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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.
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Just as proponents of "Intelligent Design" are rallying against the theory of evolution, their counterparts in linguistics are pushing the (strictly scientific, mind you, and not in the least religious) theory of "Wrathful Dispersion":
The opponents of Wrathful Dispersion maintain that it is really just Babelism, rechristened so that it might fly under the radar of those who insist that religion has no place in the state-funded classroom. Babelism was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 19); it held that the whole array of modern languages was created by God at a single stroke, for the immediate purpose of disrupting humanity's hubristic attempt to build a tower that would reach to heaven... Wrathful Dispersion is couched in more cautiously neutral language; rather than tying linguistic diversity to a specific biblical event, it merely argues that the differences among modern languages are too perverse to have arisen spontaneously, and must therefore be the work of some wrathful (and powerful) disperser who deliberately set out to accomplish a confusion of tongues.
One cynical observer has likened WD to Scientology, which "is a religion for purposes of tax assessment, a science for purposes of propaganda, and a work of fiction for purposes of copyright."This article, of course, is a parody. However, this site appears to be all too sincere, and offers up pearls of wisdom such as:
The Tower of Babel scenario of the Biblical account in Genesis 11 posits that all people spoke the same language before the Lord confused human tongues. Up until the nineteenth century it was common knowledge that the pre-Babel tongue was the language of the Bible, Ancient Hebrew and the language of Adam and Eve. ven in colonial America, Hebrew was so revered that the first dissertation in the New World, at Harvard College, was on Hebrew as The Mother Tongue. The Continental Congress nearly made Hebrew the language of the new republic, as much to break away from England as to reaffirm America's status as the new Promised Land.Actually, the claim that Hebrew almost became the US national language is a myth.
And it goes on from there, going into things from the white-supremacist tenets of Darwinism to Noam Chomsky being the connection between Godless non-Edenist linguistics and rabid anti-Israelism, not to mention the "proto-world" fallacy of assuming that languages remain largely static.
A lengthy compedium of essentialist explanations of various languages:
English is essentially bad Dutch with outrageously pronounced French and Latin vocabulary. --Eugene Holman
Australian English is essentially Cockney without the refinement. -- Öjevind Lâng
Swedish, Norwegian and Danish are actually the same language. It's just that the Norwegians can't spell it, and the Danes can't pronounce it. --Chlewey
Yiddish is essentially the Ebonics of German. --submanifold
Dutch is essentially English spoken whilst stoned, which pretty much explains all the double vowels --Keith Gaughan
French is essentially a language that elides everything that doesn't get out of the way fast enough, and nasalises everything else. --Peter Bleackley
Brazilian is essentially a conlang created by people who wanted to have sex all the time, but still be able to talk about everyday things. --alleszermalmer
Romanian is essentially a Romance language trying really hard to blend in with the Slavic languages around it. --Jesse S. Bangs
Romanian is essentially French pronounced as written. --Christian Thalmann
German and Polish are essentially the same, only there are too many "ß"s in Leftoderian writing, and too many "z"s in Rightoderian. --Andreas Johansson
Breton is essentially Welsh with all the consonants changed to "z". --Thomas Leigh
Welsh is essentially the only language that can have four consecutive L's. --Danny Weir
Star Trek is essentially a religion for secular humanists, and Klingon is its Latin. --Jeffrey Henning
Via found, a fascinating essay (PDF; ugly Google HTMLification available here) exploring the reasons why virtually every language in the world has words like "mama" and "papa" for "mother" and "father" (or sometimes vice versa). And no, it has nothing to do with any notion of those words having been inherited, miraculously unchanged, from a single ancestral language (the "Proto-World" hypothesis, now more or less universally derided among linguists, though still having a seductive popular appeal to the untrained, much like astrology or new-age mysticism), as the essay demonstrates.
The conclusion is inescapable. The mama/papa words are not fossilized relics of some ancient ancestral language at all. Instead, they are being created all the time. New examples of mama/papa words are constantly being invented and passing into use. At first these new words survive alongside the older ones as informal or intimate versions, but eventually they may take over completely and drive the older words out of the language.
The new examples, it is hypothesised, come from the sound babies make during their babbling phase. A babbling infant isn't trying to speak, but rather calibrating its vocal chords, though that doesn't prevent the proud parents from picking out its sounds and adopting them as informal terms for "mother" and "father" (and occasionally other things in the environment, such as older siblings or relatives; such words for younger siblings are conspicuously absent, as the theory would predict). The word sticks, and the child grows up calling its mother "mama" or similar. These new-formed words fall onto the conveyor belt of language, gradually fossilise into more formal forms, and ultimately fall into disuse as newer, fresher words take their place.
Amelioration is the linguistic phenomenon by which negative words or phrases lose their negative associations over time and become innocuous or even positive. Recent examples are "bad" (meaning 'good') and the likes of "shut up!"/"get outta here!" (generally translated as "you don't say?"). The phenomenon, however, is an old one: a classic example is "nice", which, until the 13th century, meant "stupid". (via MeFi)
If this is an ongoing process, one could extend it to the future; i.e., if you're writing a story set some decades from now, you could have some phrase currently found unambiguously offensive used in an innocuous way in the dialogue (i.e., in 2030, something like "go bugger yourself" will mean "really?". For extra points, make the phrase colourful and/or anatomically implausible.)
A linguistics professor believes that space colonists' language would mutate rapidly, possibly becoming unintelligible to their Earthbound kin within decades, due to the different environment.
"This single, relatively homogeneous dialect will be noticeable with the first generation of children born on the space vehicle and will surely result in a dialect that differs from all the parents' dialect, and from every other dialect of English spoken on Earth," Thomason said.
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