terça-feira, 2 de fevereiro de 2010

Some Languages are Harder than Others

(in Language Myths, by Lars-Gunnar Andersson)

We can begin by considering the sound system of languages. It must surely be the case that the fewer vowels, the fewer consonants and the simpler syllabic structure a language has, the simpler the sound system is. Hawaiian has thirteen distinctive sounds ('phonemes' in linguistic terminology), of which eight are consonants and five are vowels. Since the language also has stric rules about the syllable structure (almost all syllables have to consist of one consonant and one vowel in that order), the total number of possible syllables in the language is only 162. Compare English, where the consonants can be grouped together both before and after the vowel as in screams and splints. Of all the languages of the world, Hawaiian has one of the simplest sound system. At all other end of the scale we find Khoisan languages (previously known as Bushman and Hottentot languages). According to a recently published description, !Xóõ (that is actually how it is spelt), a language spoken in Southern Botswana, has 156 phonemes, of which 78 are rather unusual sounds called clicks, 50 are ordinary consonants and 28 are vowels. Studies of other languages in the are have also arrived at phoneme counts of around 150. The sound system of these languages are extremely complex.

We speak of analytic languages with little or no inflection and derivation and synthetic languages with a larger degree of inflection and derivation. (...) In absolute terms one could say that analytic languages are easier than synthetic languages, and there are two arguments for this claim. First, children always learn a more analytic version of their native language first; inflectional and derivational suffixes are learned later on. Secondly, pidgin languages from around the world are typically analytic. By pidgin languages we mean contact languages that arise or develop spontaneously. Most pidgin languages are found in the old European colonies around the world. One such language is Fanagalo, which has been used as a contact language between whites, blacks and coloureds in southern Africa since the nineteeenth
century, not least in the mining industry and in domestic services. (...) The world's most famous pidgin language speaker is Tarzan. When he says 'Me Tarzan, you Jane', he uses a simplified version of English.

One could, of course, object that pidgin languages are not real languages because nobody has them as a mother tongue. On the other hand, pidgin languages sometimes become the mother tongue of a group of people. They are the called creole languages. During the process of creolization, different complications in the grammar (as well as in the lexicon) will arise, but for a number of generations there creole languages will remain relatively simple. There is then good reason to believe that analytic languages are easier than synthetic. A more general conclusion could be that it is actually possible to speak of easier and harder languages with regard to grammar.

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