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.


Jonathon Owen said...

I wonder if some Nuxalk words simply have no vowels at the underlying level. Berber apparently works that way, but you can hear some vowels when it's spoken.

Abhishek Kakkerla said...

i think even telugu has this same feature of hindi , but i may wrong here ,,, anyway if it is written in telugu , then it looks like this kūrcunḍalēkapōyā/కూర్చున్డలేకపోయా {kūrc+unḍa+lēka+pōyā}

{{and it is āyurvēdika, it is long a , and telugu people donot remove 'a' at then end while talking}}

goofy said...

The difference between Telugu and Devanagari is that in Devanagari, the conjunct is the first character, and in Telugu it's the second character.

So in Telugu the conjunct is the v: ర్వే rvē in అయుర్వేదిక్
In Devanagari the conjunct would be the r: र्वे rve in आयुर्वेदिक

It's not a big difference.

abhishēk kakkerla said...

no i was not talking of any differences. what i was saying was , in అయుర్వేదిక్ it is 'ఆ' and not 'అ', and at the end it is 'క' not 'క్'.
i was saying that hindi's feature "passive used to express incapacity or unwillingness" is also used in telugu.

these hindi sentence can also b written in a re-arranged manner.
मुझसे नहीं बैठा गया। >>> मुझसे बैठा नहीं गया।
उससे वहाँ नहीं जाया गया। >>> उससे वहाँ जाया नहीं गया।
इतनी गरमी में किसी से नहीं सोया जाता। >>> इतनी गरमी में किसी से सोया नहीं जाता।

telugu translations looks like this

1.nenu/ne kurcholekapoya(kurcundalekapoya).
2.vadito akkada vellalekapoya.
3.inta enda lo yevaritokuda/yevvaritonu nidrincalekapoya.

and difference with telugu is sentences
can have or just ignore if it has "with me" , "by me", "me"
and i think even kannada has this feature. i.e. in this "nenu kurcholekapoya", "nenu/ne" is not needed.

abhishēk kakkerla said...

sorry 2nd and 3rd translations r wron.
it should b
2. (vadu) akkadiki vellalekapoyadu
3. inta enda lo yevvarū nidrincaleru

goofy said...

Ok, I misunderstood your comment. Thanks for the information!

goofy said...

As for the spelling of అయుర్వేదిక్, I'm just spelling it the way it is spelled on this box of soap I used to have.

oriondown said...

I LOVED the post!

Very beautiful languages, all of them.

I personally would have voted to include Chinese, Korean and Arabic in your list.

I'd go with Chinese firstly because it uses an ideographic script, secondly because it is tonal, and thirdly because it has so little use for inflection.

I'd take Korean for its script which has a very interesting way of combining consonants and vowels.

I'd include Arabic in my list of cool languages for its use of an Abyad script as well as for the way words are derived from consonant pattern roots. For example, the pattern 'ktb' in Arabic gives you 'kitab' (book), 'kaatib' (writer) and 'maktab' (desk).

goofy said...

oriondown: Hangeul script is very cool in its attempt to represent the articulation of speech sounds.
Could you elaborate on how Chinese has so little use for inflection?

Jonathon: I've heard a theory that Nuxalk has only one underlying vowel.

oriondown said...

In Chinese, the word for "run" doesn't inflect across tenses and persons, unlike in English (I run, she runs, I ran, I am running).

will_try said...

The linguo-labial is also found in the Bijago language of Guinea-Bissau. Unexpected, as it is hard to get any further away from Vanuatu!

Peer-reviewed publication:
Olson, Kenneth S., D. William Reiman, Fernando Sabio & Filipe Alberto da Silva. in press. The voiced linguolabial plosive in Kajoko. Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS) 45(1).