Language weirdness

Certainly not on any of the usual topics of this blog, but highly recommended. Coding and analyzing language features for a language’s relative “weirdness“. Fascinating stuff.

Please discuss–preferably in a weird language.

13 thoughts on “Language weirdness

  1. I see a problem with their definition of weirdness.

    They seem to count up the number of languages that have a particular feature, and if a language does it differently, it is considered to be “weird”. But languages apparently are not weighted according to the number of speakers. So a language spoken by a Siberian tribe of a thousand people is weighted equally with Mandarin Chinese.

    Hence Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish are considered to be relatively “weird” (with English at # 33). But a majority of the world’s population speaks one of the three as their primary language.

  2. Conceptually, this is a tricky question. Analogous to the Connecticut Compromise: Do you count heads, or do you count communities equally, or some combination of both?

    On the one hand, most people don’t ‘vote for’ the language that they speak. You can’t say that Chinese has ‘outpolled’ Icelandic fair and square by 13,000,000,000 votes to 300,000. Especially since often the languages with fewer speakers are or have been ruthlessly pushed into, or towards, extinction by those with more speakers (Welsh, Basque, Kurdish, Australian Aboriginal languages, just to name a few).

    On the other hand, numbers should mean something. The brute empirical fact is that an alien emissary wanting to communicate with most of the human race is going to prioritise learning Spanish, English, Hindi/ Urdu and Mandarin over Finnish, Maltese and Irish Gaelic.

    Also the definition of a ‘community’ can be socially (re-) constructed. West Virginia and Maine insist they are separate states, just as Norwegian speakers insist they are a separate language (okay – two separate languages) from Danish.

    (To be honest, I even find New Zealand English requires some translation into Australianglophony — not so much because of the accent as the idiom (eg, ‘choice’ instead of ‘good’) and the substantial borrowing of Maori words).

    One of the Idibon commenters suggested counting the log of the number of speakers. Something like that, or the square or the cube root, might give a more accurate reading.

  3. The ambassador of the galactic federation is not necessarily going to be interested only in demographics, and presumably has translation and learning software that make it easy for them to master what languages they choose. A galactic federation under the rule of a supreme religious leader might choose to communicate only in Hebrew, Latin or Sanskrit and make for an interesting variant on The day the earth stood still.

  4. Meant to add:

    Cortés never bothered learning Nahuatl or any other indigenous language and it was not Mexican demographics that guided him in making Spanish the language of governance in his new domain.

  5. What made Spanish and Portuguese the main languages throughout Latin America? And the only country that is the exception is Paraguay where Guarani is the co-official language along with Spanish?

    Speaking of Language, and Democracy, Is Democracy a universal concept and does the word exist in all the world’s languages? I know that it means people power in Greek, but technically can the word be translated in other languages or is the word misused.

    People sometimes say that the United States is a Republic and not a Democracy. What ever that means. I think that the U.S is both.

    What is a Republic?

    Wikipedia has a definition at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Res_publica
    “the public thing/affair” that what a Republic means. Interesting.

    A country that is not a monarchy. Isn’t North Korea a monarchy?

  6. Alan @5: Okay, then, replace “alien ambassador from a civilisation so advanced it is capable of interstellar travel (and therefore, presumably, of universal translation)” with “ordinary terrestrial homines sapientes trying to decide which half-dozen languages shall be the official languages of the World Assembly (with a proviso that documents must be translated into all official languages and each version is equally legally authoritative).” I think it safe to say that Portuguese would beat Polish on that test.

    Alan @6: Okay, then, replace “numbers” with “demographic, military, and/or economic strength (or, in Cortes’ case, serendipitous religious authority”. Even if the dominant language doesn’t start off with a numerical majority, it often goes about acquiring such, by fair means or foul.

    Myself @2: Puzzlingly, though perhaps appropriately, for a post on weirdness, my URL was supposed to lead the curious to this http://tinyurl.com/loapcpr – not to the, er, advertisement shown.

  7. Regional languages are remarkably resistant. Occitan, Basque and Bretron in France and Venetian in Italy are happily re-emerging after fairly bloody minded attempts at their destruction by nation-states. Ditto the Celtic languages in the UK.

  8. The Guugu Yimithirr weirdness is that it has absolute directions instead of egocentric directions. Thus you can say an object is to your north, but there are no words for left or right. Guugu Yimithirr political commentary must be fascinating.

    Guugu Yimithirr provided English with the word ‘kanguru’, although in Guugu Yimithirr it means a particular species, not kangaroos in general.

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