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

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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.

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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.

Critics though have claimed the survey indulged in cherry-picking only a few features of the world’s many languages. Indeed, there are features of English that are not “weird” compared to many other languages, such as its basic subject-verb-object word order. But let’s look here at two features of English that might in fact be unusual.

English sounds strange

English probably sounds a little “weird” to many speakers of other languages. According to the WALS, the average number of distinctive speech sounds in the world’s languages is about 25-30 – known as “phonemes”. Pirahã, an indigenous language spoken in the Amazon region of Brazil, has an unusually small set of phonemes. It has eight consonants, and just three vowels: /i/, /a/ and /o/. In contrast, Taa – also known as !Xóõ) is a language in southern Africa which has more than 100 phonemes, including many different types of click sounds. Sign languages, such as British Sign Language or American Sign Language, do not use sounds at all. Signs are, instead, composed out of combinations of handshapes, movements of the hands, and locations on or near the body of the signer.

English has more phonemes than many languages, with around 44, depending on which variety of English you speak. It has an unusually large set of vowel sounds – there are around 11. According to WALS, most spoken languages only have between five to six vowel sounds. This is part of the reason that English spelling is fiendishly complicated, because it has inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and speakers have to make them work for more than twice that number of sounds.

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English has some comparatively unusual consonant sounds as well. Two sounds, those represented by the “th” in “bath” and “bathe” respectively, are found in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. In fact, these two sounds are generally among the last sounds acquired by children, with some adult varieties of English not using them at all.

The question of questions

English grammar is also “weird”. English uses varying word orders to distinguish between questions and statements – meaning that the subject of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase “life is a box of chocolates” for example. Here, the order is subject (“life”) followed by the verb (“is”). In the question, “is life a box of chocolates?”, the order of these elements is reversed.

In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2% of languages in the sample used English-like differences in sentence structure for questions. Over 50% of the languages added a question particle to differentiate a question from a statement.

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In Japanese, for example, you add the question particle “ka” to a statement to turn it into a question. The second most common strategy in WALS was to change the intonation pattern, such as changing a falling intonation pattern (for a statement) to a rising one (for a question). In contrast, Mixtec (an indigenous language of Mexico) is a highly atypical language because it does not use any grammatical strategy to distinguish between questions and statements.

That said, it is impossible to conclusively make the argument that English is, or isn’t, “weird” because all the data needed to make this judgement is not available. As several thousand languages have not yet been included in WALS, this means WALS can only be used to compare English with a small proportion of the estimated 7000 languages in the world today. So more language documentation is ultimately needed to give a better understanding of the world’s amazing linguistic diversity.The Conversation

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By Adam Schembri, Reader in Linguistics, Department of English Language and Linguistics, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Mohammed bin Salman’s phone responsible for hack of Jeff Bezos’ phone: report

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According to a new report from The Guardian, billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos's cellphone was hacked in 2018 after he received a WhatsApp message that apparently originated from the personal account of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Guardian reports that an encrypted message sent "from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman" possibly contained a malicious file that "infiltrated" Bezos's phone. The message was sent after the two men were reportedly having a "seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange" when the unsolicited file was sent on May 1 of that year.

While large amounts of data were extracted from Bezos's phone as a result of the attack, The Guardian does not know the nature of the data extracted or how it was used.

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‘Critical Moment’ as two key architects of CIA torture program testify under oath in Guantanamo Bay

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"Torture is never justified and anyone who uses it must be held to account."

Human rights groups marked a significant "moment of reckoning" on Tuesday for the U.S. torture program used by the CIA following the attacks of September 11, 2001 as the two psychologists who developed the program arrived in Guantanamo Bay to testify under oath.

James E. Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen are testifying for the first time since 2017 as part of pre-trial proceedings in the trial of five men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks. A military commission judge is currently considering whether statements made by the defendants can be considered voluntary and used in the trial, considering they were made after the men had been tortured using Mitchell and Jessen's tactics.

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Alan Dershowitz disowns his pre-Trump views on impeachment: ‘I retract it’

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Donald Trump impeachment defense attorney Alan Dershowitz disowned his previous views on impeachment on Tuesday.

As his colleague, Patrick Philbin, argued against a motion for witnesses on the Senate floor, Dershowitz retracted his previous views while posting to Twitter from somewhere else.

"To the extent there are inconsistencies between my current position and what I said 22 years ago, I am correct today," Dershowitz argued.

He went on to argue that, "abuse of power and obstruction of congress are neither crimes nor criminal-like behavior."

"So I have now thoroughly researched the issue and concluded that although a technical crime with all the elements may not be required, criminal like behavior akin to treason and bribery is required," he wrote. "

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