Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The ten coolest languages

Austronesian languages of Vanuatu
The languages of Vanuatu, like Vao, Tangoa, and V'enen Taut (Big Nambas), are I think the only languages in the world to use linguo-labial consonants. These consonants are made by touching the tip of the tongue to the upper lip. Listen.

Salishan languages
Here are some words in Klallam. (ƛ̕ is a lateral ejective /tɬʼ/, c is /ts/)

sƛ̕íƛ̕aʔƛ̕qɬ "child"
ɬq̕čšɬnát "Friday"
sk̕ʷc̕ŋíyɬč "cherry tree"

The orthography is an accurate representation of the pronunciation. There are no epenthetic vowels; the word for "Friday" really does begin with 6 consonants. (Have a listen.)

Here's a recording of a Klallam speaker reciting the myth of the flood.

The related language Nuxalk (Bella Coola) is famous for its consonant clusters. There are a lot of short utterances, like k'xct "they see you", sc'qc tx "that's my fat over there", that have no vowels. (Listen.)

This Nuxalk utterance is famous:

'he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.'

Really? An utterance that long has no vowels, not even epenthetic vowels? In these recordings I can hear plenty of vowels (plenty of consonant clusters too). In particular a word like mts has a syllabic nasal, and scwm "to burn" sounds like [sxʷɘm] to me.

This Otomanguean language contrasts creaky and breathy voice vowels. Creaky voice, also called vocal fry, is used quite a lot in English and has been in the news recently.

ǃXóõ (Taa)
ǃXóõ has five basic click consonants, each of which can be modified in various ways, for a total of over 80 click sounds. Listen to clicks in the related language Zhuǀhõasi.

Dhivehi (Maldivian)
It’s an Indo-European language spoken in the Maldives, the furthest away from the geographical area I think about when I think Indo-European. It's written in Thaana, which looks a bit like Perso-Arabic script but is only partly derived from it.

Agul (Aghul)
The epiglottis is the flap of tissue that closes off the trachea when we swallow. And it also plays a role in speech: the Caucasian language of Agul is one of the only languages that has epiglottal consonants. Listen.

Hindi uses the passive to express incapacity or unwillingness. And the passive can be used this way with intransitive verbs!

मुझसे नहीं बैठा गया।
mujhase nahīṃ baiṭhā gayā
literally "was not sat by me"
"I couldn't sit down"

उससे वहाँ नहीं जाया गया।
usase vahāṃ nahīṃ jāyā gayā
literally "there was not gone by him"
"He couldn't (bring himself to) go there."

इतनी गरमी में किसी से नहीं सोया जाता।
itanī garamī meṃ kisī se nahīṃ soyā jātā
literally "in so much heat is not slept by anyone"
"Nobody can sleep in so much heat."

Sanskrit has a cool compounding system that can get pretty complex (I've probably spelled these wrong):

mṛga-pracāra-sūcita-śvāpadam araṇyam
literally, "the forest (is) one-in-which-the-beasts-are-indicated-by-the-movements-of-the-deer"
"the game in the forest has been tracked by the movements of the deer"

pratyāpanna-cetano vayasyaḥ
literally "(my) friend (is) one-by-whom-consciousness-is-regained"
"my friend has regained consciousness"

Because it has such a beautiful script.

An interesting feature of this script is how some consonants are conjoined. The word "ayurvēdik" is written అయుర్వేదిక్ where the character for v is a conjunct. It's the one that drops below the baseline. The character immediately to the left of that is the non-conjunct character for r. And the vowel diacritic (ē) is added to the non-conjunct consonant (the r) instead of the consonant whose syllable it belongs to (the v).

Like many Celtic languages, Welsh has a system of initial mutation where the first consonant in the word changes depending on its grammar or the preceding word. Welsh has three kinds of mutation: soft, nasal and aspirate.

So pen is "head":

fy mhen "my head" (nasal mutation, the initial /p/ has changed to a voiceless nasal)
dau ben "two heads" (soft mutation, the initial /p/ has changed to /b/)
ei phen "her head" (aspirate mutation, the initial /p/ has changed to /f/)

And those are my favourite languages. Feel free to add to the list!

Lots of further discussion at languagehat! And yeah, this list is completely subjective and arbitrary. It's just an excuse to list some things I find interesting.