One for us, language lovers. The clever folks from The Economist write on how they went searching for, theoretically, the world’s hardest language to master, but not without giving us first some insight on what this actually means.
It may be natural to think that your own tongue is complex and mysterious. But English is pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember. Compare this with Spanish for instance, with six present-tense forms, for a grand total of 48 forms. German has three genders (I’m still not over the fact that Mädchen, or girl, is neutral), and most genders differ from other languages like Portuguese or French.
English spelling may be the most idiosyncratic, although French gives it a run for the money with 13 ways to spell the sound “o”: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö. “Ghoti,” as wordsmiths have noted, could be pronounced “fish”: gh as in “cough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”.
Latin is the first to be analysed: In Latin, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them. But despite that, both Latin and Greek are still genetic cousins of English, in the Indo-European language family.
The article eventually moves on to vowels and sound systems, and with it comes Mandarin:
Yet much more exotic vowels exist, for example that carry tones: pitch that rises, falls, dips, stays low or high, and so on. Mandarin, the biggest language in the Chinese family, has four tones, so that what sounds just like “ma” in English has four distinct sounds, and meanings.
And if you think Mandarin is complex,
Cantonese has six tones, and Min Chinese dialects seven or eight. One tone can also affect neighbouring tones’ pronunciation through a series of complex rules.
Consonants are a whole different story. For example, languages in East Asia tend to have tonal vowels, those of the north-eastern Caucasus are known for consonantal complexity: Ubykh has 78 consonant sounds. Austronesian languages, however, have the simplest sounds of any language family.
What about that clicking language that everyone vaguely knows about? That would be Xhosa, widely spoken in South Africa, spoken with click sounds. In fact, learning it may cause you physical pain:
For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds.
But back to Europe. One thing I learned from this is the sheer complexity of the Estonian language: Latin’s six cases cower in comparison with Estonian’s 14, which include inessive, elative, adessive, abessive, and the system is riddled with irregularities and exceptions. Estonian’s cousins in the Finno-Ugric language group do much the same.
The article then goes on to cover a lot more: from word agglutination, more gender cases in different languages like Berik, and even touching on one of my favourite subjects in the world, Whorfianism. I’ll spoil the ending for you; the award of the hardest language to learn goes to Tuyuca… but I’ll leave it up to you to find out why.
Before you go, I’ll let you know another interesting discovery for that watercooler chat you’ll have tomorrow: you can chat about Greenberg’s diversity index, which scores countries on the probability that two citizens will share a mother tongue