Reading Passage 2
A. A certain genre of books about English extols the language’s supposed difficulty and idiosyncrasy. “Crazy English”, by an American folk-linguist, Richard Lederer, asks “how is it that your nose can run and your feet can smell?” Bill Brysons “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way” says that “English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner... Imagine being a foreigner and having to learn that in English one tells a he but the truth.” Such books are usually harmless, if slightly fact-challenged. You tell “a” he but “the” truth in many languages, partly because many lies exist but truth is rather more definite.
B. It may be natural to think that your own tongue is complex and mysterious. But English is pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember. English-speakers appreciate this when they try to learn other languages. A Spanish verb has six present-tense forms, and six each in the preterite, imperfect, future, conditional, subjunctive and two different past subjunctives, for a total of 48 forms. German has three genders, seemingly so random that Mark Twain wondered why “a young lady has no sex, but a turnip has”. (Mcidchen is neuter, whereas Steckrube is feminine.) English spelling may be the most idiosyncratic, although French gives it a run for the money with 13 ways to spell the sound “o”. But spelling is ancillary to a language’s real complexity; English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.
C. Perhaps the “hardest” language studied by many Anglophones is Latin. In it, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them. This system, and its many exceptions, made for years of classroom torture for many children. But it also gives Latin a flexibility of word order. If the subject is marked as a subject with an ending, it need not come at the beginning of a sentence. This ability made many scholars of bygone days admire Latin’s majesty—and admire themselves for mastering it. Knowing Latin (and Greek, which presents similar problems) was long the sign of an educated person. Yet are Latin and Greek truly hard? These two genetic cousins of English, in the Indo-European language family, are child’s play compared with some. Languages tend to get “harder” the farther one moves from English and its relatives. Assessing how languages are tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages differ overall.
D. Even before learning a word, the foreigner is struck by how differently languages can sound. The uvular r’s of French and the fricative, glottal ch’s of German (and Scots) are essential to one’s imagination of these languages and their speakers. But sound systems get a lot more difficult than that. Vowels, for example, go far beyond a, e, i, o and u, and sometimes y. Those represent more than five or six sounds in English, consider the a’s in father, fate and fat. The vowels of European languages however vary more widely; think of the umlauted ones of German, or the nasal ones of French, Portuguese and Polish.
E. Yet much more exotic vowels exist, for example that carry tones: pitch that rises, falls, dips, stays low or high, and so on. Mandarin, the biggest language in the Chinese family, has four tones, so that what sounds just like “ma” in English has four distinct sounds, and meanings. That is relatively simple compared with other Chinese varieties. Cantonese has six tones, and Mandarin Chinese dialects seven or eight. One tone can also affect neighbouring tones’ pronunciation through a series of complex rules.
F. Consonants are more complex. Some (p, t, k, m and n are common) appear in most languages, but consonants can come in a blizzard of varieties known as egressive (air coming from the nose or mouth), ingressive (air coming back in the nose and mouth), elective (air expelled from the mouth while the breath is blocked by the glottis), pharyngealised (the pharynx constricted), palatised (the tongue raised toward the palate) and more. And languages with hard-to-pronounce consonants cluster in families. Languages in East Asia tend to have tonal vowels, those of the north-eastern Caucasus are known for consonantal complexity: Ubykh has 78 consonant sounds. Austronesian languages, by contrast, may have the simplest sounds of any language family.
G. Beyond sound comes the problem of grammar. On this score, some European languages are far harder than are, say, Latin or Greek. Latins six cases cower in comparison with Estonians 14, which include inessive, elative, adessive, abessive, and the system is riddled with irregularities and exceptions. Estonians cousins in the Finno-Ugric language group do much the same. Slavic languages force speakers, when talking about the past, to say whether an action was completed or not. Linguists call this “aspect”, and English has it too, for example in the distinction between “I go” and “I am going.” And to say “go” requires different Slavic verbs for going by foot, car, plane, boat or other conveyance. For Russians or Poles, the journey does matter more than the destination.
H. With all that in mind, which is the hardest language? On balance perhaps it would be Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It has a sound system with simple consonants and a few nasal vowels, so it is not that hard to speak, but the noun classes in Tuyuca’s language family have been estimated at between 50 and 140. Most fascinating is a feature that would make any journalist tremble. Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wimeans that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyimeans “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb. Evidential languages force speakers to think hard about how they learned what they say they know!