Sapir Whorf Reversed

The Sapir Whorf Hypothesis is a very interesting hypothesis in Linguistics that states that the language you speak actually effects your brain, or at least the way you look at and see the world. Since its publication, the silly Linguistics profession has torn this fine hypothesis into a million pieces, but I still believe that there is something to it, and Everett’s very controversial work on the Piraha language in the Amazon seems to have revived Sapir-Whorf. At any rate, Benjamin Whorf was a very smart man.
How about if we reverse the hypothesis, and say that instead of language shaping the brain, the brain shapes language, even worse, that your genes in part determine what type of language you may speak. This is raw HBD stuff, so the ridiculous Linguistics profession is going to go insane with rage over this, but it seems there is something to it.
Tone languages and genes.
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27 thoughts on “Sapir Whorf Reversed”

  1. Hi Robert,
    Linguistic relativism (weak Sapir-Whorf) is a pretty common view even among linguists these days, namely that language affects the perception of the world. It’s the hardcore linguistic absolutism (that language determines and controls perception of the world and prevents speakers from even thinking outside it) that isn’t as popular. After all, nothing’s stopping people from becoming bilinguals.
    As for the other link you brought up, it’s a relatively old piece of work that doesn’t have any grounding when you analyze from a historical viewpoint. Tone in East Asian languages is a relatively recent areal development (less than 2000 years) that continues to develop today. Old Chinese didn’t have contrastive (phonemic) tone. Nor did the ancestral proto-languages of Austronesian-Tai or Austroasiatic.
    On the other hand, tone can develop in Indo-European languages as well, such as seen in Punjabi and Swedish, which can both be analyzed as falling under the category of tonal languages. Not all tonal languages have a Standard Mandarin-like strict contour tone phonology; in fact that type of tone phonology is not that common.
    Sometimes biologists try to apply statistical models to languages without first consulting what has been established by history, and go off on a wild goose chase for something. History tends to skew the data.

      1. Well, in the U.S. linguistics world’s ivory tower upper echelons, there is still an all-mighty Noam Chomsky hegemony, so going up against recursion (one of the most important Chomskyan dogmas) was the major conflict in Everett’s Piraha debacle (rather than any uproar about linguistic determinism).
        My European linguistics professors (in the U.K.) were somewhat resentful of the overwhelming dominance of Chomsky in the U.S.; part of the reason they chose to become professors in Europe rather than America was that they would have to do everything through a Chomskyan looking glass if they were in the U.S. (which gets really old really quickly).

    1. For example, Dominican Creole lacks a denotation of the past, and future tense. Thus many speakers lack an ability to plan for the future or learn from past mistakes. To them, time is an illusion.

    2. Can’t think of any at the moment, but I thought Everett’s work pretty much revived Sapir-Whorf. Check out Daniel Everett’s work on Piraha.
      In Spanish, nothing is ever anyone’s fault. Everything is left to fate. You didn’t forget something, “it forgot itself.” Everything is “ohala que.” And the very frequent use of the subjunctive makes the world seem like a very uncertain place, and not only in the future, but in the present and even in the past. An uncertain and fatalistic language.

      1. I hope you can find better examples than that, because those are absolutely wrong:
        “Lo olvidè / Se me olvidó” –> I forgot it
        “Ojala que” –> Hopefully
        “Espero que” –> I hope that
        Not dissimilar from English.
        As for the subjunctive, how does use of a different mood make the world seem “uncertain”? If you don’t have proper or complete knowledge about a situation, why wouldn’t you describe it in… uncertain terms?
        But the most interesting part about your comment is your contradiction:
        “An uncertain and fatalistic language.”
        How can something be uncertain and fatalistic at the same time? Those words mean very opposite things.

        1. All right, I am banning you.
          Lo olvidè / Se me olvidó” –> I forgot it = Wrong. “It forgot itself to me,” shithead. You didn’t forget anything. Literally, it forgot itself.
          “Ojala que” –> Hopefully = Wrong again shithead. Ojala que = “God willing that it may” = a purely fatalistic statement that leaves it all up to God.
          “Espero que” –> I hope that = Thanks. You mentioned an example that I didn’t even use!

          As for the subjunctive, how does use of a different mood make the world seem “uncertain”? If you don’t have proper or complete knowledge about a situation, why wouldn’t you describe it in… uncertain terms?

          It does, you idiot. Subjunctive mood in Spanish represents uncertainty, or at least that is what my Spanish professors, down through the many years, always taught me.
          If you don’t have proper or complete knowledge about a situation, why wouldn’t you describe it in… uncertain terms?
          Right, idiot. Except it is used all the time, whereas in English we are quite certain of things when we talk, and a similar construction to the Spanish subjunctive is not used. The subjunctive is littered all through the common speech of your typical Spanish speaker. The end result of all of that is a feeling that one lacks complete or proper knowledge of many things and hence is uncertain quite a bit of the time, or at least that is what my many Spanish teachers taught me all down through the years.
          But the most interesting part about your comment is your contradiction:
          “An uncertain and fatalistic language.”
          How can something be uncertain and fatalistic at the same time? Those words mean very opposite things.

          Put on your thinking cap. A fatalistic world is always very uncertain. Everything is left up to God, and we don’t have a lot of agency in the world. A fatalistic world in which it’s all left up to God and hence we are very uncertain about the future or even what is going to happen next is of course a very uncertain world, idiot.
          PS, you’re banned!

    1. While I know what you’re trying to convey in your post on the difficulty of Mandarin, I think it was the shoddy organization/research of the post (which indirectly exposes to other linguists/Mandarin speakers that your knowledge of Mandarin is on the shallow side) that caused the most commotion. I took a look at your post on relative difficulty of various languages, and I can tell it was done in a rushed manner by consulting a eclectic mix of sources resulting in a skewed highlighting of difficult features by language. For the sake of time, I’ll only deal with your Mandarin comments here:
      Quote: “There is aspect, serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, a strange form called the detrimental passive, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange stuff. ”
      My comment: None of this is that strange cross-linguistically. The “detrimental passive” you speak of is just the same passive construction as English, except that it tends to be used with a slightly negative connotation, like something undesired happened (My car WAS stolen, Our house WAS robbed, etc.). Stylistic usage of the passive differs a bit from language to language, even between European languages some tend to use it more than others. Aspect is used in English and other European languages (“I am running” is the progressive aspect for example). In any case, aspect must always be taken into account as a set along with tense and modality regardless of the language; the three should not be analyzed separately.
      Quote: “The topic-prominence is interesting in that this is the only major language that has what is called topic-comment syntax.”
      My comment: This is not an accurate statement. Many other languages have the same pattern, including Japanese and Korean. And it really isn’t too difficult to pick up; basically, it’s like when we say “As for X, …” in English.
      Quote: “There are way too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same.” “There is also the presence of odd retroflex consonants.”
      My comment: These sounds aren’t hard for English learners at all; they are equivalent to “j”, “ch”, and “sh” sounds. They can be seen as allophones (j/q/x before high vowels i and ü, zh/ch/sh everywhere else).
      zh/ch/sh (and r) are the retroflex consonants, they aren’t pure retroflex though, and in any case they aren’t contrastive with palato-alveolar j/q/x. For languages that truly contrast retroflex coronal consonants with other coronal consonants, look at the Indian subcontinent.
      Quote: “There is a distinction between aspirated and nonaspirated consonants.”
      My comment: This is actually the same in English as it is in Mandarin. It is possible to analyze the English b/p, d/t, g/k, j/ch distinctions as aprimarily unaspirated vs. aspirated distinction, which contributes to English speakers’ accents when learning voiceless/voiced distinction languages like Spanish and French. So in this regard, it’s actually harder to get accurate pronunciation for Spanish initial consonants than for Mandarin. The Mandarin voiceless unaspirated consonants are lenis rather than fortis, making them equivalent to English’s supposedly voiced consonants (that regularly surface phonetically as voiceless unaspirated).
      Quote: “There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more, but you only need to know about 3-5,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.”
      My comment: Characters, rather than the spoken language, are without a doubt the hardest aspect of learning Mandarin/other Sinitic languages, all Sinologists are in 100% agreement with this, and there have been tons of studies on the topic. However, highly proficient is estimated at around 5,000 or so, rather than 10,000. I would say many Chinese know at least 1,000, and 4000 is likely an average literate. The 85,000 figure is including variant glyphs roughly equivalent to font differences. Unfortunately, Unicode chose to encode each character as a separate character in Unicode rather than implement a system that could have deconstructed characters by their components to create an unlimited number of characters, as some have proposed.
      Quote: “In addition, the characters have not been changed in 3,000 years, and the alphabet is at least somewhat phonetic, so we run into a serious problem of lack of a spelling reform.”
      My comment: Characters have changed drastically since the forms seen 3,000 years ago, even when not considering simplifications of the last century. The Kaishu standard did not emerge until the common era.
      Quote: “The Communists tried to simplify the system (simplified Mandarin) but instead of making the connections between the phonetic aspects of character more sensible by decreasing their number and increasing their regularity, they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol without dealing with the phonetic aspect of all.”
      My comment: Actually, the Communists’ simplified characters (besides the ones adopted that were longstanding simplifications) did take into account the phonetic components, though only with regard to standard Mandarin pronunciation rather than historical pronunciation.
      Quote: “In addition to all of this, Chinese borrowed a lot from the Japanese symbolic alphabet a full 1,000 years after it had already been developed and had not undergone a spelling reform, adding insult to injury.”
      My comment: Not accurate, Chinese did not borrow at all from hiragana or katakana. I believe what you’re referring to is the corpus of Neo-Classical Chinese compound words that were coined by the Japanese to deal with modernization, then exported to other Sinosphere countries.
      Quote: “And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese prose. It’s as if it’s written in a different language.”
      My comment: Classical Chinese is a different language from modern standard Mandarin, just as Classical Latin is a different language from modern standard Italian.
      Quote: “However, the orthography is at least consistent. 90% of characters have only one reading. Once you learn the character, you know the meaning in any context.”
      My comment: Not totally accurate; characters represent morphemes, which can have different nuances within the semantic field, just as in any language. There are always going to be peculiar words that aren’t transparent from their etymological meaning, the same happens in English all the time.
      Quote: “It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms to count different things, like Japanese.”
      My comment: Chinese measure words (AKA classifiers) aren’t particularly bad, and don’t present that big of an issue for L2 learners. It’s like learning to say “Give me two slices of bread” or “Give me two loaves of bread” rather than “Give me two breads” in English. It’s definitely not some crazy system equivalent to having multiple grammatical genders as some have tried to compared it to.
      Quote: “There is zero common vocabulary between English and Chinese, so you need to learn a whole new set of lexical forms.”
      My comment: This is true, and is the other time consuming part of learning Mandarin besides characters. There’s just not the same discount in vocab learning as a language like Spanish or French, which share tons of vocabulary with English.
      Quote: “In addition, nouns often show relatedness or hierarchy. For instance, in English, you can simply say my brother or my sister, but in Chinese, you cannot do this. You have to indicate whether you are speaking of an older or younger sibling.”
      My comment: English is on the poorer side of the spectrum when it comes to terminology for relatives/family. Mandarin and other Sinitic languages are on the same level as languages such as Hindi-Urdu and many other Asian languages when it comes to richness of vocabulary of relatives, for example different types of uncles (maternal, paternal, etc.). However, I wouldn’t say that it’s that hard of a feature for learners, because once you learn them all you’re set, whereas grammatical/syntactical nuances take time to practice and get comfortable in (regardless if the language is Spanish or Mandarin).
      Quote: “Language professors have rated Chinese as the hardest language on Earth to learn.”
      My comment: I would say that for English speakers, Native American languages, Khoisan languages, or Australian aborigine languages are harder than Mandarin. However, these languages are relatively small, and therefore most institutes such as DLI etc. don’t take them into account in their rankings, which put Mandarin and Cantonese on the same level as Japanese, Korean, and Arabic. (Pashto is being considered for this category as well). I bet that if DLI taught Khoisan languages or Australian aborigine languages they would rank a level or two higher than Mandarin in terms of difficulty for English natives.
      Feel free to follow up with any other questions you may have regarding Mandarin/other Sinitic languages.

      1. Yeah but their comments are shit. They are saying that I sound like someone who hasn’t had one single Linguistics class in my life. Really? REALLY? Did you read those posts about relative difficulty of languages of the world? REALLY? That post sounds like it was written by someone WITH NO LINGUISTIC KNOWLEDGE WHATSOEVER? REALLY?
        FUCK THEM.
        While I know what you’re trying to convey in your post on the difficulty of Mandarin, I think it was the shoddy organization/research of the post (which indirectly exposes to other linguists/Mandarin speakers that your knowledge of Mandarin is on the shallow side) that caused the most commotion.
        One of the lunatic things that they say is that no one with a Masters in Linguistics would ever write such a stupid post about Mandarin. REALLY? Do you know how much time we spent studying the Mandarin Chinese language to get my Masters? ZERO HOURS. ZERO MINUTES. Considering that, why should someone with a Masters obviously know jack about Mandarin Chinese, considering we didn’t study it for one second?
        If you see that post, it is obvious that my knowledge of all of those languages is on the shallow side. And why would it not be? I am not an expert on all the world’s languages am I? Or should I be, seeing as I have a Masters degree, therefore I should be a huge expert on every language on Earth!?
        Quote: “There is aspect, serial verbs, a complex classifier system, syntax marked by something called topic-prominence, a strange form called the detrimental passive, preposed relative clauses, use of verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction, and all sorts of strange stuff.”
        My comment: None of this is that strange cross-linguistically.

        Sure but it’s weird to English speakers. One thing those idiots over there never picked up is in the beginning of each of those posts. How hard the language would be to an L1 ENGLISH SPEAKER. Instead I got a ton of comments on how no language is harder than any other, only it just depends on what language you are coming from.
        REALLY? REALLY? Malay is just as hard as Tsez? REALLY? Screw these morons. They are fools.
        Serial verbs: hard for English speakers.
        Weird classifier system: hard for English speakers.
        Topic-prominent syntax: hard for English speakers – we don’t have it.
        Detrimental passive: We don’t have one.
        Preposed relative causes: Do not believe that we have it.
        Aspect: English has limited aspect.
        Verbs rather than adverbs to mark direction: Weird for English speakers, we don’t do this.
        The “detrimental passive” you speak of is just the same passive construction as English, except that it tends to be used with a slightly negative connotation, like something undesired happened (My car WAS stolen, Our house WAS robbed, etc.)
        We do not have this construction in English.
        My comment: This is not an accurate statement. Many other languages have the same pattern, including Japanese and Korean. And it really isn’t too difficult to pick up; basically, it’s like when we say “As for X, …” in English.
        It is difficult to figure out when the whole syntax is centered around it. It’s not that common, it’s mostly in East Asia where it is found in languages influenced by Chinese.
        Stylistic usage of the passive differs a bit from language to language, even between European languages some tend to use it more than others.
        I speak Spanish. Nothing remarkable about the passive as opposed to English.
        “There are way too many instances of the zh, ch, sh, j, q, and x sounds in the language such that many of the words seem to sound the same.”
        My comment: These sounds aren’t hard for English learners at all; they are equivalent to “j”, “ch”, and “sh” sounds. They can be seen as allophones (j/q/x before high vowels i and ü, zh/ch/sh everywhere else).

        Yeah but they all sound the same to an English speaker, and it is hard to sound out one phone from another.
        zh/ch/sh (and r) are the retroflex consonants, they aren’t pure retroflex though, and in any case they aren’t contrastive with palato-alveolar j/q/x. For languages that truly contrast retroflex coronal consonants with other coronal consonants, look at the Indian subcontinent.
        Retroflex is retroflex. We don’t retroflex our consonants other than one. Any language with retroflexed consonants is going to be weird for an English speaker. The Indian language that I studied had a retroflexed (s), and it was hard as Hell to make it correctly.
        It is possible to analyze the English b/p, d/t, g/k, j/ch distinctions as primarily unaspirated vs. aspirated distinction
        What!? Nobody analyzes them that way, and it’s not the same as in English. I studied an Indian language that had contrastive aspirated and nonaspirated stops. We do NOT have that in English, the sounds were very weird, and they would be hard to an English speaker to figure out. We do not contrast aspirated p(h) with unaspirated p. We simply do not, and the unaspirated sound is pretty strange and rather difficult to make.
        This is actually the same in English as it is in Mandarin.
        No it isn’t.
        b/p, d/t, g/k, j/ch distinctions as primarily unaspirated vs. aspirated distinction,
        They are not aspirated versus unaspirated consonants, they are voiced versus unvoiced, very different.
        So in this regard, it’s actually harder to get accurate pronunciation for Spanish initial consonants than for Mandarin.
        What!? What are you talking about? Spanish does not contrast aspirated versus unaspirated consonants. They are voiced or unvoiced, just as in English.
        The Mandarin voiceless unaspirated consonants are lenis rather than fortis, making them equivalent to English’s supposedly voiced consonants (that regularly surface phonetically as voiceless unaspirated).
        I really doubt if that voiceless unaspirated consonant is the same as a (b). I just made a (b) sound with my hand in front of my mouth. It came out aspirated. I studied a language with voiceless unaspirated consonants and it was very hard to make them right. I kept aspirating them.
        Quote: “There are at least 85,000 symbols and actually many more, but you only need to know about 3-5,000 of them, and many Chinese don’t even know 1,000. To be highly proficient in Chinese, you need to know 10,000 characters, and probably less than 5% of Chinese know that many.”
        They are tearing this paragraph to pieces, but ISTR that I got that information from a fellow linguist, very famous, who is a Sinologist. I guess he is one of the world’s top Sinologists because he has a Wikipedia entry. He told me that many Chinese do not even know 1,000. He said they learn them in school and then they go back to their village and 20 years later at age 40, you go back and talk to them, and they have forgotten most of it and don’t even have 1,000 anymore. Why don’t you guys take it up with him?
        Quote: “The Communists tried to simplify the system (simplified Mandarin) but instead of making the connections between the phonetic aspects of character more sensible by decreasing their number and increasing their regularity, they simply decreased the number of strokes needed for each symbol without dealing with the phonetic aspect of all.”
        My comment: Actually, the Communists’ simplified characters (besides the ones adopted that were longstanding simplifications) did take into account the phonetic components, though only with regard to standard Mandarin pronunciation rather than historical pronunciation.

        My understanding is that the Communists’ spelling reform left much to be desired.
        Quote: “And just because you can read Chinese does not mean that you can read Classical Chinese prose. It’s as if it’s written in a different language.”
        My comment: Classical Chinese is a different language from modern standard Mandarin, just as Classical Latin is a different language from modern standard Italian.

        Ok so in order to read Chinese, you need to learn two whole languages. Great! Sounds simple!
        Quote: “It’s little known, but Chinese also uses different forms to count different things, like Japanese.”
        My comment: Chinese measure words (AKA classifiers) aren’t particularly bad, and don’t present that big of an issue for L2 learners. It’s like learning to say “Give me two slices of bread” or “Give me two loaves of bread” rather than “Give me two breads” in English. It’s definitely not some crazy system equivalent to having multiple grammatical genders as some have tried to compared it to.

        Those languages with different ways of counting different objects are murder. That is a big complaint about Japanese.
        My comment: English is on the poorer side of the spectrum when it comes to terminology for relatives/family. Mandarin and other Sinitic languages are on the same level as languages such as Hindi-Urdu and many other Asian languages when it comes to richness of vocabulary of relatives, for example different types of uncles (maternal, paternal, etc.). However, I wouldn’t say that it’s that hard of a feature for learners, because once you learn them all you’re set, whereas grammatical/syntactical nuances take time to practice and get comfortable in (regardless if the language is Spanish or Mandarin).
        Yes but is going to be hard. English speakers have a hard time with hierarchical languages.
        My comment: I would say that for English speakers, Native American languages, Khoisan languages, or Australian aborigine languages are harder than Mandarin. However, these languages are relatively small, and therefore most institutes such as DLI etc. don’t take them into account in their rankings, which put Mandarin and Cantonese on the same level as Japanese, Korean, and Arabic. (Pashto is being considered for this category as well). I bet that if DLI taught Khoisan languages or Australian aborigine languages they would rank a level or two higher than Mandarin in terms of difficulty for English natives.
        Most of the stupid comments over at Reddit were taking to task for saying that Mandarin was one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. But it’s not only rated such by DLI, an international survey of language instructors actually rated Mandarin #1. So I have some solid backing for my statement.
        Most of the other stupid comments were saying that Mandarin wasn’t a hard language to learn!? So I was wrong. Because some egghead figured it out. So what? DLI says it’s one of the hardest. Surveys across the globe of language instructors say it is THE hardest. And if you go around the web looking at “hardest languages” lists, Mandarin is always up there near the top. Doesn’t it seem I have some basis for my statement that Mandarin is very hard to learn!?
        These people are nitpickers. Hell with them.
        I never said Mandarin was the hardest language to learn anyway. Those idiots made that up and said that I said that when I didn’t even. Screw them.
        I also have a problem with your analysis here. You just went through my post and everywhere I said a Mandarin feature made it hard, you said there really was nothing to it. But then you agreed with DLI’s ranking that Mandarin is very difficult. Well, which is it? Is it easy as pie or hard as Hell? And if it’s so hard, what’s so hard about it as you just went through a list of “hard” features and said they were all easy?
        Also, to add weight to my claims, where do you think I got that list of difficult features? I simply went around the Net to forums where people were discussing learning Mandarin. Those features listed were the ones that popped up over and over. If they are so simple as you say, why is everyone complaining about them?
        And if I got my information about difficult Mandarin features from Mandarin learners fora, then how in Hell am I inaccurate? If learners are having a lot of problems with it, then it’s a difficult feature, no?

        1. Yes, I’m dead serious when I’m talking about unaspirated/aspirated and voiced/voiceless. It’s more of an esoteric phonological topic not discussed much in the typical undergrad class. These days, English speakers primarily determine the b vs. p difference because of the clearer aspiration rather than just voiceless or voiced. The voice onset time of English stops is very different from the voice onset time of Spanish stops, therefore the English ‘p’ and Spanish ‘p’ don’t sound the same because the English one is aspirated by default (look in any phonology textbook). This can lead to an accent when speaking Spanish. It’s harder to get a L1 English speaker to distinguish between the Spanish b and p versus Mandarin’s b (/p/) and p (/pʰ/), because English p sounds like /pʰ/ and English b can often sound like an unaspirated lenis (not fortis) /p/.
          English speakers make an unaspirated /p/ sound all the time. When you say “that boy,” the b in boy is actually an unaspirated [p] rather than a [b] phonetically (look at for example Ladefoged’s phonetic studies).
          I speak Spanish and Hindi (and other languages) as well, so Hindi’s p, ph, b, bh is a lot harder than Mandarin’s b vs. p, which is really the same as English. English L1 learners always pronounce b easier than bh in Hindi.
          As for retroflex consonants, Mandarin’s retroflexes aren’t true retroflexes, just slightly more postalveolar. You can literally just use English j, ch, sh sounds and natives wouldn’t be able to tell the difference because there is no contrast with other palatal fricative sets. That’s the key reason why it shouldn’t be one of the points to count towards Mandarin being hard.
          When I was talking about the detrimental passive, I was saying that there isn’t such a construction in Mandarin. There is only one passive construction, and that construction can sometimes have negative overtones/implications. Also, Spanish passive has a different stylistic usage that should be kept in mind for English L1 learners:
          https://community.dur.ac.uk/m.p.thompson/passive.htm
          Another European language with different passive nuances is, for example, German.
          If you can read Mandarin but not Classical Chinese, you’re still fluent and functional, it’s not required to be able to read Classical Chinese as well, just as learning English doesn’t require one to learn Classical Latin and Greek (though it would help with compound root words, some irregular plurals like “parentheses” etc. ).
          As for your confusion of my analysis, it’s because I was just helping you with factual accuracy, not writing a separate analysis. For example I agreed that characters were very hard, I just corrected some ambiguous/misleading statements.
          Mandarin is hard but not too hard to learn for English speakers if one considers the spoken form only (no characters whatsover). If one considers the whole package of both speaking and writing with characters, then you’ll get the top level difficulty rating like DLI gives. Yet DLI or other agencies actually tend to rate Japanese and Korean as a little harder than Mandarin these days, because the grammar is more difficult. They sometimes add a little asterisk to either Japanese or Korean to indicate that it’s a bit harder than the other languages in the same difficulty category (Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese). For comparison, all the features you mention besides characters are present in Vietnamese, yet it receives a DLI difficulty level slightly lower than Mandarin. This is solely due to the length of time it takes to become proficient in writing characters. Otherwise, Mandarin would be rated alongside Vietnamese, perhaps even slightly lower because the pronunciation is significantly easier.
          And DLI does not have a comprehensive list of languages by difficulty, only the ones they teach, so that excludes a ton of really difficult languages like Australian aborigine languages, Native American languages, Khoisan languages, etc. Language instructors similarly wouldn’t bother to take such rarely-taught languages into account.
          Of course I am in agreement that for English L1 speakers Malay would be easier to learn than Tsez. In fact most folks would agree with that statement.
          Anyway, like I said earlier, feel free to contact me to discuss whatever subtopic you’d like clarification on. I’m very keen on phonology, so if there’s something still confusing there I’m happy to discuss.

        2. It’s harder to get a L1 English speaker to distinguish between the Spanish b and p versus Mandarin’s b (/p/) and p (/pʰ/), because English p sounds like /pʰ/ and English b can often sound like an unaspirated lenis (not fortis) /p/.
          English speakers make an unaspirated /p/ sound all the time. When you say “that boy,” the b in boy is actually an unaspirated [p] rather than a [b] phonetically (look at for example Ladefoged’s phonetic studies).
          That doesn’t really matter. I worked with an Indian language that contrasted aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops and it was hard as Hell for me to say them properly. I would imagine that most new learners of that language would simply say (/p/) as /b/ because it was so hard to contrast those two sounds.
          I just said “that boy” with my hand in front of my mouth, and I felt wind against my palm, therefore, I aspirated that sound. If it was really an unaspirated [p], I would not have felt wind against my palm.
          I have no idea how Mandarin’s aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops compared to my Indian language, but if they are similar, I would have a very hard time with them. It is very difficult for me to make /p/, /t/ etc sounds without aspiration.
          If detrimental passive is simple, then why were Mandarin learners on forums complaining about it?
          just as learning English doesn’t require one to learn Classical Latin and Greek (though it would help with compound root words, some irregular plurals like “parentheses” etc. ).
          Isn’t Classical Chinese much more widely read by educated Chinese speakers than Greek or Latin is by educated English speakers? I know you don’t need to learn Classical Chinese to read Chinese, but I understand that educated native speakers often read Classical Chinese also because the classics are still widely read in that form.
          Of course I am in agreement that for English L1 speakers Malay would be easier to learn than Tsez. In fact most folks would agree with that statement.
          The problems is though that the field is nuts on this subject. My understanding that is that the standard view in the field is something insane like, “There are no hard languages and there are no easy languages. No language is harder or easier than any other. It all depends on which L1 you are coming from in learning your L2.” In fact, this article got linked at a newsgroup called sci.lang, which is the pre-eminent linguistics newsgroup on the Web.
          There are 10-15 linguists who hang out there all the time. Some are professors and authors. When my piece was linked there, it received a wild, raging assault from all of the linguists on the site stating exactly this: “There are no hard languages and there are no easy languages. No language is harder or easier than any other. It all depends on which L1 you are coming from in learning your L2.”
          Also if you Google “hardest language of all” or something like that, you will find many pages written by linguists that all say something like this: “There are no hard languages and there are no easy languages. No language is harder or easier than any other. It all depends on which L1 you are coming from in learning your L2.”
          So this is the standard view in the field or not? If it isn’t, why were all these linguists unanimous about it? What is the standard view anyway? I have a very hard time figuring that out for a lot of these issues.

        3. Here is an article that examines English voice onset time and compares it to other languages. It also mentions that English b, d, g often pop up as unaspirated [p, t, k].
          http://www.haskins.yale.edu/Reprints/HL0053.pdf
          In this article we see that English and Cantonese have roughly comparable VOT, and Cantonese VOT is basically like Mandarin VOT.
          When you say “that boy”, depending on how far apart you hold your palm, you’ll feel some air, but it’s not as much air as when you say “poi” (as in the Hawaiian mashed taro dish), which is the actual aspirated stop. I think you’re holding your palm a bit too close, because even when you pronounce authentic unaspirated p sounds in Spanish, Hindi, Cantonese, English, whatever, if you hold the palm too close you’ll still feel some level of force. Aspiration is also measured on a scale rather than being a black and white distinction. The true Indian aspirated b as in “Bharat” (name of India) has much more aspiration than the b in the English word “boy.”
          If you were having trouble with that Indian language you were studying (by the way, I’m curious what language it was?) then it had significantly different voice onset times from those in English, which isn’t the case in Mandarin/Cantonese.
          Again, there is no specific construction called “detrimental passive” in Mandarin. It’s just that the passive construction, like that in Spanish, has its own little stylistic nuances different from English that can be taken into regard. You can find learners online complaining about everything, even something as mundane as diacritic marks in Spanish. It’s not as common a complaint as, say, tones or characters.
          Classical Chinese is a school topic in many high schools, therefore more people are familiar with it compared to the number of Americans familiar with Latin and Greek (which aren’t taught much these days).
          If you were to ask a linguist whether a Portuguese native could learn Spanish or Korean easier, most would say Spanish. I think the confusion is when we get to which languages are harder and easier regardless of L1, and that’s hard to quantify, because many of the components that make L2 learning hard such as SOV vs. SVO vs. others, or whether adjectives are placed before or after the noun, or whether relative clauses are right-branching or left-branching, don’t really have one that’s inherently harder than the other, but can only be judged against a L1.
          That being said, I do believe that some languages are inherently a little harder/more complex than others, and there are others who share my views. There are also others (a vocal lot) who would disagree with that view.

        4. Spanish diacritics are not mundane. I talk to a lot of bilingual Spanish-English speakers around here. They grew up speaking both and are fluent in both languages. But they never studied how to write Spanish in school, and believe me, MANY of them complain about diacritics and it is very common for them to tell me that they do not understand the system or where to put the accent marks.
          When we are wondering what is hard to learn about an L2, should we not listen to L2 learners of that language and see which structures they have trouble with and then decide that these are the hard parts of the language rather than have learner intuitions overruled by eggheads on Reddit?
          The nuances of the Spanish passive were never taught to me in all the years I took Spanish in junior high, high school and college. I would venture to say that few English speakers learning Spanish as an L2 are going to ever get that right. It’s almost on the level of por and para or ser and estar.

        5. Heritage speakers getting confused by Spanish diacritics isn’t a matter of the diacritics system being too hard, but rather that many of them did not get formal schooling in Spanish, so they never had the opportunity to learn the principles of usage (some of which just have to be taught as part of the spelling, like tu vs tú, etc.)
          I do clearly recall my AP Spanish teacher in high school mentioning those tidbits about the passive in Spanish. Complaints from L2 learners are important, but have to be weighted carefully, rather than haphazardly coming across a couple on the internet. After all, people complain about everything, like complaining about why French spells the English sh sound as ch, or why Spanish adjectives come after the noun instead of before the noun as in English, or why trilled r is hard to pronounce, etc. So if people are complaining about Mandarin passive, you’d have to see if people complain about the passive in all languages (and not just Mandarin) to see if it’s an isolated difficulty of Mandarin or rather just something difficult in general for all languages.
          May I ask what Indian language it was that you were working on?

        6. It was called Chukchansi Yokuts. The Net will tell you that Yokuts is one language, but really this was a group of 61 different tribes, and none of them called themselves Yokuts – that was just a name given to them by the Whites. Each one spoke their own lect. As far as how many actual languages there were in that complex, I have no idea, but I doubt if it was 61, and I know it wasn’t one. The languages are almost all dead or dying so it is going to really hard to split language/dialect with these.
          I worked on a dictionary and a phrase book, ran the language program, worked as a cultural anthropologist and and designed an alphabet for them that’s better than the English alphabet! I got paid to do this. I actually had a job as a paid linguist. How many people get to do that?

        7. That is very admirable. It looks like your particular group of Yokuts is still around in some form today: http://www.philanthropynewsdigest.org/news/fresno-state-receives-1-million-to-preserve-revitalize-chukchansi-language
          Hopefully they can figure out how to eke their way on for a couple more generations at least.
          I personally believe that linguists ought to make language documentation the highest current priority, in light of the imminent extinction of hundreds if not thousands of languages that have not even been recorded in any substantial form yet. If governments would spend even a fraction of the amount they spend on war hiring linguists to document endangered languages instead, I’m sure we’d have significant progress, and much more understanding of the the possibilities of the human mind.

        8. Yes I was involved in documentation. That language is not documented real well. There are word lists, but there are a number of them, and they are not all in one place. The same word is written down differently in different places. Really it all needs to be brought together in a real dictionary. Also just in my brief fieldwork, I kept uncovering all sorts of new words that were not in any of the lists. This one was one of my favorites:
          “shipish” (there may or may not be a retroflexed s in there) = “That feeling you get when you run through the tall grass, and you get all that sticky stuff (tarweed) all over you.”
          LOL! We don’t exactly have a word for that in English, or even the concept really. At least the concept is not specifically encapsulated into a single word.

        9. I am acquainted with the fellow who is working on that project. He more or less took over my old position. My health is not real great so I couldn’t really do the job anymore and really someone else needed to take over. He is a pretty cool guy.
          Also working conditions were less than ideal and those Indians could definitely be somewhat tricky to deal with to say the least. Now that they got that casino money though, i think they have calmed down and relaxed a lot.

      2. Trllled r’s in Spanish are hard. Spanish speakers are always complimenting me on my accent and one reason is because I can roll my r’s. I started taking Spanish classes at age 6. Supposedly a lot of Spanish L2 speakers do not roll their r’s or don’t do it well or right.

      1. Yes, it has a nice ring to it.
        Why did the University of Oregon hire such a worthless piece of shit like you anyway?
        Banned, scum.
        Hey Bromista, what do baseball bats feel like?
        HAVE A NICE DAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Dear Robert
    I’m very skeptical about the claim that the grammatical characteristics of a language shape the worldview of the speakers of that language. For instance, English is, to my knowledge, the only European language that has only one second-person pronoun. There is no distinction between a formal and informal you and between singular and plural you. Does that mean that Anglo-Saxons are less hierarchical than other Europeans? I doubt it. The absence of a plural you must be an accident. So often people use “you guys” that this indicates that Anglos feel a need for a plural you.
    In Dutch there is “ik werkte, heb gewerkt, had gewerkt” = “I worked, have worked, had worked”. In Afrikaans there is only “ek het gewerk”. Does that mean that Afrikaners have a different conception of the past than Dutchmen or Anglo-Saxons? I doubt it very much.
    In most cases, tenses are quite superfluous anyway because adverbs indicate time just as well. Consider:
    I see him tomorrow. unambiguous
    I see him yesterday. unambiguous
    I see him today. ambiguous
    I already see him today. unambiguous
    I see him later today. unambiguous
    As to Spanish, it isn’t significantly different from other Latin languages. The subjunctive is used a lot, but so it is in other Latin languages. Compare:
    En – I want you to do it today.
    Sp – Quiero que lo hagas hoy.
    Fr – Je veux que tu le fasse aujourd’hui.
    It – Voglio che tu lo faccia oggi.
    Po – Quero que você o faça hoje.
    All 4 Latin ones use the subjunctive.
    En – We are looking for a secretary who knows how to write in Chinese.
    Sp – Buscamos una secretaria que sepa escribir en chino.
    Fr – Nous cherchons une secrétaire qui sachent écrire en chinois.
    It – Cerchiamo una segretaria che sappia scrivere in cinese.
    Po- Procuramos uma secretária que saiba escrever em chinês.
    All 4 Latin ones use the subjunctive.
    En – If he were more sensible, he would not marry her.
    Sp – Si él fuera más sensato, no se casaria con ella.
    Fr – S’il était plus sensé, il ne se marierait pas avec elle.
    It – Se lui fosse più sensato, non si sposerebbe con lei.
    Po – Se ele fosse mais sensato, não se casaria com ela.
    Only French didn’t use the subjunctive.
    Spanish uses reflexive verbs a lot, but so do Portuguese and Italian. French uses it less because it has the pronoun on. When English uses an intransitive verb or a passive, the Latin languages often use the reflexive.
    En – I woke up late.
    Sp – Me desperté tarde.
    Fr – Je me suis éveillé tard.
    It – Mi sono svegliato tardi.
    Po – Acordei tarde.
    En – Those products are no longer sold.
    Sp – Ya no se venden eses productos.
    Fr – Ces produits ne se vendent plus.
    ……On ne vend plus ces produits.
    It – Questi prodotti non si vendono più.
    Po – Esses produtos não se vendem mais.
    ……A gente não vende mais esses produtos.
    It is true that in Spanish one would normally say “se me perdió el lapicero” and not “perdí el lapicero”, but Hispanics do say “perdimos la elección” not “se nos perdió la elección”. Let’s not read too much into this.
    Regards. James

    1. I support strong Sapir-Whorf. If they other Latin languages use the subjunctive as much as the Spanish do, then they all have fatalistic languages that encode a worldview with a lot of uncertainty in it.

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