Is English “bizarre”? Many people may really feel that is true once we’re attempting to clarify the advanced spelling guidelines of the language, or the meanings of idioms equivalent to “it’s raining cats and canines” to somebody who’s studying English. Educating or studying any language is, nevertheless, by no means a simple process.

However what’s a “bizarre” language anyway? I’m a linguist and we typically intention to be as goal as doable within the research of human language. We view ourselves as language scientists who make hypotheses about how people use language and take a look at them in opposition to linguistic information. Not like so-called “language police”, we consider it is very important keep away from the place doable making worth judgments about language.

Some computational linguists have, nevertheless, used information within the World Atlas of Language Buildings (WALS) to discover which languages could be thought-about the “weirdest”. This was not only a worth judgment: they systematically in contrast the data within the WALS web site for 239 languages from totally different components of the world.

Their intention was to seek out out which languages had the biggest variety of options that differed most from different languages. On 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.

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Critics although have claimed the survey indulged in cherry-picking only some options of the world’s many languages. Certainly, there are options of English that aren’t “bizarre” in comparison with many different languages, equivalent to its fundamental subject-verb-object phrase order. However let’s look right here at two options of English that may, the truth is, be uncommon.

English sounds unusual

English most likely sounds slightly “bizarre” to many audio system of different languages. In accordance with the WALS, the typical variety of distinctive speech sounds on the planet’s languages is about 25-30—generally 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—often known as !Xóõ) is a language in southern Africa which has greater than 100 phonemes, together with many several types of click on sounds. Signal languages, equivalent to British Signal Language or American Signal Language, don’t use sounds in any respect. Indicators are, as an alternative, composed out of mixtures 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 converse. It has an unusually massive set of vowel sounds—there are round 11. In accordance with WALS, most spoken languages solely have between 5 to 6 vowel sounds. That is a part of the rationale that English spelling is fiendishly difficult, as a result of it has inherited 5 letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet and audio system should make them work for greater than twice that variety of sounds.

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English has some comparatively uncommon consonant sounds as properly. Two sounds, these represented by the “th” in “bathtub” and “bathe” respectively, are present in fewer than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS. Actually, these two sounds are typically among the many final sounds acquired by youngsters, with some grownup types of English not utilizing them in any respect.

The query of questions

English grammar can also be “bizarre”. English makes use of various phrase orders to tell apart between questions and statements—that means that the topic of the sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take the phrase “life is a field of candies” for instance. Right here, the order is topic (“life”) adopted by the verb (“is”). Within the query, “is life a field of candies?”, the order of those parts is reversed.

In a WALS survey of 955 languages, fewer than 2 % of languages within the pattern used English-like variations in sentence construction for questions. Over 50 % of the languages added a query particle to distinguish a query from an announcement.

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In Japanese, for instance, you add the query particle “ka” to an announcement to show it right into a query. The second most typical technique in WALS was to vary the intonation sample, equivalent to altering a falling intonation sample (for an announcement) 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 tell apart between questions and statements.

That mentioned, it’s unimaginable to conclusively make the argument that English is, or isn’t, “bizarre” as a result of all the info wanted to make this judgemnt will not be obtainable. As a number of thousand languages haven’t but been included in WALS, this implies WALS can solely be used to check English with a small proportion of the estimated 7000 languages on the planet in the present day. So extra language documentation is in the end wanted to offer a greater understanding of the world’s superb linguistic range.

Adam Schembri, Reader in Linguistics, Division of English Language and Linguistics, College of Birmingham

This text is republished from The Dialog underneath a Inventive Commons license. Learn the unique article.

The Conversation English language, dictionary Inventory picture: English is among the world’s weirdest languages. iStock


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