Is English “weird”? Many of us may really feel that is true once we’re attempting to clarify the complicated spelling guidelines of the language, or the meanings of idioms resembling “it’s raining cats and dogs” to somebody who’s studying English. Teaching or studying any language is, nevertheless, by no means a simple activity.
But what’s a “weird” language anyway? I’m a linguist and we typically goal to be as goal as attainable within the examine of human language. We view ourselves as language scientists who make hypotheses about how people use language and check them towards linguistic knowledge. Unlike so-called “language police”, we imagine you will need to keep away from the place attainable making worth judgments about language.
Some computational linguists have, nevertheless, used knowledge in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) to discover which languages is likely to be thought of the “weirdest”. This was not only a worth judgment: they systematically in contrast the knowledge within the WALS web site for 239 languages from totally different components of the world.
Their goal was to search out out which languages had the most important variety of options that differed most from different languages. In this survey, English got here in 33rd place out of 239 languages. So it was undoubtedly “weirder” than over 80% of the opposite languages within the survey.
Critics although have claimed the survey indulged in cherry-picking only some options of the world’s many languages. Indeed, there are options of English that aren’t “weird” in comparison with many different languages, resembling its fundamental subject-verb-object phrase order. But let’s look right here at two options of English which may, in reality, be uncommon.
English in all probability sounds a little bit “weird” to many audio system of different languages. According to the WALS, the typical variety of distinctive speech sounds on the planet’s languages is about 25-30—often known as “phonemes”. Pirahã, an indigenous language spoken within the Amazon area of Brazil, has an unusually small set of phonemes. It has eight consonants, and simply three vowels: /i/, /a/ and /o/. In distinction, Taa—also referred to as !Xóõ) is a language in southern Africa which has greater than 100 phonemes, together with many various kinds of click on sounds. Sign languages, resembling British Sign Language or American Sign Language, don’t use sounds in any respect. Signs are, as a substitute, composed out of combos of handshapes, actions of the fingers, and areas on or close to the physique of the signer.
English has extra phonemes than many languages, with round 44, relying on which number of English you communicate. It has an unusually giant set of vowel sounds—there are round 11. According to WALS, most spoken languages solely have between 5 to 6 vowel sounds. This is a part of the explanation that English spelling is fiendishly difficult, as a result of it has inherited 5 letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and audio system must make them work for greater than twice that variety of sounds.
English has some comparatively uncommon consonant sounds as nicely. Two sounds, these represented by the “th” in “bath” and “bathe” respectively, are present in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. In truth, these two sounds are typically among the many final sounds acquired by kids, with some grownup sorts of English not utilizing them in any respect.
English grammar can be “weird”. English makes use of various phrase orders to differentiate between questions and statements—that means that the topic of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase “life is a box of chocolates” for instance. Here, the order is topic (“life”) adopted by the verb (“is”). In the query, “is life a box of chocolates?”, the order of those parts is reversed.
In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2 p.c of languages within the pattern used English-like variations in sentence construction for questions. Over 50 p.c of the languages added a query particle to distinguish a query from a press release.
In Japanese, for instance, you add the query particle “ka” to a press release to show it right into a query. The second most typical technique in WALS was to vary the intonation sample, resembling altering a falling intonation sample (for a press release) to a rising one (for a query). In distinction, Mixtec (an indigenous language of Mexico) is a extremely atypical language as a result of it doesn’t use any grammatical technique to differentiate between questions and statements.
That stated, it’s inconceivable to conclusively make the argument that English is, or isn’t, “weird” as a result of all the information wanted to make this judgemnt is just not out there. As a number of thousand languages haven’t but been included in WALS, this implies WALS can solely be used to match English with a small proportion of the estimated 7000 languages on the planet at present. So extra language documentation is in the end wanted to provide a greater understanding of the world’s wonderful linguistic range.
Stock picture: English is without doubt one of the world’s weirdest languages. iStock