Holiday Economist 2: difficult languages

Another article from the holiday Economist, this time on a search for “the world’s hardest language”: “Difficult Languages: Tongue twisters” (beginning on p. 136). The premise is rather silly, though it does provide a way of talking about language differences; more specifically,

Assessing how languages are tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages differ overall.

This is a much fluffier piece than the one on politeness, but it’s jam-packed with details about languages.

It focuses on phonetics/phonology, inflectional morphology, grammatical categories (there’s a good bit on noun classes), and morphological structure (agglutination especially). On phonetics:

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).

(The article is not talking about the phonetic inventories of languages, but about the phonemic distinctions in languages.)

The article opts for the eastern Amazonian language Tuyuca as the most difficult. The phonemic system isn’t especially remarkable; the morphology is heavily agglutinating; there’s an obligatory distinction between inclusive and exclusive plural pronouns; there are lots of noun classes. But:

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.

Journalists might tremble at evidentiality, but it’s old stuff for linguists. There’s quite a literature on it (sampled in the Wikipedia article), and it’s not at all a rare phenomenon in the world’s languages: in her 2004 book Evidentiality, Alexandra Aikhenvald estimates that a quarter of the world’s languages have some type of grammatical evidentiality (marked by affixes, clitics, or particles).

9 Responses to “Holiday Economist 2: difficult languages”

  1. Linda Seebach Says:

    I only wondered about “There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them.”

    Probably just a slip of the keyboard, because the author was just talking about nouns in Latin, but still . . .

  2. Carl Says:

    Japanese used to have evidential past-tense markers (one for personal past and one for reported past), but they weren’t strictly used, and modern Japanese has dropped them both entirely.

  3. Ben Ostrowsky Says:

    I thought immediately of Aymara, but sometimes I forget that most people haven’t even heard of it.

  4. Patrick Hall Says:

    Haruo Aoki has an article on Japanese evidentials in “Evidentiality: The Linguistic Coding of Epistomology” (Chafe & Nichols, eds.) which would seem to suggest that evidentials are alive and well in modern Japanese.

    He lists three groups with evidential meanings: 1) gar with an inferential meaning; 2) no or n, which he doesn’t label explicitly but might be called a “conclusive” or perhaps “factual”; and 3) words like soo, yoo, and rasi, which have to do with second-hand information.

    All of these forms have become quite familiar, except gar and its progressive variant gatteiru. Those were new to me: Kare wa sabisi -gatteiru, “He is [seems to me to be] lonely.” You can’t flatly say Kare wa sabisi “He is lonely,” because to do so would be to make a factual statement about someone else’s inner emotional state. Such statements require a form of gar.

  5. Aaron Davies Says:

    @Patrick Hall: interesting. I was informed by the teacher of my one and only formal course in Japanese that it’s incorrect to say something like “kare wa biiru ga hoshi desu” (he wants beer) for the same reason. (feel free to correct my grammar, i probably got something wrong there.) i wonder if “desu ne” would be acceptable there…

  6. WHAT IS THE HARDEST LANGUAGE? | Pater Familias Says:

    […] ape-hiyi means ‘the boy played soccer (I assume)’”. Daunting, but Google gave me this post about the Economist article on a linguistics blog that is fascinating but also daunting. Arnold […]

  7. Karen Says:

    When translating from a non-evidentiary language into one requiring these markers, what is commonly done, what do the linguists do, and what do they recommend for the rest of us? Do Japanese readers give, say, English-speakers the benefit of the doubt, or assume we’re inferring everything when it’s not explicit? Do they have an ambivalent marker?

  8. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Karen: it’s very common for one language to have obligatory marking of some grammatical category that isn’t marked in another language. Translating, in either direction, then presents a problem. Going from the first language to the second in the most straightforward way involves losing information; but you can also convert the grammatical markers of the first language into lexical markers in the second (adverbials, say).

    Going from the second language to the first requires that you supply grammatical markers (unless the first language has neutral, unmarked, variants in addition to explicitly marked ones; this does occur, but not very often). You then have to guess at the speaker’s intentions, using information from context; sometimes you can pick the least informative of the available markers. But there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get it “right”.

  9. Karen Says:

    Well yes, that makes sense. I was rather hoping someone would offer some examples, or describe some customary solutions that translators use. Is the ambivalence ignored – the translator chooses and moves on? Is there a consensus to always use the least certain when the source language doesn’t specify? Does the choice depend on, say, the social status of the speaker, or the subject matter, or something? What do linguists do? etc.

    I’d follow up on the Aoki reference, but no longer have easy access to academic libraries, and fear it would be too technical. (No expectation that anyone ought to do it for me, just that, if someone wanted to offer such information, I’d read it happily.)

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