The Economist's Christmas Special (see earlier post) has a wonderful article about difficult languages, which should delight all linguists. Learners of English will be encouraged to discover that, despite what they might think, 'English is a relatively simple language':
Verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember.
English-speakers appreciate this when they try to learn other languages. A Spanish verb has six present-tense forms, and six each in the preterite, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive and two different past subjunctives, for a total of 48 forms. German has three genders, seemingly so random that Mark Twain wondered why “a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”. (Mädchen is neuter, whereas Steckrübe is feminine.)English spelling may be the most idiosyncratic, although French gives it a run for the money with 13 ways to spell the sound “o”: o, ot, ots, os, ocs, au, aux, aud, auds, eau, eaux, ho and ö. “Ghoti,” as wordsmiths have noted, could be pronounced “fish”: gh as in “cough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”. But spelling is ancillary to a language’s real complexity; English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.
So what is the world's hardest language? The Economist plumps 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.So next time someone complains that English is difficult, tell them to be thankful they don't have to learn Tuyuca. The article ends with a sobering thought:
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.
Fewer than 1,000 people speak Tuyuca. Ubykh died in 1992. Half of today’s languages may be gone in a century. Linguists are racing to learn what they can before the forces of modernisation and globalisation quieten the strangest tongues. Full article >>COMMENTS
Bill Poser makes some interesting points in his review of this article on Language Log. For example, how do you define 'difficult' in this context. A language which an English speaker finds hard to learn might be a lot easier for someone from Korea, and vice versa. There's also the question of what aspect of the language is 'difficult'. Some languages are difficult to pronounce, while others have complicated grammar systems. And then there's the written form. The notion of difficulty is bound to be subjective when it comes to learning a language.