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russell smith: on language

The Economist, with typical intellectual flair, published a "Christmas special" article in mid-December about what could define "the world's hardest language;" that is, the language that would be the most difficult to learn. There was no news story on which to hang this inquiry - nothing that a journalist would call a "peg" - just the urge to talk about something erudite and fascinating in a non-specialist's language. The article was anonymous, as per Economist tradition, but clearly written by an expert in languages. I thought it made the difficult nature of the question clear: Is it just a language's distance from English that defines this so-called difficulty? Are we talking about learning it as a foreign language or acquiring it as an infant? And are we talking about complicated grammar, difficult pronunciation, enormous vocabularies, illogical spelling (as with English) or bizarre alphabets?

I'll relieve you of your curiosity: The language the author chose as the winner was not English, but Tuyuca, of the eastern Amazon. It's an "agglutinating" language: It piles up words into single words where we would tend to use a whole sentence. So hoabasiriga means "I do not know how to write." There are two forms of the word "we" - one for "you and I" and one for "I and someone else." It has something like 100 genders (more properly called noun classes). One of those noun classes is the group of things called "bark that does not cling closely to a tree," which includes such objects as baggy trousers and disintegrating plywood. Furthermore, Tuyuca verbs have endings that show whether you know something for certain or just assume it to be true.

But the destination here is not as fun as the journey: The article meanders through a dozen other isolated and, from our point of view, unusual languages, including the massively agglutinating Turkish, which has a single word that means, "Were you one of those people whom we could not make into a Czechoslovakian?" And consider the !Xoo language of Botswana, a tongue with so many different click sounds that adult speakers develop lumps on their larynx from repeating them.

The author then veers into controversial territory, bringing up the always inflammatory Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - the idea that the language one speaks shapes how one thinks, or at least one's understanding of the world, and not the other way around. The idea is unpopular with academic linguists because it doesn't match Noam Chomsky's almost universally accepted theories about all languages sharing basic attributes. To disagree with Chomsky in linguistics is a bit like disagreeing with Darwin in biology or Newton in physics, and so it gets academics very hot under the collar.

Response to The Economist's article in linguists' blogs and forums was predictably harsh. Linguists really don't like general-interest magazines treading on their turf; such articles always provoke an almost hysterical condescension about simplification, and lists of minor errors. On the influential site Language Log, the University of British Columbia professor Bill Poser wrote a typical dismantling of the non-academic approach. He complains that the article doesn't define what is meant by difficulty, and points out that difficulty depends entirely on what languages one already knows. ("Navajo is by all accounts quite difficult for English speakers, but probably not all that difficult for speakers of Apache." I myself thought the Economist article did, in its entirety, raise this issue.) And then he goes on to denounce even a mention of the taboo Sapir-Whorf theory. Then those commenting on the commenter pile on - including the author of the Economist article, a linguist himself, who defended himself politely and calmly, and reminded everyone that the point of articles in mainstream journals is partly to be entertaining, not to solve major issues.

It's great fun to read the streams of competitive erudition and obscure knowledge on sites like these. (One comment begins, "As a nine-year learner of Ubykh, I ….") I love linguistic debate and wish now that I had taken a few more courses in it when I had the chance. I do respect expert knowledge. But the linguistic academy's energetic scorn of laymen is puzzling. Steven Pinker, I think, really fanned the flames of this resentment with a whole chapter in The Language Instinct insulting what he called "mavens" - that is, people like me who write non-academic newspaper articles about language. (He thinks we're all conservative prescriptivists, which is, you know, just not true.) Since Pinker's book, it is commonplace to deride any media dabbling in a domain that should be reserved for PhDs. The tone always seems bitter rather than helpful. One would think all experts would be thrilled, not angered, that their area of learning was being considered entertaining by a journal in world politics.

It's funny: The Economist article begins with the disparagement, typical of linguists, of "folk-linguist" views on English. (Popular language writers tend to joke a lot about the so-called difficulty of English; this humour is not justified when you know a lot more about the rest of the world's languages, which turn out to be even more unpredictable.) Well, call me unsophisticated, but I have to admit to my continued glee in the illogical vagaries of English. I still love to question why we say five socks but four deer.

On that note, here's a language question that's been troubling me: When you say, "Let's push forward the date for the meeting," do you mean reschedule for a later date or an earlier date? I never understand which. Tell me: rsmith@globeandmail.com.