In “Tongue Twisters” The Economist searches for the worlds most difficult language.
Yet much more exotic vowels exist, for example that carry tones: pitch that rises, falls, dips, stays low or high, and so on. Mandarin, the biggest language in the Chinese family, has four tones, so that what sounds just like “ma” in English has four distinct sounds, and meanings. That is relatively simple compared with other Chinese varieties. Cantonese has six tones, and Min Chinese dialects seven or eight. One tone can also affect neighbouring tones’ pronunciation through a series of complex rules.
Tonal languages are very difficult for speakers of non-tonal languages. Chinese is filled with homonyms as it is, making proper intonation very important. For Chinese, the sounds of tāng táng tǎng tàng tang are just as different as the sounds of foo boo hoo sue and do to english speakers.
In case you forgot what a homonym is:
- bow – a long wooden stick with horse hair that is used to play violin
- bow – to bend forward at the waist in respect (e.g. “bow down”)
- bow – the front of the ship (e.g. “bow and stern”)
- bow – the weapon which shoots arrows (e.g. “bow and arrow”)
- bow – a kind of tied ribbon (e.g. bow on a present, a bowtie)
- bow – to bend outward at the sides (e.g. a “bow-legged” cowboy)
- bough – a branch on a tree. (e.g. “when the bough breaks…”)
- bō – a long staff, usually made of tapered hard wood or bamboo
- beau – a male paramour
Perhaps the most exotic sounds are clicks—technically “non-pulmonic” consonants that do not use the airstream from the lungs for their articulation. The best-known click languages are in southern Africa. Xhosa, widely spoken in South Africa, is known for its clicks. The first sound of the language’s name is similar to the click that English-speakers use to urge on a horse.
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).
Remember. The best-known click languages along with !Xóõ are all available in Southern Africa. Want a lump in your larynx, go for it.
A fierce debate exists in linguistics between those, such as Noam Chomsky, who think that all languages function roughly the same way in the brain and those who do not. The latter view was propounded by Benjamin Lee Whorf, an American linguist of the early 20th century, who argued that different languages condition or constrain the mind’s habits of thought.
Whorfianism has been criticised for years, but it has been making a comeback. Lera Boroditsky of Stanford University, for example, points to the Kuuk Thaayorre, aboriginals of northern Australia who have no words for “left” or “right”, using instead absolute directions such as “north” and “south-east” (as in “You have an ant on your south-west leg”). Ms Boroditsky says that any Kuuk Thaayorre child knows which way is south-east at any given time, whereas a roomful of Stanford professors, if asked to point south-east quickly, do little better than chance. The standard Kuuk Thayoorre greeting is “where are you going?”, with an answer being something like “north-north-east, in the middle distance.” Not knowing which direction is which, Ms Boroditsky notes, a Westerner could not get past “hello”. Universalists retort that such neo-Whorfians are finding trivial surface features of language: the claim that language truly constricts thinking is still not proven.
Considering that Noam Chomsky is a mono-lingual linguist, I would be less inclined to trust his linguistic theories. Ever wonder why he’s in the linguistics department rather than the political science department?
The experience of learning Chinese and integrating into Chinese culture has taught me that the presence and absence of words affects thought. The word here is affect, not control. Anyone can think anything, but certain thoughts are more natural depending on your linguistic and cultural background.
With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economist would go for Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so is not as hard to speak as Ubykh or !Xóõ. Like Turkish, it is heavily agglutinating, so that one word, hóabãsiriga means “I do not know how to write.” Like Kwaio, it has two words for “we”, inclusive and exclusive. The noun classes (genders) in Tuyuca’s language family (including close relatives) have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Some are rare, such as “bark that does not cling closely to a tree”, which can be extended to things such as baggy trousers, or wet plywood that has begun to peel apart.
Anyone ready to sing up with me for Lingua-Traveling? Let’s go learn Tuyuca!