Category Archives: Balto-Slavic

How I Determined Intelligibility For Turkic Lects

Steve: This is amazing. Well done. But how can you possibly know the degree of mutual intelligibility between two languages you don’t speak or know if something is a language or dialect when you don’t speak it? That seems strange. How is it worked out?

Linguists don’t speak all these languages we study. We just study languages, we don’t necessarily speak them. This is confused with the archaic use of the word linguist to mean polyglot. Honestly, many linguists do in fact speak more than one language, and quite a few of them have a pretty good knowledge of at least some of the languages that they study. But my mentor speaks only Turkish and English though he studies all Turkic languages. I don’t believe he has ever learned to speak any Turkic lect other than Turkish.

In reference to my paper here.

We are not looking for raw numbers. We just want to know if they can understand each other or not.

A lot of it is from talking to native speakers and also there was a lot of reading papers by other linguists. I also talked to other linguists a lot. Linguists typically simply state if two lects are intelligible or not. Also there is a basic idea among linguists of what the boundary is between a language and a dialect, and I used this knowledge a lot.

Can they understand each other? Yes or no. That’s pretty much about it. Also at some degree of structural difference, we can see the difference between a language and a dialect. It’s a judgement call, but linguists are pretty good at this.

There is a subsection of very loud linguists, mostly on the Internet, who like to screech a lot about this question cannot be answered by answered because of this or that red herring or some odd conundrums that work their way in. The thing is if you ask around enough, you will be able to get around all of the conundrums and you should be able to eventually reconcile all of the divergent responses to get some sort of a holistic or “big picture.” You finally “figure it out.” The answer to the question comes to you in a sort of a “seeing the answer as part of a larger picture” sort of thing.

The worst red herring is this notion that speakers from Group A will lie and say they do not understand speakers of Group B simply because they hate them so much. If this was such a concern, you would have think I would have run into it at some point. A much worse problem were ethnic nationalists who lie and say that they can understand neighboring tongues when they can’t.

The toxin called Pan-Turkism or Turkish ultranationalism comes into play here. It is almost normal for Turks to believe that there is only one Turkic languages, and it is called Turkish. All of the rest of the languages simply do not exist and are dialects of Turkish. I had to deal with regular attacks by extremely aggressive Ataturkists who insisted that any Turk could easily understand any other Turkic language. Actually my adviser told me that my piece would not be popular with the Pan-Turkics at all. I don’t really care as I consider them to be pond scum.

Granted, some of it was quite controversial and I got variable reports on intelligibility for some lects like Siberian Tatar vs. Tatar, the Altai languages, Kazakh vs. Kirghiz, Crimean Tatar vs. Turkish.

Where native speakers differ on such questions, often vociferously, you simply ask enough of them, talk to some experts and try to get a feel for that what best answer to the question is.

Some cases like Gagauz vs. Turkish probably need raw intelligibility testing. That’s the only one that is up in the air right now, but it is up in the air because the lects are so close. Intelligibility between Gagauz and Turkish is somewhere between  70-100%. In other words, they have marginal intelligibility at worst. My Gagauz expert who knows this language better than anyone though feels that Turkish intelligibility of Gagauz is less than 90%, which is where I drew the line at language and dialect.

It is also starting to look like Nogay is a simply a dialect of Kazakh instead of a separate language, but that might be a hard sell.

Some of these are seen as separate languages simply because they are spoken by different ethnies who do not want to be seen as part of the same group. Also they have different literary norms. Karapalkak is just a Kazakh dialect, but the speakers want to say they speak a separate language. Same with Bashkir, which is simply a dialect of Tatar. The case of Kazakh and Kirghiz is more controversial, but even here, we seem to be dealing with one language, yet the two dialects are spoken by different ethnies that have actually differentiated into two separate states, each with their own literary norm. Kazakhs wish to say they speak a language c called Kazakh and Kirghiz wish to say they speak a language called Kirghiz although they are probably really just one language.

We see a similar thing with Czech and Slovak. My recent research has proven that Czech and Slovak are actually a single language. But the dialects are spoken by different ethnic groups who claim different cultures and histories and they have actually divided into two different states, and each has its own literary norm.

It is here, where dialects become languages not via science by via politics, culture, history and sociology, that Weinrich’s famous dictum that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” comes into play.

Scientifically, these are all simply dialects of a single tongue but we call them languages for sociological, cultural and political reasons.

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Filed under Altaic, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Bashkir, Comparitive, Crimean Tatar, Czech, Dialectology, Gagauz, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Kazakh, Kipchak, Kyrgyz, Language Classification, Linguistics, Nationalism, Political Science, Slavic, Slovak, Sociolinguistics, Tatar, Turkic, Turkish, Ultranationalism

Is There a Language That is (Nearly) Impossible to Learn to Speak Without Growing up with It?

Answer from Quora

I recently talked to a man who is learning Min Nan, which is a Sinitic language often called a dialect of Chinese. He told me that Min Nan speakers say that the tones are so hard that no one who doesn’t grow up speaking Min Nan ever seems to get it very well.

Cantonese is a similar language that is very difficult. It is much harder than Mandarin, and many native Mandarin speakers say they tried to learn Cantonese and gave up on it because it was too hard. Cantonese has nine tones.

Basque is said to be very hard to learn unless you grow up with it. There is a joke that the Devil spent seven years trying to learn Basque, and he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye.

Navajo would also be hard. Even Navajo children struggle quite a bit learning Navajo and don’t seem to get it well until maybe age 12. When Navajo children arrive at school, they often do not speak Navajo well yet.

Korean is a surprise, but apparently it is very hard to learn well. A native Korean speaker told me that Korean is so hard that no Korean speaker ever speaks it with 100% accuracy, and everyone makes errors.

Czech is also hard. Even most Czech speakers never get Czech all the way. They have TV contests in Czechoslovakia where they try to stump native speakers with hard forms in the language. If you can last 30 minutes without making even one error, you win. I think only two men have been able to do it, but one was a non-native speaker!

Piraha, spoken in the Brazilian Amazon, is also very hard. Over the course of a few centuries, several Portuguese speaking priests had tried to learn Piraha, but they had all given up because it was too hard. And these same priests had been able to master a number of other Indian languages, but Piraha was just too much. Daniel Everett learned the language and wrote important papers on it. He is only of the only non-native speakers who was able to learn the language.

Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, is also murderously hard. Every verb can have over 100,000’s of possible forms. I understand that even native speakers make regular errors when speaking Tsez.

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Filed under Altaic, Applied, Balto-Slavic, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Basque, Brazil, Cantonese, Caucasus, Chinese language, Czech, Dene-Yenisien, Indo-European, Indo-Hittite, Isolates, Korean language, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Min Nan, Na-Dene, Navajo, Near East, Regional, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Slavic, South America

Simplification of Language with Increasing Civilization: A Result of Contact or Civilization Itself

Nice little comment here on an old post, Primitive People Have Primitive Languages and Other Nonsense? 

I would like to dedicate this post to my moronic field of study itself, Linguistics, which believes in many a silly thing as consensus that have never been proved and are either untrue or probably untrue.

One of the idiocies of my field is this belief that in some way or another, most human languages are pretty much the same. They believe that no language is inherently better or worse than any other language, which itself is quite a dubious proposition right there.

They also believe, incredibly, that no language is more complex or simple than any other language. Idiocy!

Another core belief is that each language is perfectly adapted for its speakers. This leads to their rejecting claims that some languages are unsuitable for the modern world due to lack of modern vocabulary. This common belief of many minority languages is obviously true. Drop a Papuan in Manhattan, and see what good his Torricelli tongue does him. He won’t have words for most of the things around him. He won’t even have verbs for most of the actions he sees around him. His language is nearly useless in this environment.

My field also despises notions that some languages are better suited to poetry, literature or say philosophy than others or that some languages are more or less concise or exact than others or that certain concepts or ways of thinking are better expressed in one language as opposed to another. However, this is a common belief among polyglots, and I would not be surprised if it was true.

The question we are dealing with below is based on the notion that many primitive languages are exceeding complex and the common sense observation that as languages acquire more speakers and civilization increases, one tends to see a simplification of language.

My field out and out rejects both statements.

They will tell you that primitive languages are no more complex than more civilized tongues and that there is no truth to the statement that languages simplify with greater numbers of speakers and increased civilization. However, I have shot these two rejected notions to many non-linguists, and they all felt that these statements had truth to them. Once again, my field violates common sense in the name of the abstract and abstruse “we can’t prove anything about anything” scientific nihilism so common in the intellectually degraded social sciences.

Indeed, some of the most wildly complex languages of all can be found among rather primitive peoples such as Aborigines, Papuans, Amerindians and even Africans. Most language isolates like Ket, Burashaski and Basque are pretty wild. The languages of the Caucasus are insanely complex, and that region doesn’t exactly look like Manhattan. Siberian languages are often maddeningly complex.

Even in China, in the remoter parts of China, language becomes highly differentiated and probably more complex. I know an American who was able to learn Cantonese and Mandarin who told me that at age 35, for an American to learn Hokkien was virtually impossible. He tried various schemes, but they all failed. He finally started to get a hold of the language with a strict eight hour a day study schedule. Anything less resulted in failure. Hokkien speakers that he spoke too said you needed to grow up speaking Hokkien to be able to speak the language well at all. By the way, this is another common sense notion that linguists reject. They say there are no languages so difficult that it is very hard to pick them up unless you grew up with them.

The implication here is that Min Nan is even more complex than the difficult Mandarin or even the forbidding Cantonese, which even many Mandarin speakers give up trying to learn because it is too hard.

Min Nan comes out Fujian Province, a land of forbiddingly high mountains where language differentiation is very high, and there is often difficult intelligibility even from village to village. In one area, fifteen years ago an American researcher decided to walk to a nearby village. It took him six very difficult hours over steep mountains. He could have taken the bus, but that was a four-day trip! A number of these areas had no vehicle roads until recently and others were crossed by vast rivers that had no bridges across them. Transportation was via foot. Obviously civilization in these parts of China is at a more primitive level, and it’s hard to develop Hong Kong-style cities in places with such isolating and rugged terrain.

It’s more like, “Oh, those people on the other side of the ridge? We never go there, but we heard that their language is a lot different from ours. It’s too hard to go over that range so we never go to that area.”

In the post, I theorized that as civilization increased, time becomes money, and there is a need to get one’s point across quickly, whereas more primitive peoples often spend no more than 3-4 hours a day working and the rest sitting around, playing  and relaxing. A former Linguistics professor told me that one theory is that primitive people, being highly intelligent humans (all humans are highly intelligent by default), are bored by their primitive lives, so they enjoy their wildly complex languages and like to relax, hang out and play language games with them to test each other on how well they know the structures. They also like to play tricky and maybe humorous language games with their complicated languages. In other words, these languages are a source of intellectual stimulation and entertainment in an intellectually impoverished area.

Of course, my field rejects this theory as laughably ridiculous, but no one has disproven it yet, and I doubt if the hypothesis has even been tested, hence it is an open question. My field even tends to reject the notion of open questions, preferring instead to say that anything not proven (or even tested for that matter) is demonstrably false. That’s completely anti-scientific, but that’s the trend nowadays across the board as scientistic thinking replaces scientific thinking.

Of course this is in line with the terrible conservative or reactionary trend in science where Science is promoted to a fundamentalist religion and scientists decide that various things are simply proven true or proven not true and attempts to change the consensus paradigm are regarded derisively or with out and out fury and rage and such attempts are rejected via endless moving of goalposts with the goal of making it never possible to prove the hypothesis. If you want to see an example of this in Linguistics, look at the debate around  Altaic. They have set it up so that no matter how much existing evidence we are able to gather for the theory, we will probably never be able to prove it as barriers to proof have been set up to make the question nearly unprovable.

It’s rather senseless to set up Great Wall of China-like barriers to proof in science because at some point,  you are hardly proving anything new, apparently because you don’t want to.

Fringe science is one of the most hated branches of science and many scientists refer to it as pseudoscience. Practitioners of fringe science have a very difficult time as the Scientific Establishment often persecutes them, for instance trying to get them fired from professorships. Yet this Establishment is historically illiterate because many of the most stunning findings in history were made by widely ridiculed fringe scientists.

The commenter below rejects my theory that increased civilization itself results in language simplification, as it gets more important to get your point across as quickly  as possible with increasing complexity and development of society. Instead he says civilization leads to increased contact between speakers of different dialects or language, and in such cases,  language must be simplified, often dramatically, in order for any decent communication to occur. Hence increased contact, not civilization in and of itself, is the driver of simplification.

I like this theory, and I think he may be onto something.

To me the simplification of languages of more ‘civilized’ people is mostly a product of language contact rather than of civilization itself. If the need arises to communicate with foreign people all of the time, for example in trade, then the language must become more simple in order to be able to be understood by more people.

Also population size matters a lot. It has been found that the greater the number of speakers, the greater the rate of language change. For example Polynesian languages, although having been isolated centuries or even millennia ago, still have only minor differences from one another.

In the case of many speakers, not all will be able to learn all the rules of a language, so they will tend to use the most common ones. And if the language is split in many dialects, then speakers of each dialect must find a compromise in order to communicate, which might come out as simple. If we add sociolects, specific registers for some occasions, sacred registers, slang etc, something that will arise in a big and stratified civilization, then the linguistic barriers people will need to overcome become greater. So it is just normal that after some centuries, this system to simplify.

We don’t need to look farther than Europe. Most languages of the western half being spoken in countries with strong trade links to one another and with much of the world later in history are quite analytic, but the languages of the more isolated eastern part are still like the older Indo-European languages. Basques, living in a small isolated pocket in the Iberian Peninsula, have kept a very complex language. Icelanders, also due to isolation, have kept a quite conservative Germanic language, whereas most modern Germanic languages are ridiculously simplified. No one can argue in his sane mind that Icelanders are primitives.

On the other hand, Romanian, being spoken in the more isolated Balkans, has retained more of the complex morphology of Latin compared to West Romance languages. And of course advance of civilization won’t automatically simplify the language, as Turkish and Russian, both quite complicated languages compared to the average European tongue, don’t seem to give up their complexity nowadays.

On the other hand, indigenous people were living in a much more isolated setting compared to the modern world, the number of speakers was comparatively low, and there was no need to change. Also, neighboring tribes were often hostile to one another, so each tribal group sought to make itself look special. That is the reason why places with much inter-tribal warfare like New Guinea have so many languages which are so different from one another. When these languages need to communicate, we get ridiculously simple contact languages like Hiri Motu.
So language simplification is more a result of language contact rather than civilization itself.

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Filed under Aborigines, Altaic, Amerindians, Anthropology, Applied, Asia, Basque, Cantonese, Caucasus, China, Chinese language, Cultural, Dialectology, Europe, Germanic, Indo-European, Isolates, Language Families, Language Learning, Linguistics, Mandarin, Min Nan, Near East, Papuans, Race/Ethnicity, Regional, Russian, Science, Siberian, Sinitic, Sino-Tibetan, Sociolinguistics, Turkic, Turkish

What Was the Worst Cultural Genocide Ever?

How about the Romanization of the Celtic World?

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Yes, all of that land was formerly controlled by the Celts. Even Southwest Poland was Celtic. There is an endangered language spoken there called Silesian that has at its very base a Celtic layer which is the oldest layer of this Slavic language. The French language was Celtic Gaulish, the influence of which can still be seen in the odd French phonology. I do not think there is much Celtic left in the Iberian languages, but I could be wrong on that. Surely there is little or no Celtic left in Turkish. One wonders about Celtic traces in Dutch, German and the rest of Slavic.

In our modern era, Celtic languages only (barely) survive in Ireland (Irish), Scotland (Scottish Gaelic), Wales (Welsh), the Isle of Man (Manx) and Cornwall (Cornish) in England, and Brittany (Breton) in France. In Eastern Europe, Celts were supplanted by Germanic, Iranian and Slavic tribes. In France, Iberia and the Balkans, the Celts were assimilated to the Roman Empire.

It is not particularly difficult to convert a native elite to the language of a conqueror, but converting an entire population to a new language in a short period of time is quite a feat. The Romans did this mostly by showing the superiority of the Latin language and convincing the natives to give up their Celtic words.

In fact, the Romanization of Dacia where the original Celtic speaking people were completely converted to Latin which then turned into Romanian is cited by Wikipedia as one of the worst cultural genocides ever.

Of course there are many other examples of cultural genocide, some of them ongoing.

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Filed under Antiquity, Balto-Slavic-Germanic, Britain, Celtic, Culture, Dutch, Europe, European, France, French, Geography, German, Germanic, History, Indo-European, Ireland, Italic, Italo-Celtic, Language Families, Linguistics, Maps, Poland, Regional, Roman Empire, Romance, Scotland, Slavic, Sociolinguistics, Turkic, Turkish

Is Old High German Close to Old Persian?

I am going to republish this older piece that has been called into question. Supposedly this language is totally made up. However, that is almost certainly not true, although I am looking into it at the moment. A Croatian professor even wrote a 27,500 word dictionary of this language. I am enclosing here 97 different references that discuss this language in the hopes that this puts an end to the Gan-Veyan controversy once and for all.

Beatrix writes:

Robert,Is it true that 1,000 yrs ago a German & a Persian spoke basically the same language?

No, it is not  true at all that Old German and Old Persian were the same language 1,000 years ago.

However there are some Croatian dialects such as Archaic Islander Čakavian spoken on the islands off the coast of Croatia that are quite similar to Persian or Iranic. They are actually closer to Kurdish and Zazaki though. They are actually completely separate languages, as the lexical similarity with Croatian is only 4%! There is a theory that the pre-Slavic Croatians may have come originally from Persia, and there may be something to that.

These ancient tongues are the remains of the pre-Slavic languages spoken in this area before the Slavs came. The language that these tongues are closest to is called Liburnian. The Liburnians inhabited that region thousands of years ago. Liburnian is an ancient Indo-European language.

I did a study on one of those old languages, an Archaic Islander Čakavian tongue called Gan-Veyãn. I obtained a short dictionary of Gan-Veyãn and went through half of it from M-Z looking on my guesses as where the roots seemed to have originated. The results were remarkable and are listed in order with the language with the most roots first and the language with fewest roots last.

  • Indic
  • Persian
  • Avestan
  • Hittite
  • Akkadian
  • Basque
  • Tocharian
  • Sumerian
  • Lithuanian
  • Aramaic
  • Hurrian
  • Etruscan
  • Gothic
  • Russian
  • Ukrainian
  • Celtic
  • Kurdish
  • Armenian
  • Latin
  • Arabic
  • Mittani
  • Apian
  • German
  • Geez

I will go down the list now and describe these languages.

Indic means all of the Indo European or IE languages related to Hindi.

Persian is well known.

Avestan is best described as Old Persian.

Hittite is an ancient IE tongue formerly spoken in Turkey.

Akkadian is a language isolate formerly spoken in Iraq by the people of that name who had a kingdom there.

Basque is the well known language isolate and pre-IE language spoken in northeastern Spain. Although it formally has no relatives, I would say it is related to NE Caucasian languages like Chechen. In fact the placename Iberia has deep connections to the land of Georgia.

Tocharian is an ancient IE languages formerly spoken by Caucasian people who lived in what is now Xinjiang in far western China where the Uyghurs now live.

Sumerian is an ancient tongue, a language isolate formerly spoken in the Sumerian Kingdom in Iraq.

Lithuanian is interesting because for some reason it is one of the most archaic living IE languages.

Aramaic of course is the language of Jesus spoken in the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran and Turkey. It is still spoken by Assyrian Christians in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey to this day.

Hurrian is an ancient IE language like Hittite formerly spoken in Turkey.

Etruscan is an ancient language isolate formerly spoken in Italy.

Gothic is the ancient Germanic language of the Visigoths who lived not only in Germany but also in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Russian and Ukrainian are well known. This ancient language may have roots close to these two Slavic languages because in a way Russian and Ukrainian are ancient Slavic languages being heavily based on Old Church Slavonic, a liturgical language that originated in northeastern Greece with roots close to Old Slavic or even Proto-Slavic.

Kurdish is the well known Iranic language of the Kurds.

Armenian is a living language, but it is rather ancient and archaic as IE languages go.

Latin is well known and these islands were part of the Roman Empire for a while.

Arabic is well known and quite a few languages along the European coast of the Mediterranean Sea have some Arabic in them.

Mittani is a language isolate formerly spoken around northern Iraq and Iran that nevertheless seems to have some relationship with Indo-Iranian languages.

Apian is an ancient IE language formerly spoken in Italy.

German is well known. How German words got into this language is a head scratcher but Croatia itself is quite close to Germany as a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had German as an official language.

Geez is the ancient language of the Ethiopian and Egyptian Coptic Christians which was thought to be long dead. However a family in Cairo was recently discovered who spoke Geez at home.

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Lovrić M., Malinar H. & Rac, M. 1999: Zagonetka Krčke Korintije (Uri-Kvorÿta), Najveće Neistražene Gradine Na Jadranu. Ognjište 10: 295-306, Karlovac.

Lovrić, A. Ž. & Mileković, H.M. 1999. Ranohrvatski Jezik I Njegovi Pradialekti. Hrvatsko Slovo 194: 12-13 and one map. Zagreb: Društvo Hrvatskih Književnika.

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Podrijetla Na Starohrvatskim Pradialektima. Monograph: Old-Iranian Origin of Croats, pp. 353-366. Tehran: Iranian Cultural Center.

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Linguistic/National Question

In what countries is the language spoken in the capital different from the language spoken by the majority of people in the rest of the country? As you can see, there is more than one country where this is the case.

Some cases from the past include

Austria-Hungary, where the capital Vienna spoke High German but most of the people spoke Czech, Slovak, Venetian, Slovenian, or Serbo-Croatian.

In Ireland, before English became popular in the early 1800’s, most people around the capital spoke English, while the majority of the population spoke Irish.

I found nine countries, two in Europe, two in Southeast Asia, two in South Asia, one in Oceania, one in the Caribbean, and one in Africa.

Hop to it!

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Croatia, 1846

There probably wasn’t really any such thing as “Croatia” back then, but anyway, let us discuss what was happening in the territory we currently refer to as the nation of Croatia.

  • What was the official language (Slavic)?
  • What were the two other languages that were widely spoken everyone or nearly everyone along with the official one (both Slavic)?
  • What was the language most commonly spoken by educated people, especially in cities? For instance, if you went into a bookstore in Zagreb, the books would mostly be in this language (non-Slavic)?
  • What was the language of science and the ultra-elites? As an example of how this language was used, what was the official language for the Croatian Parliament? (non-Slavic)?
  • What was the official religion?

Five questions, five whole questions, now hard could it be?

Have fun kids!

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Is There a Language That Is Almost Impossible to Learn Without Growing Up with It?

A question was recently asked on Quora. Here is my answer.

Hello, I recently talked to a Westerner who is learning Min Nan, which is a Sinitic language often called a dialect of Chinese. He already speaks Mandarin, but he told me Min Nan if vastly harder than Mandarin. At age 35, he was studying it 2 hours a day, and at some point, he hit a wall, and he didn’t seem to be making any progress. He kept adding more study hours to the day  – four hours, six hours – with little effect. Finally when he was studying it for eight hours a day, he started making some good progress. I believe he said contour tones and tone sandhi were the major roadblocks.

Min Nan speakers say that even Cantonese is easier than Min Nan, and Cantonese is deadly hard. They also say that Min Nan tones are so hard that no one who did not learn Min Nan growing up gets anywhere near native fluency.

Cantonese is a similar language that is very difficult. It is much harder than Mandarin, and many native Mandarin speakers say they tried to learn Cantonese and gave up on it because it was too hard. Cantonese has 9 tones. The general consensus among Chinese is that Cantonese is much harder to learn than Mandarin.

Basque is said to be very hard to learn unless you grow up with it. There is a joke that the Devil spent seven years trying to learn Basque, and he only learned how to say Hello and Goodbye.

Navajo would also be murderously hard. Even Navajo children struggle quite a bit learning Navajo. When they show up at school at age 5-6, they are still struggling with Navajo. There are reports that Navajo children don’t seem to get Navajo well until maybe age 12.

Korean is a surprise, but apparently it is very hard to learn well. A native Korean speaker told me that Korean is so hard that no Korean speaker ever speaks it with 100% accuracy, and everyone makes errors.

As another respondent pointed out, Japanese is also quite notorious, and most Westerners get nowhere near native fluency.

Czech is also hard. Even most Czech speakers never get Czech all the way. They have TV contests in Czechoslovakia where they try to stump native speakers with hard forms in the language. If you can last 30 minutes without making even one error, you win. I think only two men have been able to do it, but one was a non-native speaker! Czech also has a strange r sound found only in one other language on Earth. It is said that no native speaker ever gets this phoneme quite right.

Piraja is also very hard as another respondent pointed out. Only two non-natives have ever been able to speak Piraha with any fluency. When Daniel Everett went to study the language, he found a number of reports from priests who had tried to learn Piraha since the early 1800’s, and only one had succeeded. The others tried to learn but gave up because they said it was too hard.

Tsez, spoken in the Caucasus, is also murderously hard. Every verb can have tens of thousands of possible forms. Reports say that even native speakers make regular errors when speaking Tsez.

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Check Out Belarussian

Here is a sample of the Belarussian language from a Belarussian TV commercial. For those of you who speak a Slavic language, I would like you to listen to this clip and tell me how much you can understand of it.

I decided to post my section on Belarussian from a recent paper of mine. My charming critics say that I am “promoting misinformation,” and have banned all links to me. They also say that everyone should ignore every single word that I write because nothing that I say is true, not even one sentence. However, some averred that in an entire paper, I might state one or two true things.

If any of you know anything about the subject below, tell me if they are right. Tell me if every single sentence below is true or false. In fact, tell me if you can find one false sentence below.

Here.

Belarussian is one of the most recent East Slavic lects to come into existence, as the earliest Belarussian texts are from only the 1500’s. So the split between Belarussian and Ukrainian and Russian is shallower than that between Spanish and Portuguese.

Belarussian intelligibility with both Ukrainian and Russian is a source of controversy. On the one hand, Belarussian has dialects that are intelligible with dialects of both Russian and Ukrainian.

Reports of the endangerment or looming death of Belarussian are usually politically motivated attacks on President Lukashenko accusing him of killing the language.

On the contrary, Belarussian, while in a disappointing situation, is very much alive. Almost all Belarussians can speak the language, but only 15% do so in day to day conversation. Most of the rest more often play the role of passive speakers although they can speak the language if they need to (Mezentseva 2014).

Belarussian knowledge of their language benefits them because it gives them a head start on learning other Slavic languages (Mezentseva 2014).
Belarus was actually part of Poland at one time, as was Western Ukraine. Belarussians see themselves as a different people from Russians.

For centuries, they called themselves Tutejshiya “our people” (Mezentseva 2015).

Part of the blame for the decline of Belarussian lies with Belarussians themselves because despite the statements in the paragraph above, Belarussians have a very strong attachment to Russia and only a weak attachment to their own land (Mezentseva 2014). The result of this is that although 85% of Belarussians can speak Belarussian, and Russian is the preferred language in the country (Pavlenko 2006).

In 1991, Belarus only had one official language, Belarussian, though Russian was in wide use. In 1994, the people voted to have two official languages, Belarussian and Russian. Russian-language media and politicians quickly took advantage of the situation and used to opportunity to make Russian the dominant language in the country (Mezentseva 2014).

Lukashenko regularly wins elections by 75-80% margins, and polls show about the same support. The very unpopular opposition are regarded by most Belarussians as traitors and anti-Russian, pro-US tools of the West out to destroy the country.

One major problem for the language is that Belarussian is now associated with the opposition in the country. This association of the language with the unpopular opposition has hurt the language and is a major reason why state support for Belarussian has been lukewarm at best (Mezentseva 2014).
However, the linguistic situation in the country is complicated, and there are Belarussian-language TV stations and a number of daily newspapers (Mezentseva 2014).

The Western media reports that Belarussian is dying, but this is politicized discourse.

The truth is that Belarussian is becoming more and more popular these days, as it is coming to be seen as the prestigious “language of the intelligentsia” as opposed to the Soviet era in the 1970’s and 80’s when it was regarded as a “village language.” Belarussian language advocates say that they are not pessimistic at all about the state of the language and in fact they are optimistic. Belarussian is used in the educational system, and advocates expect its use there to expand. Independent Belarussian classes have been springing up to assist Belarussians who want to promote the language and culture. (Mezentseva 2014).

Russian nationalists often state that Belarussian is a dialect of Russian. However, this judgement is based more on national chauvinism than linguistics (Mezentseva 2014), as Russian lacks full intelligibility of Belarussian.

However, the statement is partly true if we are discussing Trasianka and Russian. Trasianka is Belarussian dialect based on a a mix of Russian and Belarussian that arose during the Sovietization of Belarus. It resembles Russian spoken with a Belarussian accent and is spoken mainly by rural dwellers who moved to towns and started to watch a lot of Russian TV. It is also widely spoken in Eastern Belarus near the Russian border (Mezentseva 2014).

West Polesian or West Palesian is a transitional Belarussian dialect to Ukrainian. Some think that West Polesian is a microlanguage, but the majority of Belarussian linguists say it is a dialect of Belarussian (Mezentseva 2014). But see the analysis of Polesian in the Ukrainian section above under Ukraine for a fuller account of this very confusing lect. Belarussian and Ukrainian have 84% lexical similarity.

Pronunciation is also very similar between the two languages. Some of the grammatical categories do differ. Belarussian intelligibility of Ukrainian is high at 80% (Mezentseva 2014).

Belarussian has many Polish borrowings, hence Belarussian has a fairly high intelligibility of Polish at 29%. Written intelligibility is higher at 67% (Mezentseva 2015).

Although Polish is notorious for being one of the hardest languages in Europe for foreigners to learn, Belarussians can actually learn it fairly easily due to the similarities between the two languages (Mezentseva 2014).

Testing Belarussian intelligibility of Russian is not realistically possible.
The vast number of Belarussians speak Russian, and of those who do not, all or nearly all have at least passive knowledge of Russian. At the moment there are few to no Belarussian monolinguals. If they exist at all, there may be a few elderly female monolinguals in the far west of the country by the Polish border (Mezentseva 2015) , but it would be difficult to study them.

MI figures:

Belarussian: Oral intelligibility: 80% of Ukrainian and 29% of Polish.Written intelligibility: 67% of Polish.

References

Mezentseva, Inna. English teacher, Belarussian and Russian speaker, Vitebsk, Belarus. BA in Education and Linguistics. Vitebsk State University, Vitebsk, Belarus. December 2014. Personal communication.
Mezentseva, Inna. English teacher, Belarussian and Russian speaker, Vitebsk, Belarus. BA in Education and Linguistics. Vitebsk State University, Vitebsk, Belarus. May 2015. Personal communication.
Pavlenko, A. 2006. Russian as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 26: 78-99.

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I Have Been Working on This Paper Lately

Here.

It is 65 pages now, and it has 34 references, 6 personal communications and 28 cites. A number of the judgements are now from linguists, articles in linguistics journals, people with graduate degrees who took a vast number of linguistics courses, grad students in philology, and language teachers with BA’s in Linguistics. There are also a number from people who I personally tested. And I do have one result from a formal intelligibility study, but I could only find one of them for Slavic. These types of studies are almost never done with major languages.

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