A widely traveled friend of mine tells me that there are dozens of countries that pride themselves on having the hottest cuisine in the world. You think you’ve had hot peppers before, my friend? That’s only because you’ve never been to _____. Similarly, people like to believe that their native tongue is the zaniest, most mixed-up and implausible language on the planet. And why not? All languages have their weirdness, and local chauvinism is a satisfying brew. My friend Mike lived in Japan for a few years and got used to having the locals tell him Japanese is wicked hard because, get this, the words for bridge and chopsticks are the same: hashi. He had very little luck explaining that homonyms can be found in English too. Mike liked to point out that, while the writing system and politeness levels are tricky, simply learning to speak Japanese well enough to be understood actually isn’t that hard.
Does it make sense to try to figure out which language is truly the hardest? This is the question that an entertaining essay in the Economist by Robert Lane Greene tries to answer. As you might expect, he doesn’t produced a single answer, but he does give some remarkable facts about languages with difficult sounds (!Xóõ in Botswana has more than twenty clicking sounds) and grammars (Bora in Peru has 350 genders).
My friend Alan, the famous Star Chamber guest author on all matters linguistic, forwarded the article to me with a note that he’d come across it on the Language Log. I recommend reading both the article and the Language Log commentary, because watching linguists argue is almost as much fun as watching statisticians argue, and there many fine points here up with which for discussion to be put.
I especially liked Greene’s comment on long words: “Agglutinating languages—that pack many bits of meaning into single words—are a source of fascination for those who do not speak them.” I am certainly guilty of this. Language Log commenter Bill Poser elaborates as follows.
A point that frequently arises is the idea that languages that pack a lot of information into words are difficult. Is it really self-evident that it is harder to deal with complex words than with multi-word phrases that convey the same information? If a language puts a lot into a word but does so in a transparent way, so that words are easy to parse, interpret, and construct, why should this be difficult? It may well be that the perception of difficulty here merely reflects unfamiliarity, which is likely true of quite a few of the features often cited as leading to difficulty.
Doubleplusgood pointgespoken! Nothing is more contemptible than familiarity, nor more exotic than something that is exoticnessful. Nevertheless, I can’t help but be tickled by a comment from a reader of the Economist article that in Inuit, one can say “it can be very slippery on the deck” with the assertion Quasartupilussuusinnaavoq.