Category Archives: Japonic

A Look at the Mandarin Language

This piece ran earlier, but it underwent a huge revision to improve it and this is the new, improved version in case you missed it the first time.

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Mandarin language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Sino-Tibetan
Sinitic
Chinese
Mandarin

It’s fairly easy to learn to speak Mandarin at a basic level, though the tones can be tough. This is because the grammar is very simple – short words, no case, gender, verb inflections or tense. But with Japanese, you can keep learning, and with Chinese, you often tend to hit a wall, often because the syntactic structure is so strangely different from English (isolating).

Actually, the grammar is harder than it seems. At first it seems simple, like a simplified English. No word is capable of declension, and there is no tense, case, and number, nor are there articles. But the simplicity makes it difficult. No tense means there is no easy way to mark time in a sentence. Furthermore, tense is not as easy as it seems. Sure, there are no verb conjugations, but instead you must learn some particles and special word orders that are used to mark tense. Mandarin has 12 different adverbs for which there is no good English translation.

Once you start digging into Chinese, there is a complex layer under all the surface simplicity. There is such things as aspect, serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, a strange form called the detrimental passive, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange things. Verb complements can be baffling, especially potential and directional complements. The 把, 是 and 的 constructions can be very hard to understand.

The topic-prominence is interesting in that only a few major languages have topic-comment syntax, and most of those are Oriental languages with a lot of Chinese borrowing. Topicalization is not marked morphologically.

There are sentences where the entire meaning changes with the addition of a single character. Chinese sentences are SVO (Subject -Verb – Object) at their base, but that is a bit of an illusion. A sentence that causes you to discuss time duration makes you repeat the verb after the direct object – SVOVT (T= time phrase). In the case of topicalization, sentences can have the structure of OSV (Object – Subject – Verb). Relative clauses and all subordinate clauses come before the noun they modify. In other words:

English: The man who always wore red walked into the room.
Chinese: Who always wore red the man walked into the room.

The relative clause in the sentences above is marked in bold.

In Chinese, the prepositional phrase comes between the subject and the verb:

English: The man hit the ball into the yard.
Chinese: The man into the yard hit the ball.

The prepositional phrase is bolded in the sentences above.

In Chinese, adjectives are actually stative verbs as in Nahuatl and Lakota.

那个热菜很好吃。
Nàgè rède cài hěnhǎochī.
The it is hot food is good to eat.
The hot food is delicious.

The symbol turns food hot into food it is hot, an attributive verb. means something like to be.

There are dozens of words called particles which shade the meaning of a sentence ever so slightly.

Chinese phonology is not as easy as some say. There are way too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same to an. There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants. There is also the presence of odd retroflex consonants. All of these will present problems to an English speaker.

Chinese orthography is probably the most hardest orthography of any language. The alphabet uses symbols, so it’s not even a real alphabet. There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more, but you only need to know about 3-5,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.

In addition, the characters have not been changed in 3,000 years, and the alphabet is at least somewhat phonetic, so we run into a serious problem of lack of a spelling reform.

The Communists tried to simplify the system (Simplified Mandarin) but instead of making the connections between the phonetic aspects of character more sensible by decreasing their number and increasing their regularity (they did do this somewhat but not enough), they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol typically without dealing with the phonetic aspect of all. The simplification did not work well, so now you have a mixture of two different types of written Chinese – Simplified and Traditional.

In addition to all of this, Chinese borrowed a lot from the Japanese symbolic alphabet a full 1,000 years after it had already been developed and had not undergone a spelling reform, adding insult to injury.

Even leaving the characters aside, the stylistic and literary constraints required to write Chinese in an eloquent or formal (literary) manner would make your head swim. And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese prose. It’s as if it’s written in a different language – actually, it is technically a different language similar to Middle English or Old English. However, few Middle English or Old English texts are read anymore, and Classical Chinese is still widely read.

However, the orthography is at least consistent. 90% of characters have only one reading. Once you learn the character, you generally know the meaning in any context.

Writing the characters is even harder than reading them. One wrong dot or wrong line either completely changes the meaning or turns the symbol into nonsense.

It’s a real problem when you encounter a symbol you don’t know because there is no often way to sound out the word. You are really and truly lost and screwed. There is a clue at the right side of the symbol, but it is not always accurate.You need to learn quite a bit of vocabulary just to speak simple sentences.

Similarly, a dictionary is not necessarily helpful when trying to read Chinese. You can have a Chinese sentence in front of you along with a dictionary, and the sentence still might not make sense even after looking it up in the dictionary.

Some Chinese Muslims write Chinese using an Arabic script. This is often considered to be one of the worst orthographies of all.

The tones are often quite difficult for a Westerner to pick up. If you mess up the tones, you have said a completely different word. Often foreigners who know their tones well nevertheless do not say them correctly, and hence, they say one word when they mean another. However, compared to other tone systems around the world, the tonal system in Chinese is comparatively easy.

A major problem with Chinese is homonyms. To some extent, this is true in many tonal languages. Since Chinese uses short words and is disyllabic, there is a limited repertoire of sounds that can be used. At a certain point, all of the sounds are used up, and you are into the realm of homophones.

Tonal distinctions are one way that monosyllabic and disyllabic languages attempt to deal with the homophone problem, but it’s not good enough, since Chinese still has many homophones even with the four tones, and meaning is often discerned by context, stress, rhythm and intonation. Chinese, like French and English, is heavily idiomatic.

It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms (classifiers) to count different things, like Japanese.

There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms.

In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.

mei meiyounger sister
jie jie
older sister
ge ge
older brother
di di
younger brother

Mandarin scored very high on a weirdest languages study.

On the positive side, Chinese grammar is fairly regular, and word derivation, compound words are sensible and the meaning can be determined by looking at the word. In other languages, compound words are not necessarily so obvious.

Many agree that Chinese is the hardest to learn of all of the major languages. A recent survey of language professors rated Chinese as the hardest language on Earth to learn.

Mandarin gets a 5.5 rating for nearly hardest of all.

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Filed under Applied, Chinese language, Islam, Japanese, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Religion, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan

A Look at the Classical Japanese Language

Method and Conclusion. See here.

Results. A ratings system was designed in terms of how difficult it would be for an English-language speaker to learn the language. In the case of English, English was judged according to how hard it would be for a non-English speaker to learn the language. Speaking, reading and writing were all considered.

Ratings: Languages are rated 1-6, easiest to hardest. 1 = easiest, 2 = moderately easy to average, 3 = average to moderately difficult, 4 = very difficult, 5 = extremely difficult, 6 = most difficult of all. Ratings are impressionistic.

Time needed. Time needed for an English language speaker to learn the language “reasonably well”: Level 1 languages = 3 months-1 year. Level 2 languages = 6 months-1 year. Level 3 languages = 1-2 years. Level 4 languages = 2 years. Level 5 languages = 3-4 years, but some may take longer. Level 6 languages = more than 4 years.

This post will look at the Classical Japanese language in terms of how difficult it would be for an English speaker to learn it.

Classical Japanese is much harder to read than Modern Japanese. Though you can get by with much less kanji when reading the modern language, you will need a minimum knowledge of 3,000 kanji for reading Classical Japanese, and that’s using a dictionary. There are only about 500-1,000 frequently used characters, but there are countless other words that will come up in your reading especially say special words used in the Imperial Court. Many words have more than one meaning, and unless you know this, you will be lost. 東宮(とうぐう) for instance means Eastern Palace. However, it also means Crown Prince because his residence was to the east of the Emperor’s.

The movie The Seven Samurai (set in the late 1500’s) seems to use some sort of Classical Japanese, or at least Classical vocabulary and syntax with modern pronunciation. Japanese language learners say they can’t understand a word of the archaic Japanese used in this movie.

Classical Japanese gets 5.5, nearly hardest of all.

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The Roots of the Alphabet(s)

Probably most of you do not know that we are all using a variant of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. Actually I am not sure if that is precisely true, as I think the Phoenician alphabet was preceded by an Assyrian one. But at any rate, our classic Western alphabets all came out of the Levant and Mesopotamia in some way or other. Indeed, it is even theorized that many of the syllabaries in use in Central, South and Southeast Asia are also rooted in this original alphabet from the Levant.

Of course, Chinese and consequently Korean and Japanese alphabets have another origin.

One might wish to throw the odd SE Asian orthographies such as Thai, Lao, Burmese, Vietnamese, Javanese, Sundanese and Khmer there, but my understanding is that all of those SE Asian orthographies were actually derived from syllabaries originally designed in India.

A few writing systems such as Georgian, Armenian and Cree may have been created de novo, but I might have to look that up. The only non-Middle Eastern derived orthography that immediately comes to my mind is the Chinese ideographs.

The origins of the Assyrian/Phoenician alphabet appear to have been ultimately in Egyptian hieroglyphics. So the ancient Egyptians really started it all when it comes to writing down words, at least for the West.

Chinese ideographs may date from even earlier. Chinese bone writing goes way back.

Very early European writing such as runic systems and similar systems in Asia such as the Turkic Orkhon inscriptions may not be related to the Phoenician system at all. The Yukaghir in Siberia and the Yi in South China may also have designed de novo systems.

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Is Dravidian Related to Japanese?

Thirdeye writes:

The Tamil-Japonic connection isn’t quite as off the wall as one might think at first glance. There’s apparently a strong Andaman-Indonesian language connection. The convention of repeat plurals seems to have found its way to Japan. There’s also some similarity between the Finno-Ugric languages, which are Uralic outliers in a sea of Indo-European languages, and Dravidian languages that have a remnant in Pakistan. Contact between proto-Dravidian-Uralic and Altaic languages is a real possibility.

If Uralic is close to anything, it is close to Altaic and Indo-European and probably even closer to Chukto-Kamchatkan, Eskimo-Aleut, Yukaghir and Nivkhi. Yukaghir may actually be Uralic itself, or maybe the family is called “Uralic-Yukaghir.”

There is no connection between Austronesian (Indonesian) and the Andaman Islanders. Austronesian is indeed related to Thai though (Austro-Tai); in my opinion, this has been proven. If the Andaman languages are related to anything at all, they may be related to some Papuan languages and an isolate in Nepal called Nihali. A good case can be made connecting Nihali with some of the Papuan languages.

Typology is not that great of way to classify. Typology is areal and it spreads via convergence. What you are looking in search genetic relationship among languages more more than anything else is morphology. After that, a nice set of cognates.

There is probably no connection between Dravidian and Uralic in particular. Dravidian is outside of most everything in Eurasia. It if is close to anything, it might be close to Afro-Asiatic. There also looks to be a connection with Elamite.

Dravidian and Afro-Asiatic are probably older than the rest of the Eurasian languages, and they were located further to the south. Afro-Asiatic is very old, probably ~15,000 YBP.

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Australoids As the Basic Asian Phenotype

Thirdeye writes:

Not sure if this has been mentioned or not, but human settlement in India has been dated to >74 Ka by the Toba volcanic ash overlying stone tools. The Toba event made the subcontinent uninhabitable and isolated the Australasian survivors in southeast Asia from the rest of humanity.

The remnants of the decimated human population were confronted with a very sudden planetary cooling as a result of the Toba event, and the adaptive pressure has been hypothesized as the driving factor in the development of a cold-adapted east Asian branch from the Australasian trunk, enhanced by the importance of founder effects among the surviving remnants.

The Dravidian settlement was the re-occupation of the Bengal shore by Australasians. The tone language trait of east Asian/Australasian cultures (along with an isolated tone language group in the Indus Valley) is believed to reflect African-derived tone language among the original migrants.

Looking closely at the faces of Australasian-derived Indians, the similarities between Australasian and east Asian facial shapes are striking: round, with broad cheekbones and low facial topography. It’s looking more and more like certain northeast Asian facial features (Ainu brows and heavy Korean jaws) are the result of proto-Mongoloid/Caucasian admixture in Siberia. And the closest languages to the Japonic languages are Turkic.

The truth is that the Australoid is the dominant Asian phenotype. All Asians were Australoids until recently. The homeland of the Mongoloid race is in Northern Vietnam. This race was birthed 53,000 YBP. I am not sure what they looked like, but no doubt they were Australoids, possibly a Melanesian type. The Mongoloid phenotype we are so familiar with emerged quite late, 15,000 YBP in Siberia and 9,000 YBP in Northern China. Later it become generalized throughout Asia, moving from north to south.

It is true that in SE Asians, the transition occurred quite late. Vietnamese only transitioned from Australoid to Mongoloid 2,300 YBP with a massive invasion from Southern China. In some groups such as Malays, Filipinos, and Indonesians, the transition was not 100% completed. They are all Mongoloid people, but as the transition from Australoid to Mongoloid was not completed, some Australoid traits remain. These types are best seen as Mongoloids with some residual Australoid traits.

Clearly there are still some pure Australoids in SE Asia such as various Negrito peoples of Malaysia, Thailand (the Mani), the Philippines (the Agta) and Indonesia and the Senoi of Thailand, but these are the minority.

Indeed, Tamil (Dravidian) skulls from South India plot with Melanesian, Papuan, Aborigine, Negrito, Ainu, and Senoi skulls. Therefore on skulls, Tamil types are Australoids. The tribal types such as the Panyers, the Gondis and the Veddoids look very Australoid and probably represent the remnants of a derived group of the earliest Australoid settlers to India. The true first colonists of India are represented by the Andaman Islander Negrito types who came a very long time ago, possibly 40-50,000 YBP.

I have never heard the theory about tone languages deriving from African languages before.

Indeed there was some interbreeding between far NE Asians and Caucasoids. But also keep in mind that when you cross an Australoid with a Mongoloid, you sometimes coincidentally get a phenotype that looks Caucasoid. The early Samurai in Japan often appeared quite Caucasoid.

I agree that the Japonic languages are part of Altaic of which Turkic is a part, but Linguistics has not yet accepted this.

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Filed under Altaic, Anthropology, Asia, Asians, India, Japonic, Language Families, Linguistics, Physical, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, SE Asians, South Asia

Are Japanese and Korean Altaic?

Rifleman45 asks:

What is the basis for Japanese and Korean for being part of the Altaic Language family? And as of this time, is the evidence for the existence of an Altaic language family stronger than the evidence against it?

It’s pretty clear if you ask me, but there is better evidence for:

Turkic
Tungusic
Mongolic

As Narrow Altaic.

Adding in:

Japonic
Korean

Makes it Macro-Altaic, which is a a much harder sell.

But even Narrow Altaic is a hard sell these days. For some reason, they have a hard time getting regular sound correspondences going even with Narrow Altaic. I am not sure why that is.

If you go to the Wikipedia article on Altaic, there should be good working links to a lot of the better known papers on the topic. Basically this is a war being waged by two small camps, and everyone else is sitting on the sidelines. The folks on the sidelines have all sided with the “no such thing as Altaic” crowd because that is the default in Linguistics. Personally, I think that the Pro-Altaic folks have already proven their case, and they already have extensive etymologies and I believe even regular sound correspondences going on.

The people supporting it are mostly out of Russia. George Starostin is doing this work after his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Starostin has an extensive Altaic etymological dictionary up on the Internet, and you can go look it over. There appear to be some regular sound correspondences going on, and I was surprised to see Japonic and Korean listed in many of the etymologies. Not only that, but shockingly there appeared to be some regular sound correspondences going on between Japonic/Korean and the rest of Altaic. A woman named Anna Dybo, also out of Russia works with Starostin.

On the other side is a group centered around a fellow named Alexander Vovin out of Paris, who is a bit of a fanatic and is a case of convert fanaticism. He supported Altaic for a long time, but then he turned on it 10 years ago and decided it was all nonsense and became an anti-Altaicist. Vovin is for the most part and expert on the Japanese language. It makes sense that he would turn on Altaic as the evidence for Altaic is pretty funky. Vovin is a very smart guy. A lot of the fighting revolves around Vovin, etc. and Starostin, etc. arguing back and forth at each other. It gets a bit heated at times for academic discourse.

A man named Stefan Georg out of Germany works closely with Vovin. Georg is even more hardline than Vovin.

One of the problems is numerals – the numbers. The Altaic numbers (1-10) are a complete mess, and unfortunately that is not what we would expect from a language family of that depth – the numerals should line up a lot better. Personally, I do not think that that kills the case. Afro-Asiatic numerals are a disaster too, but everyone agrees that Afro-Asiatic is a real family. One suggestion is that the numerals are actually cognate but they underwent some extremely strange sound changes that made them look a lot different.

All theories must be judged against their competitors. Obviously there is a lot of shared vocabulary between Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic. This is either genetic material derived from some common source, or it is a case of mass borrowing. The truth is that the world has never before seen borrowing on such a scale as has been postulated by the anti-Altaicists. Another theory is convergence or Sprachbund, which is more or less the same as mass borrowing.

Some of the anti-Altaic people argue that there is no such thing as Altaic, but that some combination of two of its three subfamilies are related:

Turkic
Tungusic
Mongolic

For instance, these folks might say that there is no such thing as Altaic, but Tungusic and Mongolic are related, or Mongolic and Turkic are related, or Turkic and Tungusic are related, etc. Get the picture?

I definitely believe in Altaic, and Broad Altaic, not just Narrow Altaic. I have been studying this issue for a very long time. However, if you say that Altaic exists in Linguistic circles, you will get widely bashed for “supporting an unproven theory” (sort of like Bigfooters who believe Rick Dyer has a Bigfoot body). The standard line in Linguistics is that Altaic is not proven, and therefore there is no such thing as Altaic, and that is that. It’s true that it’s not proven, but the splitters have set up such wild demands for proof that it may never be proven even by the most scientific of lumpers. And anyway, the splitters’ alternative theory is probably impossible.

At any rate, it is a fun controversy at least for me, but if Linguistics is not your bag, you may well be bored out of your head. And all of the folks listed above – Starostin, Dybo, Georg, and Vovin are incredibly smart people. Georg and Vovin are acquaintances, but I do not know Starostin or Dybo very well.

Here are some links to get you started:


Starostin review
of an anti-Altaicist book on Korean-Japonic by Vovin.

Starostin destroys Vovin once and for all (article titled The End of the Vovin Controversy).

Anna Dybo, Starostin, and Oleg Mudrak: Altaic Etymological Dictionary.

Georg Review of the book above.

Dybo on Systematic Reconstruction in Altaic.

Why Korean is not Tungusic by Vovin.

Vovin on why 1st and 2nd person pronouns do not prove Altaic (the 1st and 2nd person pronouns line up superbly, and these forms are almost never borrowed).

Vovin on why Japonic is related to neither Korean nor Altaic.

Vovin on The End of the Altaic controversy, Parts One, Two and Three (the pieces do not end the controversy).

Stefan Georg – Telling General Linguistics about Altaic.

Georg review of Martine Robeets’ book on Japanese relations to Korean and Altaic.

Georg on The Poverty of Altaicism.

Georg on Japanese, Altaic and the Limits of Language Classification.

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What Is the Origin of the Japanese Language?

A friend of mine, Jared Taylor from American Renaissance, asks:

I have heard that Japanese is supposed to be a member of the Finno-Ugric family, but I don’t see how it could be. People tell me that Japanese grammar is close to Korean grammar, but i don’t hear of Koreans as part of the F-U family.

Do you have any idea where Japanese (and Korean) came from? The Japanese copied the Chinese characters, but their language and grammar are completely different. What gives?

The R-U family of languages. Ok, that’s pretty funny! My response:

Technically it is an isolate, and Korean is too. Actually, Japanese is not really an isolate as it is a member of a family called Japonic, which consists of Japanese and the Okinawan languages. But the Japonic family is not thought to be related to any other languages or language families.
I do not agree that Japanese (Japonic) or Korean are isolates. My opinion is that Japanese is a member of a family called “Altaic,” a postulated but unproven family consisting of:

Turkic (Turkish and related tongues)

Mongolic (Mongolian and related tongues)

Tungusic (languages of far eastern Siberia)

Japonic

Korean

The position of Ainu is quite uncertain.

Finno-Ugric is part of a larger family called Uralic consisting of Finno-Ugric, Samoyedic and some related tongues. The position of Yukagir is uncertain. Uralic itself is a somewhat controversial family, but ultimately I think it is a valid taxon. People have held for a long time that Uralic and Altaic are related, and I think there is something to it, but first of all we need to prove Altaic!

Korean consists of maybe 70% Chinese borrowings and if I am not mistaken, Japanese has quite a few Chinese borrowings also.

The Yayoi people who make up the current Japanese stock came down from Korea about 2,300 YBP, conquering, interbreeding with and replacing the Ainu people who inhabited the island. Modern Japanese are now a mixture of the Yayoi, the Ainu and to some extent Ryukuyans (Okinawans). Both the Ainu and the Ryukuyans are pretty archaic types, more or less Paleo-Asians or Archaic Northeast Asians. The Ainu are actually classed in the Australoid race, believe it or not.

Taylor then disputed that the Ainu were Australids.

The truth is that Ainu genes are Asian, but Ainu skulls look like Negrito, Papuan, Aborigine, Tamil, Senoi, Melanesian and Paleoamerindian skulls. This makes sense as prior to 9,000 YBP, Australid types were generalized across all of Asia. There is a large dig in north China. All remains older than 9,000 YBP look like Aborigines (Australoids). The modern Mongoloid race only appears at this site 9,000 YBP. As the Ainu are the ultimate Paleoasians, it would naturally follow that they have an Australid phenotype.

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A Look at the Korean Language

From here.

A look at the Korean from the perspective of an English speaker trying to learn the language. The truth is that Korean is one of the hardest languages on Earth for an English speaker to learn.

Most agree that Korean is a hard language to learn.

The alphabet, Hangul at least is reasonable; in fact, it is elegant. But there are four different Romanizations – Lukoff, Yale, Horne, and McCune-Reischauer – which is preposterous. It’s best to just blow off the Romanizations and dive straight into Hangul. This way you can learn a Romanization later, and you won’t mess up your Hangul with spelling errors, as can occur if you go from Romanization to Hangul. Hangul can be learned very quickly, but learning to read Korean books and newspapers fast is another matter altogether because you really need to know the hanja or Chinese character that is in back of the Hangul symbols.

Bizarrely, there are two different numeral sets used, but one is derived from Chinese so it should be familiar to Chinese, Japanese or Thai speakers who use similar or identical systems.

Korean has a wealth of homonyms, and this is one of the tricky aspects of the language. Any given combination of a couple of characters can have multiple meanings. Japanese has a similar problem with homonyms, but at least with Japanese you have the benefit of kanji to help you tell the homonyms apart. With Korean Hangul, you get no such advantage.

Similarly, there seem to be many ways to say the same thing in Korean. The learner will feel when people are using all of these different ways of saying the same thing that they are actually saying something different each time, but that is not the case.

One problem is that the bp, j, ch, t and d are pronounced differently than their English counterparts. The consonants, the pachim system and the morphing consonants at the end of the word that slide into the next word make Korean harder to pronounce than any major European language. Korean has a similar problem with Japanese, that is, if you mess up one vowel in sentence, you render it incomprehensible.

The vocabulary is very difficult for an English speaker who does not have knowledge of either Japanese or Chinese. On the other hand, Japanese or Chinese will help you a lot with Korean. Chinese and Japanese speakers can usually learn Korean quickly.

Korean is agglutinative and has a subject-topic discourse structure, and the logic of these systems is difficult for English speakers to understand.

Meanwhile, Korean has an honorific system that is even wackier than that of Japanese. However, the younger generation is not using the honorifics so much, and a foreigner isn’t expected to know the honorific system anyway.

Maybe 60% of the words are based on Chinese words, but unfortunately, much of this Chinese-based vocabulary intersects with Japanese versions of Chinese words in a confusing way.

Speakers of Korean can learn Japanese fairly easily. Korean seems to be a more difficult language to learn than Japanese. There are maybe twice as many particles as in Japanese, the grammar is dramatically more difficult and the verbs are quite a bit harder. The phonemic inventory in Korean is also larger and includes such oddities as double consonants.

Korean is rated by language professors as being one of the hardest languages to learn.

Korean is rated 5, hardest of all.

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A Look at the Japanese Language

From here.

A look at Japanese, with a view to how hard it is to learn for a speaker of English

Japanese also uses a symbolic alphabet, but the symbols themselves are sometime undecipherable in that even Japanese speakers will sometimes encounter written Japanese and will say that they don’t know how to pronounce it. I don’t mean that they mispronounce it; that would make sense. I mean they don’t have the slightest clue how to say the word! This problem is essentially nonexistent in a language like English.

The Japanese orthography is one of the most difficult to use of any orthography.

There are over 2,000 frequently used characters in three different symbolic alphabets that are frequently mixed together in confusing ways. Due to the large number of frequently used symbols, it’s said that even Japanese adults learn a new symbol a day a ways into adulthood.

The Japanese writing system is probably crazier than the Chinese writing system. Japanese borrowed Chinese characters. But then they gave each character several pronunciations, and in some cases as many as 24. Next they made two syllabaries using another set of characters, then over the next millenia came up with all sorts of contradictory and often senseless rules about when to use the syllabaries and when to use the character set. Later on they added a Romanization to make things even worse.

Chinese uses 5-6,000 characters regularly, while Japanese only uses around 2,000. But in Chinese, each character has only one or maybe two pronunciations. In Japanese, there are complicated rules about when and how to combine the hiragana with the characters. These rules are so hard that many native speakers still have problems with them. There are also personal and place names (proper nouns) which are given completely arbitrary pronunciations often totally at odds with the usual pronunciation of the character.

There are some writers, typically of literature, who deliberately choose to use kanji that even Japanese people cannot read. For instance, Ryuu  Murakami  uses the odd symbols 擽る、, 轢く、and 憑ける.

The Japanese system is made up of three different systems: the katakana and hiragana (the kana) and the kanji, similar to the hanzi used in Chinese. Chinese has at least 85,000 hanzi. The number of kanji is much less than that, but kanji often have more than one meaning in contrast to hanzi.

Speaking Japanese is not as difficult as everyone says, and many say it’s fairly easy. However, there is a problem similar to English in that one word can be pronounced in multiple ways, like read and read in English.

A common problem is that a perfectly grammatically correct sentence uttered by a Japanese language learner, while perfectly correct, is still not acceptable by Japanese speakers because “we just don’t say it that way.” The Japanese speaker often cannot tell why the unacceptable sentence you uttered is not ok. On the other hand, this problem may be common to more languages than Japanese.

There is also a class of Japanese called “honorifics” or “keigo” that is quite hard to master. Honorifics are meant to show respect and to indicate one’s place or status in the social hierarchy. These typically effect verbs but can also affect particles and prefixes. They are usually formed by archaic or highly irregular verbs. However, there are both regular and irregular honorific forms. Furthermore, there are five different levels of honorifics. Honorifics vary depending on who you are and who you are talking to. In addition, gender comes into play.

Although it is true the Japanese young people are said to not understand the intricacies of keigo, it is still expected that they know how to speak this well. Consequently, many young Japanese will opt out of certain conversations because they feel that their keigo is not very good. Books explaining how to use keigo properly have been big sellers among young people in Japan in recent years as young people try to appear classy, refined or cultured.

In addition, Japanese born overseas (especially in the US), while often learning Japanese pretty well, typically have a very poor understanding of keigo. Instead of embarrassing themselves by not using keigo or using it wrong, these Japanese speakers often prefer to speak in English to Japanese people rather than bother with keigo-less Japanese. Overcorrection in keigo is also a problem when hypercorrection leads to someone making errors in keigo due to “trying to hard.” This looks like phony or insincere politeness and is often worse than not using keigo at all.

One wild thing about Japanese is counting forms. You actually use different numeral sets depending on what it is you are counting! There are dozens of different ways of counting things which involve the use of a complex numerical noun classifier system.

Japanese grammar is often said to be simple, but that does not appear to be the case on closer examination. Particles are especially vexing. Verbs engage in all sorts of wild behavior, and adverbs often act like verbs. Meanwhile, honorifics change the behavior of all words. There are particles like ha and ga that have many different meanings. One problem is that all noun modifiers, even phrases, must precede the nouns they are modifying.

It’s often said that Japanese has no case, but this is not true. Actually, there are seven cases in Japanese. The aforementioned ga is a clitic meaning nominative, made is terminative case, -no is genitive and -o is accusative.

In this sentence:

The plane that was supposed to arrive at midnight, but which had been delayed by bad weather, finally arrived at 1 AM.

Everything underlined must precede the noun plane:

Was supposed to arrive at midnight, but had been delayed by bad weather, the plane finally arrived at 1 AM.

One of the main problems with Japanese grammar is that it is going to seem to so different from the sort of grammar and English speaker is likely to be used to.

Speaking Japanese is one thing, but reading and writing it is a whole new ballgame. It’s perfectly possible to know the meaning of every kanji and the meaning of every word in a sentence, but you still can’t figure out the meaning of the sentence because you can’t figure out how the sentence is stuck together in such a way as to create meaning.

However, Japanese grammar has the advantage of being quite regular. For instance, there are only four frequently used irregular verbs.

Like Chinese, the nouns are not marked for number or gender. However, while Chinese is forgiving of errors, if you mess up one vowel in a Japanese sentence, you may end up with incomprehension.

The real problem is that the Japanese you learn in class is one thing, and the Japanese of the street is another. One problem is that in street Japanese, the subject is typically not stated in a sentence. Instead it is inferred through such things as honorific terms or the choice of words you used in the sentence. Probably no one goes crazier on negatives than the Japanese. Particularly in academic writing, triple and quadruple negatives are common, and can be quite confusing.

Yet there are problems with the agglutinative nature of Japanese. It’s a completely different syntactic structure than English. Often if you translate a sentence from Japanese to English it will just look like a meaningless jumble of words.

Although many Japanese learners feel it’s fairly easy to learn, surveys of language professors continue to rate Japanese as one of the hardest languages to learn. A study by the US Navy concluded that the hardest language the corpsmen had to learn in the course of service was Japanese. However, it’s generally agreed that Japanese is easier to learn than Korean. Japanese speakers are able to learn Korean pretty easily.

Japanese is rated 5, hardest of all.

Classical Japanese is much harder to read than Modern Japanese. Though you can get by with much less kanji when reading the modern language, you will need a minimum knowledge of 3,000 kanji for reading Classical Japanese, and that’s using a dictionary. There are only about 500-1,000 frequently used characters, but there are countless other words that will come up in your reading especially say special words used in the Imperial Court. Many words have more than one meaning, and unless you know this, you will be lost. 東宮(とうぐう) for instance means Eastern Palace. However, it also means Crown Prince because his residence was to the east of the Emperor’s.

The movie The Seven Samurai (set in the late 1500’s) seems to use some sort of Classical Japanese, or at least Classical vocabulary and syntax with modern pronunciation. Japanese language learners say they can’t understand a word of the archaic Japanese used in this movie.

Classical Japanese gets 5, hardest of all.

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A Look at the Chinese Language

From here.

This post will look at how hard it is to learn Chinese for an English speaker.

It’s fairly easy to learn to speak Mandarin at a basic level, though the tones can be tough. This is because the grammar is very simple – short words, no case, gender, verb inflections or tense. But with Japanese, you can keep learning, and with Chinese, you hit a wall, often because the isolating syntactic structure is so strangely different from English.

Actually, the grammar is harder than it seems. At first it seems simple, like a simplified English with no tense or articles. But the simplicity makes it difficult. No tense means there is no easy way to mark time in a sentence. Furthermore, tense is not as easy as it seems. Sure, there are no verb conjugations, but instead you must learn some particles and special word orders that are used to mark tense.

Once you start digging into Chinese, there is a complex layer under all the surface simplicity. There are serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange stuff. Verb complements can be baffling, especially potential and directional complements. The 了 character can have seemingly countless meanings. You also need to learn quite a bit of vocabulary just to speak simple sentences.

Chinese phonology is not as easy as some say. There are too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same. There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants which does not exist in English.

Chinese orthography is probably the hardest orthography of any language. The alphabet uses symbols, so it’s not even a real alphabet. There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more (although this is controversial), but you only need to know about 4-6,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.

The Communists tried to simplify the system (simplified Mandarin), but they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol. The Communists’ spelling reform left much to be desired.

To make matters worse, there are different ways to write each symbol – different styles of Chinese calligraphy. For instance, Classical Chinese may be written in so called “grass-style” calligraphy or in another style altogether.

It’s a real problem when you encounter a symbol you don’t know because there is often no good way to sound out the word as the system simply is not very phonetic. The Chinese alphabet is probably only 25% phonetic, and many frequently-used characters give tell you nothing about how to pronounce them. Further, you need to learn at least 300 characters before you can start to use the meager phonetics of the writing system at all.

Furthermore, word boundaries are not obvious, as one character does not necessarily equal one word. Therefore it is hard to tell where one word starts and stops and another one begins.

Similarly, a dictionary is not necessarily helpful when trying to read Chinese. You can have a Chinese sentence in front of you along with a dictionary, and the sentence still might not make sense even after looking it up in the dictionary.

Furthermore, merely learning how to look up words in the dictionary in the first place takes new Chinese learners several months and learning how to use a dictionary well is typically not possible until a year of study. Even people who have studied for several years sometimes encounter characters that they simply cannot find in the dictionary. In China, dictionary look-up contests are often held, showing that the process is not transparent at all.

A good student of Chinese often has more than one dictionary, and some have up to 20 different dictionaries. There are separate dictionaries for simplified and traditional characters and dictionaries that have both. There are entire dictionaries just for Classical Chinese particles and others for four character idioms (chéngyǔ), a type of allegorical sayings with two parts (xiēhòuyǔ), and another for proverbs (yànyǔ). There are separate dictionaries for terms that entered Chinese during the Chinese era and others for specifically Buddhist terms. There is an easier way to use a Chinese dictionary called four-part look-up, but it takes a long time to learn it and most learners never master it for whatever reason.

To solve all of these problems with the ideographic writing system, numerous romanization schemes have been invented. At last count, there were a dozen or so of them, but a number of those are rarely used. Certainly, there are 2-3 heavily used ones and that is not counting the bomofu phonetic alphabet used in Taiwan. One of the main problems with these romanization systems is that none of them are very good and they all have serious limitations. Furthermore, the romanization system you studied as a Chinese learner tends to affect your accent in Chinese.

Writing the characters is even harder than reading them. One wrong dot or wrong line either completely changes the meaning or turns the symbol into nonsense. The writing system is often so opaque that even native speakers forget how to write the characters of eve commonly used words.

Even leaving the characters aside, the stylistic and literary constraints required to write Chinese in an eloquent or formal (literary) manner would make your head swim. And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese (wenyanwen) prose. It’s actually written in a different language, so to learn to read Chinese properly like an educated Chinese person does, you will have to learn not one language but two.

One rejoinder is that Classical Chinese to Chinese people is similar to Greek and Latin to an English speaker, but this is a bad analogy, as Classical Chinese is widely studied in Chinese secondary schools and some of the finest Chinese prose is written in this language (see the Confucius and Mencius examples below). Further, after studying French for a few years, you should be able to read French authors who wrote 300 years ago, but after a similar period of studying Chinese, you will not be able to read Confucius or Mencius.

Hence most educated Chinese would be expected to know something about Classical Chinese, and if you wanted to learn Chinese like an educated Chinese speaker, you would have to learn this other language also.

In addition, you need to learn Classical Chinese even if you do not aspire to be an educated Chinese speaker because  one encounters Classical Chinese often in modern Chinese society, often in paintings or character scrolls.

The tones are often quite difficult for a Westerner to pick up. If you mess up the tones, you have said a completely different word. Often foreigners who know their tones well nevertheless do not say them correctly, and hence, they say one word when they mean another.

One problem with the tone system is that when you want to change the meaning of a sentence in a subtle manner via changing intonation of a word, you are bound to change the tone of the word in Chinese. Merely by placing semantic emphasis on a single word, you may deliver a gibberish sentence. Chinese speakers have their own way of using tone as a way of generating subtle semantic meaning, but they do so in an entirely different way than speakers of non-tonal languages do.

However, compared to other tone systems around the world, the tonal system in Chinese is comparatively easy.

A major problem with Chinese is homonyms. To some extent, this is true in many tonal languages. Since Chinese uses short words and is disyllabic, there is a limited repertoire of sounds that can be used. At a certain point, all of the sounds are used up, and you are into the realm of homophones.

Tonal distinctions are one way that monosyllabic and disyllabic languages attempt to deal with the homophone problem, but it’s not good enough, since Chinese still has many homophones even with the tones, and in that case, meaning is often discerned by context, stress, rhythm and intonation.

Chinese, like French and English, is heavily idiomatic.

It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms to count different things, like Japanese.

There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms and have no cognates to fall back on.

In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.

mei meiyounger sister
jie jie
older sister
ge ge
older brother
di di
younger brother

Many agree that Chinese is the hardest to learn of all of the major languages. In a recent international survey of language professors worldwide, these teachers rated Chinese as the hardest language to learn among languages that are commonly studied.

Mandarin gets a 5 rating for extremely hard.

However, Cantonese is even harder to learn than Mandarin. Cantonese has nine tones to Mandarin’s four, and in addition, they continue to use a lot of the older traditional Chinese characters that were superseded when China moved to a simplified script in 1949. Furthermore, since non-Mandarin characters are not standardized, Cantonese cannot be written down as it is spoken.

In addition, Cantonese has verbal aspect, possibly up to 20 different varieties. Modal particles are difficult in Cantonese. Clusters of up to the 3 sentence final particles are very common. 我食咗飯 and 我食咗飯架啦喎 are both grammatical for I have had a meal, but the particles add the meaning of I have already had a meal or answering a question or even to imply I have had a meal, so I don’t need to eat anymore.

Cantonese gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.

Min Nan is also said to be harder to learn than Mandarin, as it has a more complex tone system, with five tones on three different levels. Even many Taiwanese natives don’t seem to get it right these days, as it is falling out of favor and many fewer children are being raised speaking it than before.

Min Nan gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.

A recent 15 year survey out of Fudan University utilizing both the departments of Linguistics and Anthropology looked at 579 different languages in order to try to find the most complicated language in the world. The result was that a Wu language dialect (or perhaps a separate language) in the Fengxian district of Shanghai (Fengxian Wu) was the most complex language of all, with 20 separate vowels. The nearest competitor was Norwegian with 16 vowels.

Fengxian Wu gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.

Classical Chinese is still read by many Chinese people and Chinese language learners. Unless you have a very good grasp on modern Chinese, classical Chinese will be completely wasted on you. Classical Chinese is much harder to read than reading modern Chinese.

Classical Chinese covers an era extending over 3,000 years, and to attain a reading fluency in this language, you need to be familiar with all of the characters used during this period along with all of the literature of the period so you can understand all the allusions. Even with a knowledge of Classical Chinese, you need to read it in context. If you are good at Classical Chinese and someone throws you a random section of it, it will take you a good amount of time to figure it out unless you know context.

The language is much more to the point than Modern Chinese, but this is not as good as it sounds. This simplicity leaves a room for ambiguity and context plays an important role. A joke about some obscure historical or literary anecdote will be lost you unless you know what it refers to. For reading modern Chinese, you will need at least 5,000 characters, but even then, you will still need a dictionary. With Classical Chinese, there are no lower limits on the number of characters you need to know. The sky is the limit.

Classical Chinese gets a 5.5 rating, close to hardest of all.

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Filed under Altaic, Applied, Cantonese, Chinese language, Japanese, Japonic, Language Families, Language Learning, Left, Linguistics, Mandarin, Marxism, Min Nan, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan