The Null Device

In search of the world's hardest language

The Economist looks at some of the more complicated human languages, ones which make legendarily tricky languages like Greek and Latin look simple:
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).
Beyond Europe things grow more complicated. Take gender. Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes. Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them.
Berik, a language of New Guinea, also requires words to encode information that no English speaker considers. Verbs have endings, often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened; telbener means “[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects, an ending will tell their size: kitobana means “gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena means “to place a large object in a low place nearby”. Chindali, a Bantu language, has a similar feature. One cannot say simply that something happened; the verb ending shows whether it happened just now, earlier today, yesterday or before yesterday. The future tense works in the same way.
When faced with the question of what the hardest language for an Anglophone to learn might be, the Economist posits the Amazonian language Tucuya, a language with between 50 and 140 genders and a tendency to create compound words from morphemes, among other features:
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.
The most complex languages tend to be the ones from isolated areas (like the Amazon and the highlands of New Guinea). This makes some sense; after all, trade and cultural exchange would serve to smooth languages, polishing off the rough edges, generalising special cases and cutting enough corners to allow foreigners and travellers to understand them. If a language is used by people in a wide variety of environments, its structures are going to become more generic and adaptable. Conversely, if you and your ancestors have spent all your lives knowing the objects and routines of one kind of environment, then the circumstances of your lives will seem timeless and absolute, and specialised word genders and grammatical cases for them will seem like common sense.

There are 1 comments on "In search of the world's hardest language":

Posted by: ianw Sat Jan 23 04:31:29 2010

the idea that isolated languages (far from trade etc) are the most complex seems to fit with Indonesian being so simple (no genders or tenses; plurals formed by repeating the noun.. the only complicated thing I remember in my year of learning it was that they have 2 words for "we" - it can either include, or not, the person to whom you are speaking) but I wonder if there is also an argument to be made for languages being complex so as to exclude foreigners. The Polish word the for Germans, for example, is "the Dumb" (ie. they can't speak) whereas the German word for themselves (Deutsch) almost implies (cF. deutlich) that they think of themselves as "the Articulate"

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