16 votes

Linguists found the weirdest languages – and English is one of them

6 comments

  1. [5]
    alyaza Link
    i was exceedingly weary of the title because, almost invariably, these "weird" language lists are completely subjective bullshit written by people who obviously aren't linguists or qualified in...

    i was exceedingly weary of the title because, almost invariably, these "weird" language lists are completely subjective bullshit written by people who obviously aren't linguists or qualified in any way to talk about language and therefore are basically just calling it as they see it, but i am pleased to see they explained what they mean here and actually based this in data. for those of you who may have been offput by the title alone:

    Is English “weird”? Many of us might feel this is true when we’re trying to explain the complex spelling rules of the language, or the meanings of idioms such as “it’s raining cats and dogs” to someone who is learning English. Teaching or learning any language is, however, never an easy task.
    But what is a “weird” language anyway? I am a linguist and we generally aim to be as objective as possible in the study of human language. We view ourselves as language scientists who make hypotheses about how humans use language and test them against linguistic data. Unlike so-called “language police”, we believe it is important to avoid where possible making value judgements about language.
    Some computational linguists have, however, used data in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) to explore which languages might be considered the “weirdest”. This was not just a value judgement: they systematically compared the information in the WALS website for 239 languages from different parts of the world.
    Their aim was to find out which languages had the largest number of features that differed most from other languages. In this survey, English came in 33rd position out of 239 languages. So it was definitely “weirder” than over 80% of the other languages in the survey.

    11 votes
    1. [4]
      UniquelyGeneric (edited ) Link Parent
      What I think contributes to English’s “weirdness” is that it’s actually a combination of two language families, Romance/Latin and Germanic, with some sprinkles of other language roots (Greek,...

      What I think contributes to English’s “weirdness” is that it’s actually a combination of two language families, Romance/Latin and Germanic, with some sprinkles of other language roots (Greek, Gaelic, and even Arabic). Without pretending to be a linguist myself, I’m fascinated by etymologies as they show a more organic flow of history as it affected people’s lives.

      It’s this hodgepodge of roots that provides English with a large amount of flexibility in creating new words. For example, “hodgepodge” has a French root and “mishmash” has a Germanic one. They mean the same thing, but either can be used depending on the context (e.g. “mishmash” can be used to imply that there is more of a mismatch that occurred).

      Because of this, we have words like “Internet” which are a mix of Latin (inter-) and Germanic (net), and have been adopted across the world. This influx of words surely makes learning English more difficult, but it also opens the possibilities of more appropriately describing increasingly complicated concepts of the modern world.

      I can’t tell whether English is the de facto language of the Internet is a function of:

      • US creation of the infrastructure & programming languages

      OR

      • Ubiquity of English due to British colonialism

      Regardless, I think its flexible lexicon (flexicon?) has enabled English to adapt better than most languages to the changing dynamics of human thought.

      5 votes
      1. [3]
        alyaza Link Parent
        a linguist would tell you that's not specifically true. it absolutely has a lot of romance language influence (predominantly in its lexicon) because of the normans who spoke french, but we can...

        What I think contributes to English’s “weirdness” is that it’s actually a combination of two language families, Romance/Latin and Germanic, with some sprinkles of other language roots (Greek, Spanish, and even Arabic).

        a linguist would tell you that's not specifically true. it absolutely has a lot of romance language influence (predominantly in its lexicon) because of the normans who spoke french, but we can quite distinctly trace its heritage and most of its features through the germanic languages such that it is firmly in the germanic camp. after all, english doesn't have a couple of the major tells of the romance languages (or if it did, has since lost them): complex morphology in verbs, a heavy use of grammatical gender, a larger amount of inflection, even littler things like having a direct pronoun form like "it", etc.

        I can’t tell if English being the de facto language of the Internet is a function of: US creation of the infrastructure & programming languages OR Ubiquity of English due to British colonialism

        both. colonialism spread english to most of the world well in advance of the internet, and things like cultural imperialism and the western-centric nature of the internet until very recently have both reinforced and largely contributed to english being the lingua franca of most of the internet.

        Regardless, I think its flexible lexicon (flexicon?) has enabled English to adapt better than most languages to the changing dynamics of human thought.

        i mean, english isn't that much more flexible than other languages in this respect, it just happens to be the language most people for international things today and that means it's the language where a lot of new words are coined. if we used french, or mandarin chinese, or turkish, or hell, georgian, the same thing would probably happen as currently happens in english, because coining new terms is a part of linguistic change. it's also worth keeping in mind that how english deals with morphology is just one type of morphology and not the universal way words are strung together--agglutinative languages for example can pretty casually create "words" that are incredibly precise in their definition and close to impossible to accurately replicate in english, like the hungarian elnemzetietleníthetetlenségnek (for [the purposes of] undenationalizationability) or the finnish epäjärjestelmällistyttämättömyydellänsäkäänköhän (I wonder if – even with his/her quality of not having been made unsystematized).

        6 votes
        1. [2]
          UniquelyGeneric (edited ) Link Parent
          Again, I'm only a wordsmith by hobby, so I'm by no means an expert, but perhaps I can revise my original thought to instead be that while English may have a Germanic root, the Latin influence was...

          Again, I'm only a wordsmith by hobby, so I'm by no means an expert, but perhaps I can revise my original thought to instead be that while English may have a Germanic root, the Latin influence was far stronger than later influences due to it preceding the overall global spread of the language. As English exposed itself to new geographic locations and foreign languages, even the distances between regional dialects start to contribute loan words.

          english doesn't have a couple of the major tells of the romance languages

          It still borrows over half it's lexicon from Latin and French nonetheless, and the lack of stringent word formulation rules allow it to use more varied spellings and pronunciations (e.g. gendered conjugations no longer require the same handful of suffixes).

          agglutinative languages for example can pretty casually create "words" that are incredibly precise

          I feel that's not quite the same vein, where English also has words like "antidisestablishmentarianism" which get can the specific point across, but are obscenely unreadable. One could argue that Finnish needs those agglutinative words because it's less ubiquitous and doesn't share enough loan words with other languages.

          If you look at the Latin alphabet that English inherited, it originates from the Phoenicians who themselves needed a written method to keep track of the various phonemes they spoke while trading across the Mediterranean. English, similarly, has had to adapt through its constant exposure to other languages, fulfilling a virtuous cycle of extensibility.

          Now, something that's not unique to English is slang, which is itself an invented word for "shorted language". I feel it's in that ever-evolving repurposing of language where newly connected neurons in the linguistic part of the mind achieve language's original desire to communicate novel experiences. So, while any language+mind can potentially foment new words, I guess my point is English is uniquely positioned to be the progenitor of many due to a critical mass of speakers that's only further enhanced by its omnipresence on Internet.

          1 vote
          1. alyaza Link Parent
            again, that's mostly norman influence. kinda doesn't mean anything, doesn't really chance how we categorize the language. it's a quirky thing for sure, but it's not infrequent that languages do...

            It borrows over half it's lexicon from Latin and French nonetheless,

            again, that's mostly norman influence. kinda doesn't mean anything, doesn't really chance how we categorize the language. it's a quirky thing for sure, but it's not infrequent that languages do weird things like that. japanese and the chinese languages are (as far as we know) not related, but japanese aped a shit ton of chinese into its lexicon and adopted an entire writing system from them under cultural influence, and actually so did the koreans and the vietnamese (until koreans adopted hangeul and the vietnamese adopted a latin orthography with portuguese influence).

            and the lack of stringent word formulation rules allow it to use more varied spellings and pronunciations (e.g. gendered conjugations no longer require the same handful of suffixes).

            this also kinda doesn't matter, honestly (and is also probably wrong)? word formation is pretty universally lax and i don't know of any language that has "stringent" word formation rules, in fact. i guess i should ask you what you mean by this.

            I feel that's not quite the same vein, where English also has words like "antidisestablishmentarianism" which get can the specific point across, but are obscenely unreadable. One could argue that Finnish needs those agglutinative words because it's less ubiquitous and doesn't share enough loan words with other languages.

            personally, i think it's more likely that words like that are because finnish and hungarian are agglutinative languages, and being able to create words like that is just kind of a byproduct of how that variety of morphology works and always has worked. i think your argument would be very quickly shot down by literally any linguist, because i think you'd be hard pressed to argue that

            "Ja he sanoivat toisilleen: "Tehkäämme tiiliä ja polttakaamme ne koviksi." He käyttivät savitiiltä rakennuskivenä ja asfalttipikeä muuraamiseen."

            is really any less objectively readable than

            "Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar."

            just because it lacks loan words or inflects differently and has a distinct morphology from english. just as you find finnish words quite curious looking, i would imagine many finns find english words quite weird on some level too.

            also incidentally, english actually works the same way as those languages do in some cases--morphemes of germanic origin (but only of germanic origin) can be strung together in a fashion similar to agglutinative languages, which is actually how we get words like unwholesomeness (composed of un-whole-some-ness).

            I guess my point is English is uniquely positioned to be the progenitor of many due to a critical mass of speakers that's only further enhanced by its omnipresence on Internet.

            i mean yeah, i think that's been the general trend with the major languages of the world--back when it was french that was the dominant language of the world i assume that a lot of words were coined in french and not english and so on. probably always gonna be that way, whether the major language of the world is eventually english, or french, or ubykh, or whatever else.

            4 votes
  2. danjac Link
    Most interesting points: Basque is "normal", Mandarin is one of the most weird and Cantonese least weird; and one of the least weird languages - in terms of unique features - is Hindi.

    Most interesting points: Basque is "normal", Mandarin is one of the most weird and Cantonese least weird; and one of the least weird languages - in terms of unique features - is Hindi.

    2 votes