How Weird Is Your Language?
Is it scientifically appropriate to say that one language is weirder than another? According to an extensive study of natural language processes and the patterns that show up in them, yes it is. The World Atlas of Language Structures has evaluated 2,676 languages for their different characteristics, such as word order, level of inflection, ways of negation, phonetic sounds, and so on. For example, 35.5% of world languages, English included, have SVO word order; when compared to “the norm” which is SOV, (approximately 41% of languages use this word order,) English can be considered somewhat strange in this case. On the other hand, only 8.7% of languages, including Welsh, Hawaiian, and Majang, start sentences with the verb, making them completely off the wall in the scheme of things. Taking into account language features that are unrelated to each other, the so-called “weirdness index” calculates the peculiarity of each language according to each of these 27 characteristics and then averages them all.
By these criteria, the top three weirdest languages in the world are:
#1: Chalcatango Mixtec, spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico
#2: Nenets, spoken by 22,000 people in Siberia,
#3: Choctaw, spoken by 10,000 people in and around Oklahoma.
These are all indigenous languages, generally isolated from any influence from outside communities. However, other more universally known weird languages include German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. Even English ranks pretty high on the weirdness scale at #33.
For an example of English’s weirdness, (which native speakers might not even think of questioning,) in most languages, you make a question out of a statement simply by changing the statement’s tone, or by adding a question particle, such as ka in Japanese. However, in English plus twelve other languages such as German, Dutch, Czech, Spanish, and Swedish, you completely rearrange the word order. So that, statistically speaking, is bizarre enough, but then you have Chalcatango Mixtec, a language that has absolutely no way of differentiating between question and statement. With no change of word order, intonation, or question particle, questions can be determined solely by context, which surely leads to plenty of misunderstandings.
And then you come to the opposite end of the spectrum, your languages that are relatively non-quirky, such as Lithuanian, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque, and Cantonese. These might not be languages people view as “normal,” but in terms of standardized grammar rules and sounds that fall in line with the greatest number of fellow languages, these top the charts. In fact, the top five most normal languages may surprise you: Hungarian, Chamorro, Ainu (a nearly extinct language in Japan), Purépecha, and Hindi at #1.
While this study comes with its own cultural predilections, (though the World Atlas of Language Structures made a point not to center their study around English,) it is nevertheless an interesting perspective on where your language stands when compared to others. English, technically the universal language, is actually one of the weirdest languages of all, making it that much more of a triumph for anyone to learn it past their childhood. And then, paradoxically, a language you might view as exotic could make more sense than you think.
What are your experiences learning any of these typical or non-typical languages?