Monday, June 20, 2011

The most difficult language

In school, we were reminded constantly of how lucky we were to be native speakers of English. You see, English is the most difficult language. Not so, I was told in Uruguay. Spanish is more difficult, but only the third in complexity. There was disagreement about the top two. I suggested Chinese, and sure, that was more difficult. What about Rutooro, spoken in Uganda? Or Tuvan, spoken by nomads in Russia? You would be hard-pressed to find speakers of those languages at the legendary linguistics schools of Columbia and Yale. Doesn't that make them more difficult?

Now that I'm learning a new language for work (no, not a new computer language, a people language) I'm thinking about how languages work. Like any programmer, the edge cases fascinate me the most. Fluency in American Sign Language is almost interpretive dance: YouTube music video

And if you can't whistle, this language would be outright impossible: Video

When we're so focused on digitizing books and making culture into a mass media commodity, we forget that computers don't come with every language in mind. The language which I'm using at work was only added to Unicode in 1999, meaning before then it was impossible to type it on a computer. My smart phone shows it as blank boxes. When 90% of our languages are expected to disappear this century, being visible on a cell phone, and being printable on a Kindle could be deciding factors for an entire culture. There are arguments for a survival of the fittest / translate or perish attitude, but something about that has never rung true for me. A computer scientist usually uses the best language for the job, because there are both general and specific traits that make languages stand out. Just as different people-languages change our way of describing and perceiving life. There are many great dinosaur comics that explain this better than I can.

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