Златоуст (dalai_lahme) wrote in linguaphiles,

Which languages would give you an understanding of what languages can do

To the experts/ multilinguals out there:

Here´s a tough question. Which languages - modern or ancient and let´s say a set of 10-15 - would you study to get a complete understanding of what human langues can be and can do? To get an overview over the inner workings of and possibilities of human languages? My interest here is purely in understanding what LANGUAGE is and can be - not in numbers of speakers (major/minor languages), in difficulties of studying or pronouncing etc.

my list would at least start with these:
- sanskrit (for its mathematical precision)
- turkish (for a highly logical grammar in a modern language)
- english (for immense productivity of its lexis)
- italian (for its musicality)
- thai (as a tonal language)

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Welsh (for its grammatical oddities but more accessible than Gaelic)
Chinese, for hanzi.

A language like Warlpiri for complex kinship terms, a language like the Guugu Yimithirr language for cardinal directions, a language like Hopi for a different construction of time to most languages.


February 9 2014, 12:23:43 UTC 3 years ago Edited:  February 9 2014, 13:26:59 UTC

You need a language with lexical register (breathy and/or creaky voice) - I suggest one from the Mon-Khmer group. You'll also get interesting reduplication stuff and sesquisyllabic word structure.

Edit: Also, I suggest a Philippine language for VSO sentence structure and ergative/absolutive case marking. (Though it's possible one of the other languages that has been suggested may already have these features, in which case I apologize for my ignorance.)
Welsh, which has already been suggested, has VSO sentence structure, but not ergative/absolutive case marking.
I didn't know that - cool! Thanks.

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Algonquian languages like Ojibwe go even further and have something called direct-inverse morphosyntax. Essentially, there is an hierarchy of agency which determines the default interpretation for any given combination of personal arguments. It can be explicitly overriden only with an inverse marker. Lowest on the hierarchy is so-called third-person obviative (a.k.a. "fourth person"), which represents another noteworthy feature. Compare:

obizindawaan "he listens to the other one"
obizindaagoon "the other one listens to him"

The inverse suffix (i)goo indicates that the action is performed by an actor lower on the hierarchy, in this case the third-person obviate (marked with -n).
Heh, I believe you. I briefly studied Ilokano and only understood the case system once or twice for a few seconds before my brain went back to "Nope, I absolutely cannot grasp this." Of course, I tend to feel the same way about 'normal' ergative/absolutive case, too.
Polish, for all the phonemes it has.

Vietnamese, for all the tones it has.
Pirahã, for just how stripped-down you can get (no numbers, colours, or recursion) and the fact that you can whistle it.

I wonder if you could dub the Clangers into Pirahã...
No list of 10-15 is going to give you a "complete" understanding. I'm also not sure what you mean by "musicality". Italian has a high vowel/consonant relative to English and Russian, but there are many languages with a higher (e.g. Japanese, any Polynesian language) which would give you insights you wouldn't find from studying yet another Indo-European language (the third one on your list).

Yeah, Welsh is VSO, but so is Arabic. Many of the distinctive syntactic features of the Celtic languages vis-à-vis the languages of Europe (e.g. singulatives, "conjugated" prepositions) are present in it as well, plus others besides (e.g. "verbless" sentences).

Polish only has about 40 phonemes. That's a lot relative to its neighbours, but Caucasian languages typically have 50 or more. (84 in the extinct Ubykh.) Of course, even that falls short of the highest number possible. For that, you need to look at the ǃKung languages of South Africa, who have upwards of a 100--and lexical tone to boot!


February 9 2014, 16:17:40 UTC 3 years ago Edited:  February 9 2014, 16:21:33 UTC

I did in fact study Sanskrit briefly, for the insight into Indo-European languages, and because I'd heard that linguists regarded the grammatical work of Panini and others as the best description of a language's structure ever created. I've also studied French and Greek, but that was for literary reasons.

Thinking purely of linguistics:

I'd want Japanese, because of its particle-based grammar and its amazingly elliptical sentence constructions, where everything that can be understood can be omitted, and also because it makes such extensive use of topic/comment syntax.

I'd want an ergative language; if it were to be a modern language, I'd lean toward Basque, though I could make a case for Sumerian. I'd also want a language with split ergativity, probably one of the Australian languages (ergative/absolutive for pronouns, accusative/nominative for nouns), which also have interesting case systems.

I'd have to include a tonal language; to me the obvious choice would be Mandarin, but I could see making a case for one of the West African languages instead.

I'd have to include a click language, either from the Khoi-San family or one of the Bantu languages that have picked them up.

The other Indo-European language I'd include would be Russian, partly just because I love the sound of it, but also because it's a modern I-E language that maintains an extensive case system and because it has a verb system that emphasizes aspect over tense.

I'm just generally curious about the grammar and phonology of Tibetan.

My book on New Guinean languages discusses a language, whose name I've forgotten, with the peculiarity that basic verbs are a closed grammatical class, the way prepositions or articles are in English; they have something less than twenty basic verbs, and for other actions they rely on elaborate verb/verb or noun/verb periphrasis.

I'd include English, for the reasons given, except of course I already speak English. In fact I often say that my native language is written English. . . .

I don't know enough to make an informed choice among American languages, but I understand that they have huge linguistic diversity, so I ought to have a couple of them in the sample.

Addendum: Somebody up above mentions Arabic, and that reminds me that I wanted to include one of the Semitic languages, for the system of (mainly) triconsonantal word roots that get changed into different grammatical forms by sticking in vowels and secondary consonants (what's the technical name for that?). Either Arabic or Hebrew would have living speakers. . . .
Actually, if you're looking for a language where conjugated verbs represent a small closed class, Basque fits the bill as well. I don't think there are even ten basic verbs which are commonly conjugated in the spoken language.

North America is a good place to look for polysynthesis. It's also been argued that, for some of these languages, the distinction between nouns and verbs is weak or nonexistent, which provides a stark contrast to what you find in Europe.
I wasn't thinking of "conjugated verbs" but of "basic verb roots." I don't know if the New Guinean language in question even has conjugations; for all I know it might be purely isolating, or load all its morphology onto the nouns.

You refer to "conjugated verbs"—does that mean that Basque has a lot of verbs or verblike expressions that aren't conjugated?
What Basque has is an essentially periphrastic conjugational system with almost all TAM distinctions being expressed by means of a non-finite form plus auxiliary. Imagine if all English verbs (outside of a select few) required do-support for all simple tenses. That is, you could only say "I do write" or "I am writing" but not simply *"I write" and "I did write", "I have written", "I was writing", or "I have been writing" but never "I wrote".

Basque is also well-endowed with so-called "light-verb constructions", e.g. behar izan "to exist a need" for "to need", bizi izan "to exist life, to be alive" for "to live", and so forth.
Not exactly the same thing. In this language none of the closed class of verbs was what you would call an auxiliary; they were words like "perceive" and "hit" and "make a sound" and "cause to impinge on a surface." This is the Kalam language, by the way. Reportedly it has fewer than 100 verbs, and only about 25 are in common use.

They do appear to have things like you describe; there are verb constructions parsed as do-PROG-1SG and come-PERF-3SG. But the grammatical elements PROG and PERF seemingly can go on just any verb, and aren't themselves verbs as far as I can tell.
Actually, if you're looking for a language where conjugated verbs represent a small closed class, Basque fits the bill as well. I don't think there are even ten basic verbs which are commonly conjugated in the spoken language.

Absolutely. Izan, egon and joan are the only ones I can even think of that are conjugated commonly, though there may be a few others (I haven't looked at Basque for a long, long time).

Oddly, light-verb constructions are also very common in the North-East Caucasian languages. Udi, for example, only has about forty conjugating verbs; everything else is done with light-verb constructions.
I think you mean "shoresh" (Hebrew) by the triconsonsonal root.
Oh, and a sign language! Absolutely necessary for experiencing the scope of human language.
I definitely second this!
I started or studied some(just the language structure etc not the language itsself
and I would like to deepen some. mostly something like Bislama (vanuatu creole)
because I love how you can take a foreign language and make it yours.
Afrikaans: It is very close to my mother tongue , but then again not, it has seafaring history and the notion of a settlement in a strange country, and has influences from malayan etc too.
!Xhosa or Zulu or (or !khoikhoi)
!xhosa like Khoikhoi are so called click languages. I think they are fascinating. My other half knows a bit zulu and xhosa too as he has grown up in SA .
Japanese. I started a bit on it but it was at terrible time. (6 to8 pm)I like how you can have so little grammar in a sentence and still make yourself understood. also the different layers of the lingo.
Hindi or a similar modern indic language
I know many indians and besides I like seeing where the similarites to european IE languages are.

A celtic language like welh irish or scots: the spelling is intriguing. I want to learn how their spelling works and a bit history too ;)
Indoeuropean and PIE I love to see what one knows about these ancient language and I love to learn how they developed(i took some classes on english lingo history but i ilike more(that was a 1st year lecture in electives)
You can't get a complete understanding of what Language is based on only 10 or fifteen languages. In fact, it has been argued (and raised quite a stink among linguists) that all of languages extant today are insufficient to give us a complete understanding of what is possible in Language. Evans and Levinson wrote this paper called The Myth of Language Universals, in which they argue that over the course of history something like half a million language have been spoken, which means that the roughly 7000 we have today represent "a non-random sample of less than 2% of the full range of human linguistic diversity."

Of course, you probably don't want to hear that there is no good answer to your question. To get a sense of what Language is (as it is today, and not simply as it can potentially be or has been in the past), you might look at WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures, which first of all breaks down the sorts of typological patterns that are of interest to linguists, (including phoneme inventory size and whether it has a breathy/creaky register contrast). This has the added advantage of showing how common certain patterns are. For example, you think that Thai is representative of one of the potential characteristics of language, because it's tonal. Wouldn't it also be interesting to know how many langauges take advantage of that system, and have tonal contrasts?
What is mathematical precision?