languages mixed and intertwined in vital, living ways across a hundred domains. I've also witnessed a generational divide in fluency, of great concern to the elders, and a desire among young people to master the language, and a passionate effort among community based activists and intellectuals -- as well as their outside advocates like me -- to sustain the language as a living instrument that enhances English and adapts English to the Arctic. There are a hundred ways in which the speaking of Iñupiaq survives at the level of discourse norms. There is a way of listening to others speak, and of approaching another's words, that adjusts the grammatical forms of English in indigenous ways. Down to the level of how you use repetition or a raised voice, or the value of quiet and efficiency when you are communicating while on the hunt.

And to come back to reducing this to words for fucking snow, over and over again, just seems really dumb. Language is our chief instrument for knowing the world. It's elegantly simple in its structures, but unendingly complex and emergent in its particulars.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:54 AM on January 4, 2010 [11 favorites]


7. "Ms Boroditsky notes, [...]" She's young and potentially available fellas!

You cannot blame the author of the article for this one. It is The Economist's house style to provide honorifics for women, even when honorifics are not provided for men in the same article.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:58 AM on January 4, 2010


Upon learning that in Mexican Spanish, there is no categorical distinction between the voiced bilabial stop and the voiced bilabial fricative, she suddenly lit up with new awareness and exclaimed, "Now I know why people look at me funny when I tell them I have trouble with my vowels."

My mother is a native Spanish speaker. Even though I'm a native English speaker in my mid-30s, there are still a couple of words in English that begin with v that I have to think about.
posted by ob at 10:02 AM on January 4, 2010


She's young and potentially available fellas!

In US English, "Ms." denotes a woman, without regard to marital status. I am not sure what the case is in the UK.
posted by Mister_A at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2010


Qwghlm.
posted by Smarson at 10:37 AM on January 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


Interesting article.

I'm surprised though that it wasn't Danish.

The US needs to get its act together when it comes to teaching languages younger. My boyfriend barely spoke English when he went off to kindergarten and now speaks both English and Hungarian well. I can only hope that if we have kids I can manage enough to get them some German, too. It just makes it so much easier when you get older, your brain is already much better at language acquisition.

Agreed. 'moonMan's Portuguese and we plan on raising our eventual children bilingually. I'm trying to learn the language, but I'm having trouble finding "teach yourself" resources in Continental Portuguese (Rosetta Stone is only available in Brazilian - BASTARDS) that will teach me non-touristy things. ("I would like two beers" is not something I anticipate saying to a child, though it could happen, I suppose.) So far his 20 mo. old nephew has been kind enough to teach me cat, ball, and french fries. GATO! GATO! BOLA BOLA BOLA BATTTAAATTTAAAASSSSSSSSSSSS! My eavesdropping is pretty good, I understood an entire conversation in Portuguese about particle physics! (Though really, that was cheating because the key words were all very close to their English equivalents.) As long as my kids want french fries or talk about particle physics, I should be ok. QUIERA DOIS CERVEJAS! BATATAS BATATAS!

But this reminds me of a story that a German friend of mine was telling me during a conversation about German dialectical differences and how she accompanied her grandfather on a trip to his home village in German Friesland. She said, "and when he was talking with his friends, it was like he was talking in a completely different language!" To which I replied, "Well, he was."

I lived on the border of Ostfriesland in Germany where they speak Plattdeutsch. I can understand German just fine, but get going in Plattdeutsch, which is allegedly just a "dialect," and you may as well be speaking Swahili for the amount that I can comprehend.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:42 AM on January 4, 2010


I remember reading a book that had the basic thesis that kid's brains learn languages as if the person or people speaking it to them "just speaks that way." So, mom speaks German, dad speaks Hungarian, Grandma speaks English? Dude, that's a Katze, macska, cat. Dad's word just sounds a little different from mom's and Grandma's. Concept of "cat" is still solid in the kid's head no matter which language is referring to it. I'd be curious to hear from those of you who were raised in multi-multilingual households if that was the impression you did get as a kid or if that author was full of crap. - bitter-girl.com

I grew up in a bilingual household and it was true for me. Although, both my parents spoke Spanish and English to me, so I'm not entirely sure if that makes a difference. I also know several made up words because apparently my family likes to do that.

Upon learning that in Mexican Spanish, there is no categorical distinction between the voiced bilabial stop and the voiced bilabial fricative, she suddenly lit up with new awareness and exclaimed, "Now I know why people look at me funny when I tell them I have trouble with my vowels."

My mother is a native Spanish speaker. Even though I'm a native English speaker in my mid-30s, there are still a couple of words in English that begin with v that I have to think about.
-ob

Hmm, Spanish (in general) used to have a distinction between the voiced bilabial fricative and the voiced bilabial stop. Only recently did the RAE (Real Academia Española) make a rule about the most common use of the two (b and v) and said they were to be pronounced the same. I grew up learning Puerto Rican Spanish where a cow is vaca not baca.

Apparently the Wikipedia article in Spanish claims that mostly the Spanish from the Americas has the voiced bilabial fricative because of the proximity to other languages (i.e. English).
posted by lizarrd at 10:46 AM on January 4, 2010


Language fiend friend of mine taught herself Arabic, French, Turkis, and some Russian, but German stopped her dead.

"I got to the word for butterfly, Schmetterling, and just closed the book and walked away."
posted by The Whelk at 10:49 AM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Language fiend friend of mine taught herself Arabic, French, Turkis, and some Russian, but German stopped her dead.

As mentioned, I speak some German. (By which I mean, I understand spoken German and I can read German with a high level of comprehension, but I know ABSOLUTELY NONE of the grammar beyond "verbs go at the end of the sentence" so I actually *speak* like a mentally challenged chimpanzee might were it to learn German.) I attempted to learn Icelandic.

Nope. Nothing doing. I believe that Icelandic is a secret code invented to keep out the riff-raff. GERDU SVO VEL, indeed.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2010


Metafilter: we are permitted to assert wildly without attribution!
posted by spaceman_spiff at 10:53 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


> "Ms Boroditsky notes, [...]" She's young and potentially available fellas!

what
posted by languagehat at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2010


I'm pretty sure that the Ilaksh and Ithkuil synthetic languages are the most difficult available. I wish I was able to learn one.
posted by Vulpyne at 11:08 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sidhedevil: "It is The Economist's house style to provide honorifics for women, even when honorifics are not provided for men in the same article." [bold emphasis mine]

I didn't know that this was The Economist's style convention. Why is it necessary to denote a woman? Why is it their policy to mark women, and leave the men unmarked? What purpose does it serve? I find it unnecessary and confusing.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:21 AM on January 4, 2010


Well, as a Norwegian I have to agree with grapefriuitmoon: Danish really is the most difficult language to learn.
posted by Dumsnill at 11:23 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


And slightly sexist, in a weird institutionalized way. Especially if you don't know that this is their 'house style' as I assume many readers wouldn't.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:23 AM on January 4, 2010


Funny, I have slouched towards linguistics not because I love languages and their variety, but because of the disgust I feel towards their apparently wasteful and ugly surface level, syntactic complexity and exceptions, and because linguistics still has a promise of stripping them to somekind of meaningful unity and elegance.
posted by Free word order! at 11:37 AM on January 4, 2010


The Economist Style Guide: Titles

"Ms is permissible though ugly. Avoid it if you can."
posted by mpbx at 11:44 AM on January 4, 2010


Do they mean the hardest to learn to speak? To write? Both? For babies? For foreigners?

For me the hardest languages have been ones whose sounds my brain just doesn't hear. For instance, I can't tell the various fricatives apart in Arabic. I can't begin to hear the tones in Cantonese. (And my aunt, who has tried to learn it, has gone to the crab display and asked for cunt a few too many times.) I think learning to read and write Arabic wouldn't be so difficult as learning to speak it. Of course, I found this true of Russian, too, so maybe I'm just bookishly oriented.

The other hardest languages to learn are those that haven't been as extensively studied by Anglophones. For instance Russian has extensive and excellent dictionaries and other resources. There are movies available to me in Russian. There are soap operas that have been translated into Russian from English, from Mexican, from Hindi, etc (which are SO easy to learn from: I love you. I don't love you. She loves you but she's your sister by a secret marriage.) Many many languages don't.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:47 AM on January 4, 2010


There is nothing in there about not providing honorifics for men, by the way. They are provided for all people, regardless of gender. For example: Mr Obama.
posted by mpbx at 11:47 AM on January 4, 2010


Ms. is not short for Miss
posted by Mister_A at 11:59 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nobody knows what taters are.

I do.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:05 PM on January 4, 2010


> linguistics still has a promise of stripping them to somekind of meaningful unity and elegance.

That promise, insofar as there are still some benighted followers of the early Chomsky who still make it, is and always has been a lie.
posted by languagehat at 12:10 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just wanted to chime in--that "Ms." grated on me, as well. She's a Dr., after all, and also a Professor.

Apart from that, I like the article. Seems that there are plenty neo-Whorfians out there--wasn't a new term to my ears.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 12:16 PM on January 4, 2010


The world's hardest language is Glaswegian - or huv yuse goat a fuckin problum wi' tha' ya basturts??
posted by MajorDundee at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


I feel like a complete newbie here, compared to all the Certified Real Actual Linguists in the thread, but here's my (limited) experience.

I studied German for... 8 years? I found it relatively easy. Pretty much the only thing that tripped me up was figuring out which ending to put on an adjective, but that was mostly because it was too much for me to figure out in my head on the go (okay, the noun is [feminine/masculine/neuter/plural], the case is [nominative/accusative/dative/genitive], and the article is [definite/indefinite], so the adjective ends with [-/-e/-er/-es/-en/-em/whatever]).

I've picked up a fair Japanese vocabulary, and a rudimentary knowledge of its grammar. Mostly because I like JPop. I find that it's not terribly difficult, although I don't know any of the alphabets. To me, that seems like the most difficult thing; kanji, katakana, hiragana. Does that make it a difficult language, or a difficult alphabet?

I've started learning a bit of Korean, mostly because I live in a huge Korean community and I'd like to be able to buy things at the grocery stores. This is the one where I find the pronunciation most difficult.

So I guess the point I'm trying to make is that there are too many aspects of a language to decide which one is "most difficult". Is it "most vocabulary"? "Most extensive alphabet"? "Most difficult to pronounce for a non-native speaker"? "Most ridiculous grammar rules"?
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not claiming that Miss is short for Ms. But it does denote 'woman', and it is the unmarked compliment to 'married woman' (Mrs.). I was just pointing out that in this article, Lera Boroditsky, an accomplished linguist, cognitive scientist, PhD student and Assistant Professor, was referred to with a gendered honorific, whereas other persons mentioned in the article were not referred to with honorifics, but actual titles*. It's a weird double standard. I should have been more clear and less snarky in my earlier post about that.

*Not that they would agree with those titles, but that's another issue.
posted by iamkimiam at 12:17 PM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


er, she's no longer a PhD student, but earned her doctorate in 2001. My apologies!
posted by iamkimiam at 12:20 PM on January 4, 2010


In the spirit of the article, here are some more random thoughts and facts:

- A lot, maybe all, of the Pacific Island languages differentiate between the inclusive and exclusive we. It's very useful, and I wish we had it in English. If my boss tells me "we're going to lunch", it could mean, we're going, you're not, so watch the phones, or it could mean we're all going, grab your wallet.

- I learned a Micronesian dialect in the Peace Corps, and like the tribal languages in the article it had tons of noun classes. A lot of them were very specialized, though, and would only be known by specialists (e.g. navigators, fishermen, priests, et al.). There were probably only half dozen classes that were in regular use.

- I do think it's fair to ask if one language is intrinsically harder than another. An Egyptian friend tells me that he still has a hard time with proper Arabic. Growing up, teachers used to drive themselves crazy trying to get farm kids to speak proper English (ain't ain't a word could have been our class motto). Do kids in Spain or Germany or Indonesia struggle also to learn their own language? And many Asian languages have a "higher" formal version that is designed to be difficult for the uneducated non-elite.
posted by kanewai at 12:21 PM on January 4, 2010


Ahh I see.
posted by Mister_A at 12:21 PM on January 4, 2010


I was just pointing out that in this article, Lera Boroditsky, an accomplished linguist, cognitive scientist, PhD student and Assistant Professor, was referred to with a gendered honorific, whereas other persons mentioned in the article were not referred to with honorifics, but actual titles*

From the Economist's Style Guide I posted:

"Use Dr only for qualified medical people, unless the correct alternative is not known or it would seem perverse to use Mr. And try to keep Professor for those who hold chairs, not just a university job or an inflated ego."
posted by mpbx at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm having trouble finding "teach yourself" resources in Continental Portuguese (Rosetta Stone is only available in Brazilian - BASTARDS) that will teach me non-touristy things. ("I would like two beers" is not something I anticipate saying to a child, though it could happen

Come on, you work with kids all day, grapefruitmoon. You KNOW there are days when you WANT to ask them for two beers, even if it's not appropriate. Your Portuguese vocabulary sounds about like mine in Hungarian. Beer! Horse penis! Pleased to meet you! Cat! Green! Slut! (If I ever meet a slut with a green horse penis carrying beer and a cat, I'll be totally set). Father in law was mightily impressed I figured out the Eurostar still wasn't running from the Hungarian news broadcast on Christmas Eve. That's nothing (come on, pictures of people waiting for trains, it wasn't a stretch). I just want to find a way to use all the variants of 'horse penis' I know in polite conversation.

I grew up in a bilingual household and it was true for me. Although, both my parents spoke Spanish and English to me, so I'm not entirely sure if that makes a difference. I also know several made up words because apparently my family likes to do that.

interesting, lizarrd. I wonder how your brain "attaches" to made up words like that in terms of abstract conceptualization.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:43 PM on January 4, 2010


I speak often.
posted by everichon at 12:54 PM on January 4, 2010


I'm not claiming that Miss is short for Ms. But it does denote 'woman', and it is the unmarked compliment to 'married woman' (Mrs.).

It is not the "unmarried compl[e]ment to Mrs." It was specifically created to be neutral with regard to marital status.

...other persons mentioned in the article were not referred to with honorifics, but actual titles.

The only honorific or title appearing in that article was "Ms", used as a title for Ms Boroditsky. The Economist reserves "Professor" for named or tenured chairs, and "Dr" for physicians.

It's a weird double standard.

And it exists entirely in your head.

It is The Economist's house style to provide honorifics for women, even when honorifics are not provided for men in the same article.

You just completely made this up, didn't you? The policy is title for the living, no title for the dead. That's why Twain didn't get a title in his second mention in this article: he's dead.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm a native speaker of English and have a fairly good knowledge of Russian, Chinese, German, and French, although I've dabbled with Arabic, Turkish, and Swedish. I only learned Swedish at the behest of my girlfriend, and despite its relative ease for English speakers, I found it difficult as I kept trying to use German as a reference point for both vocabulary and grammar. The end result is that both my German and Swedish got screwed up.

I found Russian grammar fairly straightforward, but as I learned it only with textbooks on my own, I had (and still have) a horrible time with the spoken language. I didn't have any recordings - this was back when I was 12, couldn't afford expensive course packages, and the internet was still in its formative years. I can't understand the dialogue in Russian movies without subtitles, and whenever I attempt to speak it with actual Russians they're incredulous that somebody who speaks it as badly as I do could be capable of reading Crime and Punishment in the original Russian. I just have a very hard time with the syllable stress - I never paid attention to it when I was learning, and most of the time it doesn't seem to have much of a pattern. Sadly, I feel that my bad spoken Russian has "fossilized."

I didn't have too much difficulty with Chinese, as the grammar is quite simple for an English speaker (no cases! no declensions! ). I managed to pick up pronunciation fairly well by listening to tapes and CDs, paying particular attention to mimic the speakers exactly after my disastrous experience with Russian. I spent a few summers in China as well, taking courses, traveling, and working on my Chinese. Sometimes I wonder if my ability to speak Chinese is related to growing up with parents who speak Thai, a tonal language; I hardly speak any Thai myself but surely it must have had some influence. Written Chinese is a huge pain in the ass and requires lots of memorization at the start, but there's a pattern to it as you get more familiar with the various radicals making up the characters. My only lament is that nobody ever gives me credit for speaking Chinese well because I'm Asian, despite being born in the US, with neither of my parents speaking any Chinese language and learning it independently starting in my college years.

I picked up Turkish a few months ago with a free FSI language course available on that site with tons of them posted - I feel that my Russian would have been so much better had this sort of thing been available back then. Turkish is a fun language for language lovers; it's agglutinative (a novelty if you've never encountered such a language before) and also very regular in both grammar and pronunciation, so all you need to do is follow the rules. After an intensive two-week period of Turkish study I went traveling in Turkey for a few weeks and was actually able to meet people and get around with my Turkish. The FSI method of repeated zombie-like repetition and substitution drills actually works.
posted by pravit at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was just pointing out that in this article, Lera Boroditsky, an accomplished linguist, cognitive scientist, PhD student and Assistant Professor, was referred to with a gendered honorific, whereas other persons mentioned in the article were not referred to with honorifics, but actual titles*.

I think you're seeing something that isn't there, though to be sure the Economist does cultivate a rather quaint house style.

The first time anyone is mentioned, they get a vague descriptor "George Lakoff, a linguist" "Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University." The second time, in the Economist it's Mr Lakoff or Mr Chomsky or Ms Boroditsky or Mr Obama or Ms/Mrs Thatcher.

I think all you're seeing is that Boroditsky is the only person directly referred to more than once.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:00 PM on January 4, 2010


(only living person, rather)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:02 PM on January 4, 2010


I get what you're saying mpbx, and I feel like we're defending two separate things here. Do you agree (just curious where you're coming from)? I guess I'm wondering if I'm in the small minority here in this thread in seeing that marking women and not men is a lame double-standard, regardless of what the style rules state?

I feel like even though there are explicitly laid out rules to follow, common sense should prevail. If it sounds preferential, marked, or 'ugly', then don't do it. But they did and I noticed. Whatever. I'm not really bent about it; it was just slightly weird, and one of the many minor things about the article that were problematic for me.

It is not the "unmarried compl[e]ment to Mrs." It was specifically created to be neutral with regard to marital status.


You misquoted me. I'm agreeing with you. An unmarked complement is neutral by definition.

I think it's time for me to shut off the analytical brain and seek & enjoy the positive, good things around MeFi and beyond. Finding balance and all.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:07 PM on January 4, 2010


I guess I'm wondering if I'm in the small minority here in this thread in seeing that marking women and not men is a lame double-standard, regardless of what the style rules state?

That's simply not the case. They mark the living and not the dead.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:12 PM on January 4, 2010


Right, no I get that, totally. I'm asking if it initially reads lame or 'ugly' to anybody else. Or if the idea of marking honorifics for women and not men would be lame, if that was their actual rule (which I initially thought it was, based on comments in this thread, and before your living/dead distinction was first made. If I knew then what I know now, and I read that article for the first time, I'd probably recognize it as their convention and may not notice. Ex. the use of Ms would cease to be marked for gender, but rather marked for 'Economist Style'.)

Ok, really stepping outside now. :)
posted by iamkimiam at 1:18 PM on January 4, 2010


I spent a lot of time learning various add languages (Hungarian, Irish, Icelandic) and for me the most difficult was definitely Navajo. I think the problem with classing languages as "difficult" you really need to look at which aspect of the language is difficult. Is it the grammar, pronunciation or what? For example, Mandarin is pretty simple when it comes to grammar, but hella hard for English speakers to come to terms with tones. Hungarian may have odd cases etc, but every word has the same emphasis, try that with English (the old "emPHAsis on the wrong syLABBLE").

Can we nominate the easiest language for English speakers? I'd say Norwegian. Piece of cake. Maybe Frisian, though it's so similar to English that it can be a little tricky.

I kind of took a break from linguistics and language acquisition but picking it up again was one of my 2010 resolutions.
posted by misterpatrick at 1:31 PM on January 4, 2010


Turkish is a fun language for language lovers

I second that! Strange how that works. I love trying to learn languages when I travel, though I'm not always very successful. Turkish is enjoyable because it's simultaneously quite foreign, and yet very accessible with a bit of hard work. There were far more rewards for me with Turkish, far more "break through" moments, than I had in other languages I've attempted.

I didn't know about the free FSI courses. I need to head there now and start downloading; thanks for that info!
posted by kanewai at 1:48 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


A language may constricts thinking, but the use of more than one language expands it.
posted by semmi at 2:10 PM on January 4, 2010


Wading back in...

First, thanks for the overview of where we are at in the world with lingusitic determinism and Whorf-Sapir. Very helpful to have that nuance.

Second, I have had an interesting recent encounter with Quebec French. At one time I could get by fairly well in Quebec with a combination of grade school French tempered by actually listening to Quebec radio to get the right Quebec words and accent. In fact, my ear is very good and my accent often masks the fact that I haven't a clue what you are saying to me. Imagine someone speaking the Queen's English but then staring at you blankly when you respond.

This past year I had to work with a translator to get materials translated into Quebec French. I found a number of documents online that would form the basis of some of the things I thought we needed, but the translator gave me a very bad time. Two were written in Parisian French, and one was written by a Belgian police officer. She said we would be a laughing stock in Quebec if we used any of that.

When she finished her own work we had a set of documents that would work well in Quebec but upon reading them I was crestfallen at how little Canadian French I actually knew. Just reinforced my support for the notion of a "distinct society."

And third...I'd like to second the first comment about the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Myth. As non-speaking Anishnaabe person, I have been learning my language a little over the years (or trying too) and I have to say that the language teachers and word compilers are crafty people. When they come across something that needs a word they make one for it. Amazing! The result of this creative license has had at least one funny and tongue in cheek hack.

In Anishnaabemowin (the language spoken by what English speakers call Ojibway peoples in Central North America) the word for coffee is usually "kwapiy" reflecting our lack of "f" sounds in our language. Fred Wheatley, who was one of my Anishnaabemowin teachers decided that we needed a word to describe coffee that was our own and so he coined one:

niibiishaboobetchaboodagetchaboosawagamig.

Fred's joke was that if you could actually say that in the morning, you didn't need a coffee. (It's not that hard to say actually, for English speakers. Break it down...double o's are long, double i's are long "e". And it is supposed to mean something like "A beverage like tea but stronger that leaves a sharp taste on the tip of your tongue" although I never understood how Fred got that all into this word...niibiishaboo is the word for tea, and "ketcha" which is usually pronounced "k'chi" means strong, big or great...the rest of it is a muddle for me.)

And also, I think it was another of my teachers, Shirley Williams, who coined a word for computer that translates as "a box that thinks."
posted by salishsea at 3:12 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Funny you should say that, semmi, because that was my thinking behind our future multilingual kid. The more tools you have at your mental disposal, the better off you are. On the broad, somewhat goofy level, look at the slang we used when I lived in Austria. Other English-speaking Americans and I would pretty much always use the word Bahnhof (train station) instead of train station, even in 99% English conversations.

Why? My theory is that unless you live somewhere like New York City, or Boston, or another place where the train station is a normal part of everyday life, your brain doesn't immediately go to those particular words when you are in Austria and you go to the train station all the time, and they just happen to be called Bahnhof there. Same as what I wrote above where kids raised in multi-multilingual households just think ok, that's mom's word for x, and dad calls that same thing y.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 3:16 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Q: how is it that your nose can run and your feet can smell?
A: you're built upside down.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 3:52 PM on January 4, 2010


Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

You have this with Turkish actually - there's a particular suffix, mış, that you throw on if you're relaying information you haven't directly observed. The great thing about Turkish is that it's easy to get a hang of the rules quickly...that whole "you are one of those who we were not able to Czechoslovakian-ize" seems impenetrable when you first look at it, but actually makes sense once you break it down.

I've started learning a bit of Korean, mostly because I live in a huge Korean community and I'd like to be able to buy things at the grocery stores. This is the one where I find the pronunciation most difficult.

I live in Toronto near Koreatown and go there often to eat out and buy groceries. I don't have a drop of Korean in me, but I swear, every waiter and cashier around there always tries to speak to me in Korean. I always feel bad when I speak English and reveal my non-Koreanness. I've often thought of learning a bit of Korean to go undercover, but then they'd probably just think I'm some sellout Korean-Canadian who can't speak his parent's language properly.
posted by pravit at 4:04 PM on January 4, 2010


I'd say Norwegian. Piece of cake.

Not as straightforward as one might think, though.
posted by gimonca at 4:18 PM on January 4, 2010


Can we nominate the easiest language for English speakers?

I'd nominate Italian. Gendered nouns aside, everything about it seemed intuitive and naturally fluid to me.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:03 PM on January 4, 2010


I'd nominate Italian. Gendered nouns aside, everything about it seemed intuitive and naturally fluid to me.

Even speaking Italian or are we just talking about reading it? Also, the amount of prepositions in Italian and where they go boggles me still.
posted by lizarrd at 5:10 PM on January 4, 2010


Lizarrd, I'm actually talking about both. I spent a month in Italy back in the day, not even studying Italian, and by the end I was speaking it decently enough to hold basic conversations without really realizing it. I studied a lot of French, though, so maybe it's just the idea of Italian kind of being like French but more understandable, what with having a lot more consonants to differentiate between syllables, and an almost rock-solidly constant emphasis on words to distinguish between them.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:14 PM on January 4, 2010


Yeah, I am a native Spanish speaker and moderately competent at Italian and I have a problem with French...which I'm currently learning.

Still, I find, in general, that if you don't live in the country anyone that naturally speaks English first has a problem pronouncing Spanish or Italian well, especially if they don't have a good ear.

That's just my 2 cents though.
posted by lizarrd at 6:01 PM on January 4, 2010


As an English speaker who's dabbled in several languages, I've found Spanish the easiest. Lizarrd's right, though, you have to have a good ear to get the accent right.
posted by TheDailyRhyme at 6:54 PM on January 4, 2010


Can we nominate the easiest language for English speakers?

Swedish or Dutch.
posted by pravit at 7:16 PM on January 4, 2010


You have this with Turkish actually - there's a particular suffix, mış, that you throw on if you're relaying information you haven't directly observed.

I was reading some book about early anthropologists administrating intelligence tests, and how they'd present hypotheticals like "Say Gyan stole The Whelk's goat, but then KokuRyu ate the goat. Who owes The Whelk what, and so on?"

Now the 'naive primative' would fuss about this. As you would, if someone from the government asked you if you, or someone else, had stolen and eaten a goat.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:24 PM on January 4, 2010


A friend of mine in Thailand grew up there, moved and away and then moved back. By getting the tones wrong he would ask, with astonishing regularity, for a bowl of penis ice cream when he wanted a banana-flavored dessert

I could never get the nasal vowels right when I lived in Brazil. When I would stop in at the bakery for a quick breakfast before class and ask for toasted bread and butter (pão com manteiga), it would come out as wood (pau) with butter.

Even after I learned that pau was slang for penis and that I had to pronounce that ã, I just couldn't manage it. The very gracious owner and her three teenage daughters got used to me soon enough, but occasionally there would be someone new behind the counter for me to offend until they explained it to her.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:41 PM on January 4, 2010


There's something scary about the Economist in that it seems really well informed and smart, until you read an article about a topic that you know something about. Then it seems sorta superficial and full of errors. Then you wonder about the rest of it.
posted by Mid at 8:05 PM on January 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


While I found the article a bit superficial, I enjoyed the article in "The Economist" (The Economist has lost a lot of quality anyway in the last years).

Nearly all European languages are descendants of Sanskrit. I found this article interesting:

Sanskrit & Artificial Intelligence
Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:10 PM on January 4, 2010


Nearly all European languages are descendants of Sanskrit.

Yeah, that would be true . . . if it weren't utter bullshit.

In fact, the only language that one could even make such a claim about is Romani and its variants.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:16 PM on January 4, 2010


See here for a simple map that shows this isn't true.

And in my comment above I am, of course, talking about European languages. Sanskrit has many derivatives, it's just that none but Romani are European languages.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:18 PM on January 4, 2010


"To have another language is to possess a second soul."
Charlemagne


"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
Wittgenstein

"I Speak Spanish to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to My Horse"
(attributed to Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, 1500–58)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:44 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nearly all European languages are descendants of Sanskrit.

Yeah, that would be true . . . if it weren't utter bullshit.


I think yoyo confused Sanskrit with Proto-Indo-European.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:21 PM on January 4, 2010


There's something scary about the Economist in that it seems really well informed and smart, until you read an article about a topic that you know something about. Then it seems sorta superficial and full of errors. Then you wonder about the rest of it.

Keep in mind that this article is from the Christmas issue, which is kind of frivolous by intent.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:23 PM on January 4, 2010


[The Economist...]seems really well informed and smart, until you read an article about a topic that you know something about.

I have the same feeling about James Fallows.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:05 PM on January 4, 2010


The hardest language is whichever one I am currently trying and failing to learn. So, these days, it's... Korean.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 12:50 AM on January 5, 2010


> Keep in mind that this article is from the Christmas issue, which is kind of frivolous by intent.

I know, but I would say the same applies to the regular issues. I see it most when I read about USA politics (or Chicago politics), which I happen to know a little about. There are consistently all sorts of small errors, like putting cities in the wrong state or mis-identifying someone's title.

Maybe it's that a magazine that covers so many countries can't possibly chase down every error in every little jurisdiction, so you end up with something that's 80 or 90% correct, which I suppose is still pretty useful.
posted by Mid at 6:25 AM on January 5, 2010


The absence of any reference to Arabic surprised me. (Unless I missed it.) I took Arabic for two years and about two weeks after I quit the classes I realized I'd already forgotten most of it. My brain just couldn't hold onto it.

Case in point, not only do Arabic words have different genders, but the numbers have genders too... and the gender of a word will change depending on the gender of any number you attach to it. It's like genders cancel each other out when combined. And there's like 30 ways to conjugate verbs. And THEN after you learn to master all of that which takes years of constant study you have to *put it all aside* and start fresh to learn a dialect because *nobody* in reality actually SPEAKS the Classical Arabic that you are first taught to understand the foundation of the language. It's like if people learned American English by first mastering the grammar and sentence structure of mid 5th century Anglo Saxon.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:59 AM on January 5, 2010


Slightly off topic: a somewhat underfunded Norwegian linguist has discovered that English is even more complicated than we tend to think.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:44 AM on January 5, 2010


See here for a simple map that shows this isn't true.

Dee: I was about to ask why Sanskrit is marked as a "live" (green) language on that figure, but then I saw the author considers Church Latin similarly extant, which now kind of makes me wonder how many languages are used only in holy contexts. I guess the Classical Arabic (that as miss lynnster mentioned above, "no one actually speaks") would fall in this category too?
posted by kittyprecious at 9:49 AM on January 5, 2010


Maybe, but classical Arabic (or Modern Standard Arabic which is almost the same) is still the standard for written communication.
posted by atrazine at 12:11 PM on January 5, 2010


Dee: I was about to ask why Sanskrit is marked as a "live" (green) language on that figure, but then I saw the author considers Church Latin similarly extant, which now kind of makes me wonder how many languages are used only in holy contexts. I guess the Classical Arabic (that as miss lynnster mentioned above, "no one actually speaks") would fall in this category too?

Actually, I know people who've learned Sanskrit and use it with each other. My "sense" is that it's a little more alive than Latin is (by that I mean, used outside holy contexts to at least a slightly greater degree.) I think a lot of people learn it to read texts which aren't necessarily seen as religious - Kama Sutra, anyone? I meet a lot of Indians who learned it in school and don't seem to resent its "archaicness" as much as the people who've learned Latin in school do!

There is talk of revival, too, but I can't say how serious or realistic this is. Perhaps a comparison would be with the way Hebrew was used before it was revived as a national language. I'm not sure.

As for Classical Arabic, I learned this (very briefly!) when I was a child, in a kind of Sunday school, to make my religious grandmother happy. I hated it! And Miss Lynnster's correct, no one really "speaks" it outside of religious circles, but it does have some present-day utility in reading and writing. I do understand the logic of teaching it - the analogy I might make is that it would be like learning formal Latin at a time when it had started to devolve into French, Romanian, Portuguese et al, but before these forms had really coalesced as "formal" languages. So it's not all that useful if you want to speak to the people, but it's still somewhere to start, given that the various dialects haven't really "formalized" themselves yet. I don't feel much cultural affinity to Arabic (I'd rather learn Turkish), but the real reason I've never seriously studied it is because - as Miss Lynnster implies - it's just too involved a process to get out of it what I'd want. And I'm human, will only live so long and thus can't learn all the languages I'd like to know.

There are other languages (or forms of languages) which are rather alive only in religious contexts - older forms of Coptic and Aramaic and some other languages in India. I've never given it much thought, but from the admittedly little I know, all of them seem to have their individual and peculiar histories and so comparisons aren't easy.

Perhaps someone like languagehat or iamkimiam could weigh in on this with greater expertise.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:17 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


This looks like a diglossic situation, where there are 2 (or more) language varieties, each used for different sociolinguistic environments. The Wikipedia section on Arabic, under diglossia discusses this classic/spoken split directly. I'm not going to say much more, because my focus is in forensic and sociolinguistics, not historical. But this area is totally fascinating to me too!
posted by iamkimiam at 1:02 PM on January 5, 2010


This is really only tangentially related, but I find that the turning point in my German learning was when I was able to distinguish people's accents when they non-natively spoke German. German with a French accent, German with a British accent, German with an American accent. That's when I finally said to myself, "Hey, I actually know German".
posted by specialagentwebb at 1:03 PM on January 5, 2010


I should clarify...diglossia is a big part of sociolinguistics in general, but I don't deal with it much in my little corner of the field, so I don't feel very qualified to say much more about it.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:06 PM on January 5, 2010


I'm loving all the perspectives in this thread. I think the experiences that many of you have in second language acquisition (L2's) bring up some important issues for trying to tackle an ambiguous question like "which language is the hardest?"

Some questions to think about in relation to trying to classify languages as 'hard' or 'easy' to learn...

Specifically, what does it mean to 'learn' a language? Are there aspects of language learning that are objectively hard for everyone? Or just for certain language backgrounds and perspectives (similarities between the L1 and the L2)? Where does age factor in is learning an L1 the same process as learning an L2? Is good language production (speaking skill, lack of accent, etc.) proof of language capability? Proof of acquisition? What about writing? Dreaming in the L2? What does it even mean to 'think' in the L2?

What about people who excel in certain areas of language, such as phonology (sound system)...but are lacking in other areas (such as syntax and morphology)? Would those people be more or less likely to master a language that is rich in syntax, but phonologically simple? Some would argue 'less likely' because those learners are weak in a key area. Others would argue 'more likely', because those learners might be attuning to (Noticing) those language features and feeling challenged by the exploration into new territory.

Which brings up a whole set of questions...where does motivation factor in? Does learning the language for external reasons (want a better job, travel for work, access to power, social advantages, etc.) or internal reasons (want to identify with the culture, love the people/place, love learning, want to experience other people) factor into your success in achieving your goal...and more importantly, your perception of how 'hard' that language is to learn? What about your language learning environment? Quality of instruction? Method of instruction?

These things, and many others, all matter. And that doesn't even account for some of the other stuff we've been talking about upthread...such as the structural characteristics of the languages themselves! Or the history of the languages. Or access to them. Or political climate. Geographic climate. How about your age, background, personal history, attitudes?

The truth is, every language is as maximally complex as it can be for its speakers to communicate effectively. Meaning that, they're all equally hard, because all of our brains are equally complex. One language's wacky syntax (English) can be like another's agglutinating madness (Japanese). And generalizations can't even be made for how hard a language is to learn, not even when you narrow it down to a specific L1 and L2 comparison. Because all these other things matter so much, and are so variable from person to person, culture to culture, and language to language.

Second Language Acquisition is yet another entire subfield of linguistics. Every question posed above has been and is being researched by linguists, trying to come up with generalizations, hypotheses, and on. There is so much info out there already, I could spend all day making links to words in this post. But I'd rather read your stories anyway. Also, hooray for Virgin Airlines Free WiFi.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:59 PM on January 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


Man, I wish I had more time right now. Some great stuff in this thread. But this:

The truth is, every language is as maximally complex as it can be for its speakers to communicate effectively. Meaning that, they're all equally hard, because all of our brains are equally complex.

is the raw truth.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:46 PM on January 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


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