Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

See? English isn’t So Hard.

with 7 comments

A lot of people complain about how difficult the English language is.

Its spelling is crazy (see my earlier post on “ghoti” pronounced “fish”). English is full of contradictions with words like cleave being its own antonym–it means to cut off or sever, and also to cling or adhere.

We have a right to complain how hard our language is, don’t we? Well, considering some of the complexities in other languages, our complaints are like whining about too-tight  diamond rings and too-fat wallets.

Sure, English is a complicated language, but all languages are complicated. And this recent article in The Economist takes a look at some of the world’s most difficult languages and what makes them unique.

To be fair, I think the difficulty of any language is dictated by your own native tongue. So sure, Spanish is relatively easy for English speakers to pick up because of their similar histories and structure. But to a native speaker of Ainu, Spanish might seem just as mind-bogglingly unfamiliar as their language does to us.

And to an infant, English and the article’s most difficult language (I won’t spoil the surprise) are equally easy to acquire.

So whether it’s really the most difficult language or not is up for debate. But still, the article is well written and explores some fascinating aspects of different languages. One language discussed even causes a lump to form on each speaker’s larynx as they attempt to pronounce its sounds. Fun!

So definitely check out the article. And next time you complain about English – just remember that there’s no laryngeal disfigurement required.

Written by Nathanael Green

January 7, 2010 at 7:33 pm

7 Responses

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  1. The end of that article made me realize I have made absolutely no progress on learning any rapidly shrinking knowledge yet.

    The heartening thing is that no language seems to be too difficult for the infant brain to master. That’s amazing.

    I like the perspective–difficult means more or less, what is farthest away from what we’ve been brought up with. I do think foreign students have a pretty hard time with English, but it may be more with writing it than speaking it.

    Endangered languages seem a lot like endangered species–we have lost, or are in danger of losing many before we even begin to understand what they offer to the world as a unique flourishing.


    January 8, 2010 at 12:13 am

    • Seana,

      Have you chosen an obscure language to adopt yet? There are quite a few to choose from. I’ve found the toughest thing about that is access to other speakers. Even though all the resources on the internet are very helpful, having at least one other person to practice with can make a huge difference.

      So what are your inclinations? Native American languages? Perhaps an arcane European language like Breton? Or perhaps an already-passed language like Old Norse?

      Nathanael Green

      January 11, 2010 at 10:45 am

      • No, I’ve been remiss. It had passed entirely out of my mind what with the holidays. I think it should probably be a California tribal language if possible, as those are the people I am currently displacing.

        Either that, of if Pimsleur happens to have CDs for one suitably obscure, I might try that. I’ll check it out tomorrow.


        January 12, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  2. I don’t know if I agree with that article. I heard Klingon is pretty hard to speak. Or so I’m told.

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 8, 2010 at 9:57 am

  3. Should have said, “Klingon is pretty hard to speak (“As I’ve been told”)

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 8, 2010 at 10:01 am

    • Brian,

      I thought you already had begun your Klingon study. Do you think it’s hard to speak because of syntax or because of the calluses that form on your throat from speaking it?

      Nathanael Green

      January 11, 2010 at 10:55 am

  4. It’s the syntax, man. The calluses are only annoying in the beginning.

    Plus, my delicate sensibilities are offended by a lot of the biases, stereotypes, and sexism built into the Klingon language. A Romulan is referred to as “tonn-kep,” which means Vulcan poser. Members of the Federation are “fahbey” which is a bastardization of the term fan boy. And women are called…god, I can’t even say it, it’s too offensive.

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 11, 2010 at 11:46 am

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