Linguists found the weirdest languages – and English is one of them

Linguists found the weirdest languages – and English is one of them
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Is English "weird"? Many of us might feel this is true when we're trying to explain the complex spelling rules of the language, or the meanings of idioms such as "it's raining cats and dogs" to someone who is learning English. Teaching or learning any language is, however, never an easy task.

But what is a "weird" anyway? I am a linguist and we generally aim to be as objective as possible in the study of . We view ourselves as language scientists who make hypotheses about how humans use language and test them against linguistic data. Unlike so-called "language police," we believe it is important to avoid where possible making value judgements about language.

Some computational linguists have, however, used data in the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) to explore which languages might be considered the "weirdest". This was not just a value judgment: they systematically compared the information in the WALS website for 239 languages from different parts of the world.

Their aim was to find out which languages had the largest number of features that differed most from other languages. In this survey, English came in 33rd position out of 239 languages. So it was definitely "weirder" than over 80% of the other languages in the survey.

Critics though have claimed the survey indulged in cherry-picking only a few features of the world's many languages. Indeed, there are features of English that are not "weird" compared to many other languages, such as its basic subject-verb-object word order. But let's look here at two features of English that might in fact be unusual.

English sounds strange

English probably sounds a little "weird" to many speakers of other languages. According to the WALS, the average number of distinctive speech sounds in the world's languages is about 25-30 – known as "phonemes." Pirahã, an indigenous language spoken in the Amazon region of Brazil, has an unusually small set of phonemes. It has eight consonants, and just three vowels: /i/, /a/ and /o/. In contrast, Taa – also known as !Xóõ) is a language in southern Africa which has more than 100 phonemes, including many different types of click sounds. Sign languages, such as British Sign Language or American Sign Language, do not use sounds at all. Signs are, instead, composed out of combinations of handshapes, movements of the hands, and locations on or near the body of the signer.

Linguists found the weirdest languages – and English is one of them
Only 6,000 people in the world speak Chalcatongo Mixtec – considered to be the ‘world’s weirdest language’. Credit: Pexels

English has more phonemes than many languages, with around 44, depending on which variety of English you speak. It has an unusually large set of vowel sounds – there are around 11. According to WALS, most spoken languages only have between five to six vowel sounds. This is part of the reason that English spelling is fiendishly complicated, because it has inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and speakers have to make them work for more than twice that number of sounds.

English has some comparatively unusual consonant sounds as well. Two sounds, those represented by the "th" in "bath" and "bathe" respectively, are found in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. In fact, these two sounds are generally among the last sounds acquired by children, with some adult varieties of English not using them at all.

The question of questions

English grammar is also "weird." English uses varying word orders to distinguish between questions and statements – meaning that the subject of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase "life is a box of chocolates" for example. Here, the order is subject ("life") followed by the verb ("is"). In the question, "is life a box of chocolates?", the order of these elements is reversed.

In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2% of languages in the sample used English-like differences in sentence structure for questions. Over 50% of the languages added a question particle to differentiate a question from a statement.

In Japanese, for example, you add the question particle "ka" to a statement to turn it into a question. The second most common strategy in WALS was to change the intonation pattern, such as changing a falling intonation pattern (for a statement) to a rising one (for a question). In contrast, Mixtec (an of Mexico) is a highly atypical language because it does not use any grammatical strategy to distinguish between questions and statements.

That said, it is impossible to conclusively make the argument that English is, or isn't, "weird" because all the data needed to make this judgement is not available. As several thousand languages have not yet been included in WALS, this means WALS can only be used to compare English with a small proportion of the estimated 7000 languages in the world today. So more language documentation is ultimately needed to give a better understanding of the world's amazing linguistic diversity.

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Apr 12, 2019
The original quip is attributed to at least three different people, so probably predates them...

"English is about as pure as a crib-house wh***e. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

Apr 14, 2019
And here's another example...

"Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Atfer rieicevng the eamil aovbe, I tuohght it'd be a good ieda to witre a pgorram to test the trehoy out!"

While studying the blurb on a free app that draws 2½D Celtic knots, I noticed the author's list of his other software. I actually read this several times before realising why it looked a bit, um, odd...

Isn't the English language weird ??

Apr 15, 2019
Yes, but I feel it is the migrations that sometimes have replaced the population more or less completely. I mean, Scandinavian Vikings used *both* different word orders and intonation to distinguish between statements and questions - we still do.

I would rather say English is "a total mses", as languages are wont to be due to their evolution.

Apr 15, 2019
Yes, most of the problem with English for non English speakers is, I'm guessing, due to its mixed heritage. Anglo-Saxon was similar to other Germanic languages back in the day. Then we had the Vikings, who added their (a word of Norse origin) own slew of words to the language. And then the Normans, with a shed load of French loan words. Despite the latter, spot the only word of non-English origin in the following;

We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

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