What natural languages have unusual properties?
November 16, 2006 9:08 AM   Subscribe

Hawaiian has only eight consonants. Pirahã purportedly has even fewer phonemes and no numerals. What other languages have properties which would be considered unusual by Indo-European language speakers?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane to Writing & Language (33 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't intend to make this an amateur anthropologist "language X has no word for Y" thread or an armchair investigation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; I'm just interested in languages that have structural properties that would be unusual to speakers of European languages, which I suppose includes most of us.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:08 AM on November 16, 2006


Finnish has no grammatical gender, not even for people (the same word is used for 'he' and 'she').
posted by altolinguistic at 9:12 AM on November 16, 2006


Xhosa uses click consonants. Sorta like when you click your tongue -- except they apparently have five different clicks.
posted by winston at 9:13 AM on November 16, 2006


This language appears to have 48 different click consonants.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:17 AM on November 16, 2006


There are places that have whistling languages, but as far as I can tell, those are used just for communicating over long distances -- nobody uses them as a first or primary language.

I thought I'd heard of a language that used a whistle as one of it's consonants, but I can't find any info on it right now.
posted by winston at 9:17 AM on November 16, 2006


Sapir-Whorf is bunk.

Now on to the question. Tone languages are pretty cool (eg. Mandarin and Somali)
posted by edgeways at 9:42 AM on November 16, 2006


That is a striking fact about Hawaiian; here is a Wikipedia article discussing Hawaiian phonology in detail.

I've often thought Hawaiian might be impoverished in consonants because old Ocean has already taken most of them for its surf. I've wondered if an apparently high proportion of doubled words in Hawaiian might be accounted for along similar lines-- as redundancy encouraged by the need to by understood over the sound of breaking waves.
posted by jamjam at 9:44 AM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


Apparently, Pirahã can be whistled as well. Turkish also uses the same pronoun for both genders.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 9:45 AM on November 16, 2006


Modern Irish (that's Gaelic) uses verb-subject-object ordering in declarative sentences rather than subject-verb-object. It also has no verb for "to have", rather declaring possession with prepositions. To say "I have the fork", the direct translation would be "Is the fork at me."
posted by The Michael The at 9:54 AM on November 16, 2006 [1 favorite]


Numerically speaking, most of the world's languages are tone languages to a greater or lesser extent (and probably in terms of populations speaking them, as Chinese is among that number).
posted by altolinguistic at 9:55 AM on November 16, 2006


Michael - Russian does possession like that, and it's Indo-European.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:55 AM on November 16, 2006


I have heard that eskimo language has no first-person pronoun (i.e., you'd say "one likes it" instead of "I like it"), though I couldn't find it just now.

Welsh has that aspirated 'L' sound (usually represented by two L's together, as in Lloyd or Llewelyn).

Most people know about the tonal nature of many eastern languages (e.g. Chinese, Japanese), but this is a significant difference from most western languages. Also, since tone indicates word meaning, it generally is not used to indicate emotional content.
posted by amtho at 9:59 AM on November 16, 2006


GNFTI: I see that you're in Holland. I was just about to say that Dutch seemed very weird to me when I first moved to Holland (Den Haag, no less!!) I managed to do the 'g' thing but the 'ui' thing really confused me. Still I managed to learn some Dutch after a while and then I realized that it was so close to English and that the pronunciation was the thing that was misleading me. I know that that doesn't quite answer your question. I suppose that tonal languages and click-languages seem very odd to European language speakers, I know they seem quite odd to me...
posted by ob at 10:23 AM on November 16, 2006


Fula has 16 grammatical genders.

Most people know about the tonal nature of many eastern languages (e.g. Chinese, Japanese)

Japanese is not tonal.

Finnish has no grammatical gender

The same goes for Estonian, which has no gender, no articles (as in "a" and "the"), no future tense, no verb for "to have", nearly free word order, and (practically) no prepositions -- instead, it has 14 cases.
posted by martinrebas at 10:30 AM on November 16, 2006


Hebrew is normally written without vowels, although you can find beginner texts that include them. [And as someone learning Hebrew, let me tell you that the shock of switching over to text without vowels was quite difficult.]
posted by andoatnp at 10:34 AM on November 16, 2006


Basque sounds very unique and is heavily inflected, which makes the grammar strange to those of us the speak regular/modern European languages. Obligatory wikipedia link.
posted by ob at 10:38 AM on November 16, 2006


Keith Chambers and his wife (who I should know the name of because I took a class from her) wrote a good expostion of the languages and dialects of Tuvalu, which is near Micronesia. Tuvalese has something like fifteen vowel sounds, which made it really diff for the Chamber's family. I was their son's counselor at Camp Unalayee. Anyone go there?
posted by parmanparman at 10:40 AM on November 16, 2006


I've heard that Russian has no copula, but I'm not sure if that's true.

Agglutinative languages can seem pretty strange to English speakers.

One of the things I've found most strange about Japanese is that it's routine to leave out parts of speech which are mandated in proper English if they can be deduced from context. To include them anyway comes off as pedantic and vaguely insulting. (Or makes you sound like a gaikokujin.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:50 AM on November 16, 2006


Tuvalese has something like fifteen vowel sounds
English has more than that!
posted by altolinguistic at 11:36 AM on November 16, 2006


Tagalog also has no grammatical gender.

Many native Australian languages (for example Warlpiri) have free word order. In addition, modifiers need not appear consecutively with what they modify.

Russian does have a zero copula in past tense. Hebrew also had a zero copula and can mark gender on the verb.

Many native South American languages (Mapudungun, for example) feature noun incorporation. This means that nouns can be incorporated to form verbs. The morpheme to do this in Mapudungun is -tu. So, papel-tu means to write on paper and mate-tu means to drink mate.

Ergative-absolutive languages are quite fascinating.
posted by Alison at 11:42 AM on November 16, 2006


Steven C. Den Beste --

Japanese is a prodrop language, but so is Spanish. It is lass rare than one would think.
posted by Alison at 11:43 AM on November 16, 2006


Tagalog also has an inclusive (including the listener) and exclusive (not including the listener) plural third person.

Many languages have a system of evidentiality. That is, some languages use morphosyntax to encode how a piece of information was obtained. Aymara, for example, has different ways of saying "Someone baked a cake" based on whether the speaker witnesses the baking of the cake, heard about a cake being baked from someone else, or inferred it from evidence (i.e. a messy kitchen).
posted by Alison at 11:50 AM on November 16, 2006


Hixkaryana's word order is the opposite of English- object-verb-subject, rather than subject-verb-object.

Salishan languages in general, and Nuxálk in particular, seem to be sort of the opposite of Hawaiian, in a sense. "He arrived" is "tsktskwts" in Nuxálk, and the Wikipedia articles give an example which translates to "he had in his possession a bunchberry plant" that consists of thirteen consonants in a row.
posted by a louis wain cat at 1:25 PM on November 16, 2006


One thing about Japanese that's crossed me up is how particles work. I've had a lot of trouble with how wa (the topic particle) and ga (the subject particle) are used. Finally someone explained to me that you use wa when the thing to the left of it is what's most important, and ga when the thing to the right of it is most important. (Or was it the other way around?)

And there's this: How to count in Japanese.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:31 PM on November 16, 2006


By the way, WordIQ is an excellent source. It's more-or-less Wikipedia for linguistics. (I consult this page constantly.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:37 PM on November 16, 2006


Many native Australian languages (for example Warlpiri) have free word order. In addition, modifiers need not appear consecutively with what they modify.

Classical Latin also has free word order.
posted by nomis at 2:35 PM on November 16, 2006


"Modern Irish (that's Gaelic) ... has no verb for "to have", rather declaring possession with prepositions."

"Russian does possession like that, and it's Indo-European."


Well, so is Irish. And Welsh, and Dutch, among other languages people have said in this thread. The original question asked about languages that "have properties which would be considered unusual by Indo-European language speakers" which would imply that the answers have to be non Indo-European.
posted by litlnemo at 3:56 PM on November 16, 2006


Auxiliary verbs in Tibetan are very strange. They can be evidental in that they can indicate if you were a perceptual witness to something or if you heard about it secondhand or if it is just general knowledge. Also the voluntary/involuntary verb distinction rather than tense is a doozy.
posted by AArtaud at 4:23 PM on November 16, 2006


Mandarin does not have articles, like the or a or an. As well, there is one case for verbs which are modified by other particles in the sentence to indicate verbcase. As in, "wo shi xue sheng" or "wo shi xue sheng le" (literally, "I am student" or "I was student")
posted by rabbitsnake at 4:29 PM on November 16, 2006


litlnemo writes "languages that 'have properties which would be considered unusual by Indo-European language speakers' which would imply that the answers have to be non Indo-European."

Well pointed out, but no, not exclusively so. It's just that I would consider those more likely candidates, but any language would be fine.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:44 PM on November 16, 2006


I would argue that Latin certainly has very flexible word order, but not completely flexible word order like Warlpiri. It uses case marking on dependents so that even modifiers like adjectives or relative clauses need not appear consecutively. In fact, it is even difficult to use word order to establish separate clauses.
posted by Alison at 5:09 PM on November 16, 2006


Czech has a unique sound = ř.

Sounds like a combination of a rolled "r" and the "s" in pleasure [zh].

It sounds beautiful.
posted by mammary16 at 5:12 PM on November 16, 2006


re Estonian having no future tense:
I guess I am being a bit pedantic, but niether does English. We have a number of ways to express future (the modal verb "will", present simple, present continuous...) but no "future tense".
posted by Brave New Meatbomb at 11:37 PM on November 17, 2006


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