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Scientists have found the world's "strangest" languages: what are their peculiarities

Alina MilsentLife
The strangest languages in the world are named

Learning a new language is always difficult. Especially at the initial stages: we constantly encounter incomprehensible words, unusual language structures and grammatical rules. Linguists strive to be more objective, so they try to avoid value judgments when defining "language strangeness" wherever possible.

But what does a "strange" language even mean? How is strangeness measured? Native speakers are unlikely to consider familiar grammatical constructions strange. Some computational linguists have used data from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) to investigate which languages can be considered "strange". The details were reported by Ifl Science.

The researchers systematically compared information on the WALS website for 239 languages from different parts of the world. The goal was to find out which languages have the most unique grammatical and spelling features.

English was ranked 33rd out of 239 languages. Thus, it definitely has more atypical features than more than 80% of other languages.

Critics argue that the survey was overly biased because it used only a few features of many of the world's languages. Indeed, there are aspects of English that are not unusual for others, such as the dominant subject-verb-object word order. But let's take a look at two features of English that might actually be atypical.

Scientists say that English sounds strange to many speakers of other languages. People who are constantly exposed to it and have at least a basic level of proficiency do not notice this strangeness.

According to WALS, the average number of characteristic speech sounds in languages around the world is about 25-30, known as "phonemes." Pirahã, the language of the indigenous people of the Amazon region of Brazil, has an extremely small set of phonemes. It has eight consonants and only three vowels: /i/, /a/, and /o/. On the contrary, Taa (also known as !Xóõ) is a language of Southern Africa that has over 100 phonemes, including many different types of click sounds. Sign languages don't use sounds at all.

English spelling is quite complicated because it inherited five letters for vowels from the Latin alphabet, and speakers have to "make it work" with many more consonant sounds.

English also has some unusual consonant sounds. The two sounds represented by the "th" in "bath" and "bathe" respectively occur in less than 10% of the languages surveyed in WALS.

English grammar is also complex. English uses different word order to distinguish between questions and statements - meaning that the subject of a sentence precedes the verb in statements. Take, for example, the phrase "life is a box of chocolates". In the question "is life a box of chocolates?" the word order is reversed. In the WALS study, less than 2% of the languages in the sample used English-like differences in sentence structure for questions. In Japanese, for example, you need to add the interrogative particle "ka" to a statement to turn it into a question.

The second most common strategy in WALS was to change the intonation pattern, for example, changing a descending intonation pattern (for a statement) to an ascending one (for a question). In contrast, the Mixtec language Chalcatongo (an indigenous language of Mexico) is a very atypical language because it does not use any grammatical strategy to distinguish between questions and statements.

Since several thousand languages are not yet included in WALS, this means that WALS can only be used to compare English with a small fraction of the world's languages.

Earlier, OBOZ.UA told why Ukrainian language is richer than Russian.

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