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6
Jan 10
Wed

Difficult languages: Tongue twisters

The Economist examines the question, “What is the most difficult language in the world?” I would think the answer is, of course, the one which is structured in the way that is the most foreign to your native language or languages. But what attributes make languages different from each other?

The article delves into a mix of different grammatical aspects, like verb conjugation, consistency of noun pluralization, genderization of words, predictability of spelling (“English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled”), case-marking nouns (Estonian has 14), aspect, and level of agglutinization.

It also considers oral aspects, like vowel tonality (like in Chinese dialects), consonant pronunciation (egressive, ingressive, ejective, pharyngealised, palatised, non-pulmonic clicking, etc) and the number of existing sounds (the now-extinct Ubykh has 78 consonant sounds). Then there is encoding, in which concepts are embedded in words depending on their forms.

Here are two punchlines to the article if you don’t want to read the whole thing:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet). …

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.

Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know.

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