I really enjoyed this piece. Those idiots at Badlinguistics are going to hate this post so much, but nevertheless, I think she is mostly correct here. This post is definitely Beyond Highbrow! Something to strive for, commenters! Reach for the skies!
Judith Mirville writes:
English has on one hand grown easier by shedding most of the heavy declension and conjugation-based Germanic grammar of old Anglo-Saxon and old Norman French it also derives fully from, but on the other hand it has grown into one of the most difficult languages of the earth due to the fact that to master it in a workable way, you have to work with roots coming from just too many linguistic horizons, each one having its own rules of combination.
You have more words of French origin in English than remain in French proper. For instance jeopardy and legerdemain are no longer understood in French, and poisonous is no longer correct. More words of Latin and Greek origin than allowed for in real Latin and Greek, apart from the simpler one-syllable, quite often more purely Saxon words that form more numerous prepositional idioms in the popular language than there are words formed likewise in German or Dutch, not counting a larger array than in other languages of purely exotic words having no common roots with any of the main ingredients of English.
The only other one language I know to be quite difficult for foreigners wanting to go beyond the cafeteria level for that very same reason is Hindi. Its grammar has retained only very few of the original complex Indo-European forms, and you cannot master its vocabulary without understanding that even though a few words of daily usage were originally Sanskrit or Pali, they have now undergone much transformation not necessarily for the simplest.
Yet most of the everyday vocabulary used in polite conversations is deformed Arabic imported through Persian, itself a compound language from Old Iranian and Semitic languages.
There is also a whole array of more recently learned terms artificially derived from Classical Sanskrit when it comes to science or Hinduism.
There is also quite a wide array of even more recently learned terms artificially derived from Classical Arabic when it comes to political science, economics, politics or Islam of course, which is an obligatory subject of conversation for all even those who combat it.
This is not counting an even wider array of words imported from English since the British era which is now widening with the advent of globalization. Each of those variegated language sources imposes its own ways of lexical derivation and quite often its grammatical forms.
Hindi, like English, seems somewhat easier than Sanskrit or Tamil as you begin, though it is never as easy as broken or basic English. But like higher-level English, you never, ever come close as a foreigner to master a working knowledge of it for universities or big enterprises.
In German (as well as in many Indian languages other than Hindi), by contrast, you have a much harder time mastering the grammatical machinery as you start, quite like a Mercedes engine, but once you do and you also master the root word combination system, you access very rapidly the highest realms of German philosophical thought.
I perfectly agree with you in stating that the idea put forth by many linguists that all languages are equal in terms of difficulty and ease of learning is a piece of utter fallacy and mendacity.
This is somewhat true only in the very specific context of automated learning of everyday language reflexes to be used without thinking in various situations, as if one were a spy working among a very distant people, and having learned to pronounce with the right accent most automated answers to daily practical situations like ordering toasts and coffee, paying a traffic ticket… one has also to pass more unnoticed in that environment than another person speaking a neighboring and similar dialect with less ease but more ability to express his thought.
This linguistic egalitarianism only works with people who will never bother to express anything they love to say but rather conceal what they know and camouflage it under nonsensical conversation of the kind that will never elicit any suspicion of unorthodoxy, as was the case in early Soviet Union.
And it comes to no surprise that such a linguistic theory came along together with Marxism. This theory can also work quite well in the context of enforced intellectual limitation by a ruling empire over all cultures to be stultified in the same way. But as soon as you are bothering to excel in a language and say everything you would love to say in your own or want to make serious intellectual research, this is simply untrue.
Some languages are really hard to learn, and some others quite easy, though the reasons may vary. Some languages are more difficult due to their lack of relationship with your native one, and some are quite difficult even to their own native speakers.
This PC view about languages just tells us about the limitation of all language they want to impose on us: prohibiting real self-expression and allowing only for a narrow range of practical commands. As they do when they say all races are equal and should mix with each other: what they tell is not the truth, but their aim instead is for the creation of a general stultified world citizen where all possible ancestral talents cancel out each other in favour of sheer mediocrity except for the cunning to make money by fraud and accepting bribes from the higher strata.
Anyway it won’t work: the most mongrelized White-African-Arabic new underclass they wanted to promote as model to be followed by all in France turned out to have lost all personal qualities and prejudices by race and culture mixing … except conspiracy-finding antisemitism as a natural federating factor as epitomized by Dieudonné. The result is that the new-fashioned intellectual Jewish elite of Paris are panicking, developing their own local version of neoconservative thought and telling the White Frenchmen to preserve their heritage from Africanization and mongrelization.
What I cannot stand though is the contrary point of view manifested by race realists such as Gedalia Braun that Negro languages are always more simple and primitive in structure and lacking in the power to express many concepts making civilization possible like metric graduation in the expression of distance in space and time and the notion of appointment and faithfulness as well as a vocabulary needing a dictionary to be relied upon and maintained.
I happen to be a passionate speaker of Haitian Creole of the most purely hillbilly kind as the language of my main love in life, and what Gedalia Braun says is 100% dead wrong even though Creole is supposed to be the zero ground in terms of general linguistics and mental development.
First of all, there is an elaborate tense system in Creole. It seems non-existent only relative to French verbs. Actually it works quite in the same way as English in terms of morphology and auxiliaries though the shades of tense and aspect meaning are as elaborate as in Classical Spanish. It is much more refined and detailed in expression than the tense system of German or of Hebrew which is without any refinement in its modern form. And we are not even talking about the East Asian languages which are said to devoid of the notion of taste and actually more like what one caricatures as a Negro language.
Like English, and for the same reasons, Creole vocabulary is actually huge and of complex derivation, even though it seems easy to catch it when you begin as a traveling salesman, before long, you realize you will never be over with it.
You’ve got three main levels of language.
One that outwardly looks like simplified French but is combined very differently according to syntactic rules more like Semitic languages, possibly Aramaic, and of semantic rules more like Germanic languages. It is also very detailed, accurate and flexible as regards the expression of movement in space and time. A few engineers I know say it is seducing as an instrument for expressing equations.
The second level is the voodoo one, which works according to a different syntax copied from the Gbe language where the determinant comes before the determined as in German, not afterwards as in the first level, and is used for psychic manipulation purposes and power politics.
A third level of language is used for reasons of communication and compatibility with the surrounding modern sophisticated world and comprises all terms of Latin and Greek etymology present in either French, English and Spanish, generally with a rather French pronunciation but the same meaning as in English, and also a greater freedom in forming new terms by Pseudo-Latin derivation.
I don’t know anything about the Piraha language of Amazonia, but after having read a book by a pastor (Everett) who said he had witnessed the marvel of nonthinking people using it, and it had only three vowels, ten consonants, and no structured sentences, I can assure you this guy has been played with by those “primitives.” After all, as an American Evangelist missionary, he deserved to be shot by a poisoned arrow, but they defended themselves in a grander way by neutering his brain, maybe by the use of other less poisonous botanicals.
What that missionary says in a frantic, ecstatic mood is pure delusion.
First of all, there is a consecrated non-wordy, non-analytic, non-recursive way of expression most delicious to use whenever feasible in many languages closer to ours.
Portuguese is one of the best known examples of it.
Even though Portuguese is a very intricate and rich, complex language as regards its literary form proper, it possesses a register of expression that is very difficult to pick up. You have to develop extrasensory modes of communication to do it.
In this register, you exchange only one-word whispered sentences (like so pode) conveying each one a world of implications, making the conversation more like birds’ concert so to speak. Maybe the Portuguese Catholic Inquisition made that a matter of survival at some time, but its reputation for mortal totalitarian control has been grossly exaggerated compared to other control-freaks like the Judaeo-Anglo-Saxon PC crowd.
Everett has remained in the same kind of racist outlook with direction only reversed. Actually, the Pirahas he has met with have always known much more about his culture and his world, together with many other ones that have been threatening them into extinction for centuries, and which they have circumvented through manipulation so far, than he has about theirs, even after all he thinks he has discovered. I suspect the Pirahas to be a very cunning and not so charming and benevolent crowd, though capable of huge good practical jokes: not at all the last castaways from Eden that Everett still imagines as a former Evangelical.
There is certainly a huge higher initiation level of language the Pirahas are dead intent on reserving to themselves, which as high in left brain content as KGB Russian, the same level as in Portuguese, and my beloved Creole. Haitians even used to have computer-like programming languages long before computers, except that they were used to program humans made into zombies, and the purpose of them was always evil.
Arabic, among the languages of worldwide use, is one of the most difficult technically, not only because of its non-relationship with any roots we know in our own languages or its very heavy and irregular morphology as regards plurals, conjugations, declensions and its convoluted syntax, but also because very simple notions in most other languages even in supposedly closely-related Hebrew never can be said in clear simple terms in Arabic and need a cumbersome grammatical apparatus to be conveyed.
To express the concept of doing again or re-doing something, you have to fully conjugate the two verbs re- and do (prepositions are conjugated too, with as many special rules as with verbs), you cannot add something like un- or de- to express the undoing of something.
Instead you have to use a full clause like I am undoing the attachment of my shirt instead of I am untying it. You cannot say I have done it already, instead you have to say something like It is already overtaken by my doing it. You generally don’t say I must do it (even though you could in theory), instead you more commonly say There is no alternative for me apart from doing so.
One thing I like about Arabic though is its closure towards foreign admixture and the difficulty for foreign words to get naturalized, with the result that the semantic universe is simpler than elsewhere and more coherent.
The most difficult aspect though is that you cannot form compound terms and verbs the way you do in English and Romance languages by using suffixes and prefixes, especially when as a stranger or a beginner you are short of the exact term and would use a synonymous compound word instead. Even the negation of adjectives is not guaranteed, and you have to learn the contrary ones which have independent roots.
One thing remarkable about Arabic is the utmost difficulty of expressing in it the idea of excess or of extremism as being an undesirable thing, and conversely, of moderation as being a virtue. The word too or too much simply doesn’t exist. Phrase books and Google translation recommend to use the word very (jiddan) instead, but it has nearly always a laudatory connotation, and if you insist in using it for meaning too much you are spotted as a clumsily-speaking foreigner.
The problem is that practically all comparatives and superlatives that are used to render the idea of relative excess to a situation, like a truck too high for a tunnel to pass through, are also by themselves as elatives having an admirative value. When you say akbar for instance, it is very big or bigger than expected, but it can never really be too big. It is always something like “Wow my Gosh, how it’s big!” Even apart from the worldwide known religious and terroristic use of Allahu Akbar proper, it is just too big eventually for the sum of money it would cost or some other accidental impediment like a ceiling.
In theory, in very Classical (though non-Koranic) Arabic, you could also use a difficult conjugated verb in a serial clause for expressing the simple adverb too much (the verb ifrat:a, meaning overdoing) as is the case with most simple English adverbs, but that would sound as pedantic, unnatural and unusual as Shakespearean “multitudinously” (except as verbal nouns to form scientific compound terms used in universities only) and make everybody around laugh, even among religious speakers of Classical Arabic only.
The word “moderate” is generally recommended to be translated in journalistic lingo as mutaäddil.
But if you leave the Western-style university class for the university cafeteria and say Ana muslimun mutaäddil (I am a moderate Muslim), your colleague from a non-Western culture-related subject will understand something completely different.
He will know that your appetites are well moderated by your faith in Islam, that you have renounced all alcohol, you no longer smoke, you skip one meal out of two and fast for the whole Ramadan, you never indulge in erotic or profane literature and try live a spartan life in order to spare money for the Hajj, which things are not a promise of tolerant conduct towards non-believers.
All good translators into Arabic will tell you of the challenge to render such an expression as too much or of the general concept that an extremist point of view (mutat:arrif) might be condemnable.