The World’s Most Difficult Languages

A recent article in The Economist (“Tongue Twisters,” Dec 17 2009) recently tackled the question, “what is the world’s most difficult language?” English, despite its admittedly insane orthography, is quickly dismissed as “pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember… English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.” The complexity of Latin and Greek, although possessing more challenging morphology than English, likewise pale in comparison to other languages.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Wikipedia.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Wikipedia.

What follows is a whirlwind tour of the complexity and diversity of human speech: the tonal system of Chinese, the sonic complexity of !Xóõ, a “click” language spoken in Botswana, Estonian’s 14 (!) cases, or the 50-140 declensions (!!) of Tuyuca, a language spoken in the eastern Amazon basin.

All these delicious linguistic details, however, point to a more fundamental question: does one’s language shape and constrict one’s thought, or are the observable complexities simply superficial variance over deep structural similarity? I lean strongly towards the former, but read the rest of the article and decide for yourself.

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