04 January 2010

I will never say English is the hardest language again

Having studied Russian and Chinese, I'm familiar with some of the many ways that languages are structured in completely different, incompatible ways. However, this article by the Economist shows exactly how weird many of the obligatory constructions are in some languages.

With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance The Economistwould 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.

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.

For the record, Chinese slang has created the "inclusive we" (zamen) but the regular "we" (women) is not necessarily exclusive then.

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