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A Word, Please: Blog looks at weirdness of various languages

There are a lot of weird languages in the world. Some have clicking noises. Some have throat-clucking noises. Some have no way of forming questions other than a Valley girl upward lilt at the end of the sentence.

Some have a whole letter for the sound your breath makes when you blow on glass to write your initials in the condensation.

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That’s a lot of weirdness. So, it’s a big deal that, according to a group of linguists who set out to rank 239 languages by how weird they are, English scored the No. 33 spot.

Obviously, there was some whimsy to their science. For one thing, 239 languages make up only a small fraction of the 7,000 or so out there (depending on who’s counting).

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Plus, “weirdness” isn’t exactly a scientific concept. Researchers have yet to invent a weird-o-meter. But the linguists’ findings nonetheless shed some light on languages, in general, and our own in particular.

How, exactly, do you scientifically determine whether a language is “weird.” Well, you don’t, obviously, because the idea is so vague and subjective. But you can do what the folks at the blog Corpus Linguistics did.

You can look at the parts of a language and how they work together and compare these features to other languages to see which ones follow common patterns and which don’t.

For example, it seems normal to us native English speakers that you can take the statement “It is true” and make it a question by flipping the order of the subject and verb: “Is it true?”

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But as it turns out, very few languages work this way. Only 1.4% of the languages surveyed for this feature used this type of inversion to form questions and most of the ones that do are European languages: German, Czech, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Frisian, English, Danish and Spanish.

It’s far more common for languages to have a particle, like the Japanese “ka,” that turns statements into questions. Other languages rely exclusively on intonation — often an upward lilt — to make a statement into a question.

One of the languages studied had no method at all. Chalcatongo Mixtec, which is spoken by only about 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, doesn’t use inversion or a particle or even an upward lilt.

There’s no distinguishable difference between a statement and a question in that language, which must make for some really awkward job interviews. “You see yourself in 10 years.” “Yes, I see myself in 10 years.”

Another way to measure weirdness is to look at pronouns. In English, you can say, “Joe is here,” or you can plug a pronoun into the noun slot: “He is here.”

But the majority of languages in the survey are more like Spanish: They change the verb in a way that implies a pronoun: “Jose esta aqui,” if you want to leave the noun implied, it doesn’t need a pronoun. You can often just say “esta aqui” because “esta” is different enough from the first-person singular “estoy,” the first-person plural “estamos,” and so on, that the listener doesn’t need much more information.

One language, the above-mentioned Chalcatongo Mixtec, uses both methods. But for a little extra chaos, this language puts pronouns in places other than where the nouns would appear.

It won’t surprise you, then, to hear that Chalcatongo Mixtec scored the No. 1 spot in the weirdness rankings.

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Rounding out the top 25, were languages from all over the world, some most of us haven’t heard of, like Pitjantjatjara in Australia and Oceania. Top 25 finishers from Europe include German, Dutch, Czech and Spanish.

In Africa, the top 25 weird ones include Harar, Iraqw and Mumuye. Representing Asia, Nenets, Eastern Armenian, Ladakhi and Mandarin made the list.

The five least-weird languages were Lithuanian, Indonesian, Turkish, Basque and Cantonese. A weird bunch, if you ask this English speaker.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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