04 January 2010

Enough to Make One Drink in the Evening

The Economist just ran a story about complex languages. English is notorious for its irregular spellings and many exceptions to rules of all sort, the products of its large number of speakers, the lack of a central linguistic authority, and our magpie tendency to grab words from other languages. But grammatically English is on the simple side.

For instance, we have just three genders or “noun forms”: male, female, and neuter. And unlike many of the other languages we study in school, we can treat almost all non-human nouns as neuter.

Modern English has stripped down our pronouns to first person singular and plural, second person, third person singular in three genders, and third person plural in one gender. (Southern American English has found a way to regain the second person plural: “you all.”) So our brains aren’t in practice for what other languages require.

According to the article, speakers of Kwaio, most of whom live in the Solomon Islands, must distinguish several forms of the first person singular. A speaker uses different words if “us” includes or excludes the hearer, and if the “us” consists of two people, a few, or many.

And then there are the verb forms.

Berik, a language of New Guinea, also requires words to encode information that no English speaker considers. Verbs have endings, often obligatory, that tell what time of day something happened; telbener means “[he] drinks in the evening”. Where verbs take objects, an ending will tell their size: kitobana means “gives three large objects to a man in the sunlight.” Some verb-endings even say where the action of the verb takes place relative to the speaker: gwerantena means “to place a large object in a low place nearby”.

Chindali, a Bantu language, has a similar feature. One cannot say simply that something happened; the verb ending shows whether it happened just now, earlier today, yesterday or before yesterday. The future tense works in the same way.
And my eyes simply glazed over at the early sections of the article on sonic variety. I can’t even pronounce French well; I have no chance at Ubykh.

(Article found via Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish.)

1 comment:

Melissa Stewart said...

In last week's Science, there was an interesting article about the work of a liguist who creates languages for aliens, fantasy creatures, and the like in movies and TV. Unlike the piece you quote, it made the intricacies of language construction seem fascinating. I guess it's a lot like writing for kids--a writer needs to find the right hook to pull his/her readers in.