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The hardest language

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Editors Canada

What language is the hardest to learn?

The hardest for whom to learn?

The world has many languages of many different kinds, but one thing they all have in common is that kids grow up speaking them fluently and think of them as the natural way to say things. Some languages have many inflections – up to two dozen forms of the same word – and yet their speakers have no trouble with them. Other languages rely on strict word order: move a word and the meaning changes. Kids learn them fine. Some assemble very long words from little bits; others use short words that can have many meanings depending on context. Children learn them all.

Adults, on the other hand, have a hard time learning what they’re not used to. A language that’s very different from what they grew up speaking will be a much greater challenge no matter whether we might think it simpler. But there are several factors that can affect just how hard the language is to learn.

Grammar is an obvious one. When speakers of one language have to learn a different language, they tend to learn the core denotative parts but not so much the grammatical connectives. That should make a relatively uninflected language such as modern English easier to learn (in fact, influences of foreign learners are the main reason it’s so simple – Old English was heavily inflected), but for people who are used to substantially different word orders, or to seeing grammatical relations marked on words, it could be a problem.

Pronunciation can also make a language harder. If it has sounds you aren’t used to making and distinctions of sound you aren’t used to paying attention to, that’s going to be trouble. English defeats a lot of people with our “th” sounds and subtle vowel differences (such as bit versus beat); Mandarin’s palatal consonants and its tones stymie many English speakers. Hindi has consonant differences most Anglophones can’t even hear.

One thing that makes a language particularly hard to learn is inconsistency: irregular verbs, idiomatic phrases, wildly inconsistent spelling. The same historical contacts that helped simplify English grammar helped nightmarify its spelling so even native speakers can’t get it all right. We’re not the only language with troublesome spelling: languages as different as French, Gaelic, and Tibetan are larded with silent letters. But they’re still mostly internally consistent. English doesn’t quite require a person to learn each word form, as Chinese does, but it’s much more challenging than most.

All of the above, however, is at least in the textbooks. The truth is that what really makes a language hard is culture: what words or ways of saying things you must or must not use with certain people or in certain places. Unspoken rules of politeness and social hierarchy, along with the habits of different genres (formal versus informal, or newspaper versus novel), are the real landmines, especially for someone from a very different culture. As odd as English spelling is, the fact that “Would you mind shutting the window,” “Could you shut the window,” and “Please shut the window” can mean the same thing in decreasing order of politeness, patience, and deference is likely to be even more vexing… and is less likely to be explicitly taught.

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.















































A whole nother thing

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the national blog of Editors Canada

As editors, we pay attention to the written form of our language. Its relation to the spoken form is a whole other thing.

The spelling is odd, we know. But even our hyphenation doesn’t really break according to pronunciation. Consider the word breaking. Where do you hyphenate it? Break-ing. But where does the syllable break happen in pronunciation? Before the k. Don’t believe me? Shout it, emphasizing each syllable equally. You’ll shout “Bray! King!” rather than “Break! Ing!” In speech, we automatically shift a consonant at the end of one syllable to the beginning of the next if there isn’t a consonant there already, regardless of how the word is formed. But in writing we reflect the bits the word is made of, because that’s how we think of it.

Except when we don’t. And then it’s a whole nother thing.

Take a word like another. It’s made of two pieces: an and other. Put them together, and the n is automatically said at the beginning of the second syllable, so it sounds like a nother. You’d think we’d still keep it in mind that it’s really an other. You would not inevitably be right.

A whole nother isn’t the only place we’ve done this redivision. Centuries ago, a newt was an ewt and a nickname was an ekename. And speaking of nicknames, Ned and Nan come from mine Edward and mine Ann (we used to alternate my and mine as we still alternate a and an), and in Shakespeare you’ll see nuncle in place of uncle.

It also goes the other way. A poisonous snake, in English, was næddre, which would normally have become nadder, but instead of a nadder we have an adder. Likewise, a naperon gave us an apron. We pronounce them no differently, unless we put another word in between, but we think of them differently. We hear the n said at the start of the next syllable, but since the n in an always does that, we reanalyze it in a way that seems – for one reason or another – more appropriate.

Do you wish you could have someone to make rulings on these kinds of resplittings (also known as rebracketing and false splitting)? Try calling an umpire – as long as you don’t mind that your umpire would once have been a noumpere.

This doesn’t mean that we have to accept a whole nother, of course. A whole other is considered formally correct, although that implies a two-word an other. Since we’ve glued the two parts together, putting whole in the middle is arguably more like what we do in abso-bloody-lutely… except we wouldn’t write a-whole-nother.

Perhaps we should reconsider what we do and don’t think of as inviolable word boundaries. We may dislike alot quite a lot, for instance, but if we can make a word like another, can you think of a truly defensible reason for it not to be another one such? Or is that a… completely different issue?


This article first appeared in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada.

What’s English for Schadenfreude? Schadenfreude, of course.

Words are like Barbie dolls or trading cards or Hummel figurines or camera lenses or kitchen gadgets: if we see one that fills a spot that we don’t already have filled, we want it. Even if we didn’t know we needed to fill that spot until we saw the word.

This is surely one reason listicles about “untranslatable words” are currently popular. Perhaps you never thought before about wanting a word that means “the look on a person’s face as they watch the person ahead of them at a bakery take the last one of the pastry they wanted,” but once you see a word for it, goshdarn it, you have to have it.*

The funny thing about those articles on untranslatable words is that they always give translations for the words. And not just “Schadenfreude (n.): Schadenfreude,” either, but “Enjoyment of someone else’s suffering.” So, really, the words aren’t untranslatable, are they? Not any more than anything else is. There just isn’t a single word for them.

Actually, if you want a really untranslatable word, try a preposition. How about French à? Does that mean “to”? Hmm. In C’est à moi? In J’habite à Montréal? In poulet à la crème? You can’t come up with a single equivalent word for any preposition, because different languages always use them in different ways. And yet within the sentence you can always translate them, as much as you can translate anything else.

But the dirty secret of translation is that you can’t really translate anything else either.

You can only come sufficiently close in the context of the text and your culture. And sometimes barely even sufficiently. Every word has different overtones and associations and references for different cultures – and for different sets of people (and even for each different individual) within a culture. It has different phrases it typically shows up with, different places it’s been heard, different rhymes, different sets of things it has been used to refer to commonly. And there are different attitudes towards what it refers to.

The idea of a purely accurate translation is like the idea of a truly authentic culinary experience from another culture. Say you want an authentic Thai curry. You go to a Thai restaurant. But they’re using Canadian-grown ingredients. So you go where they have imported Thai ingredients. But you’re still in a Canadian restaurant. So you go to Thailand. Ah. But you’re still… a Canadian in Thailand. You didn’t grow up eating Thai food. Look, imagine a person from another country (maybe Namibia or Vanuatu) eating fruitcake or roast turkey or tuna casserole for the first time. There is no way their experience of it is going to be like yours. You just have to accept that. Cultural experiences are not truly fully translatable. And language is a cultural experience.

Of course, there are many things that are purely functional, and the cultural accretions are quite incidental. “Push to open.” “Tear here.” No problem there; cultural attitudes towards pushing and tearing can be treated as separate issues. That lulls us into thinking that accurate translation is possible.

But even there, we’re taking tone and connotation for granted. Why doesn’t the packet say “Rip here”? Why doesn’t the door say “Shove to open”? And once we get even a little farther from the purely mechanical, judgment calls are a regular thing. Send the same document, even on a technical subject, to two different translators and you will get two different renditions, each with its merits and detractions. And if you get into fiction or plays or – the worst – poetry, you’re really just getting a sort of harmonic resonance of the original, on a different instrument.

Consider this:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

The famous first stanza of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Lovely, flavourful Italian. Here’s Robert Pinsky’s version:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
In dark woods, the right road lost.

Here’s Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Here’s Courtney Langdon’s:

When half way through the journey of our life
I found that I was in a gloomy wood,
because the path which led aright was lost.

Right road? Straightforward pathway? Path which led aright? Wood, woods, forest? Dark, gloomy? Midway, half way?

This is why Italians say traduttore traditore. Which has been translated “to translate is to betray.” But really I think it’s better rendered as “Translator? Traitor.”


*Oh, you want a word for that? How about discrescent? Or pain-déçu? I know: bedrøvet. That’s the Danish version of “sad.”

Who let that word into the dictionary?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, the blog of Editors Canada

Every so often, Oxford or Merriam-Webster will release a list of words recently added to one of their dictionaries, and many people become grouchy at what they see as awful — or even fake — intrusions that have somehow been bootlegged into the hallowed halls of the official lexicon. You may even agree that they are right to be leery of such items as bae, selfie stick, lolcat, subtweet _and acquihire, all recently added to Oxford. The role of the dictionary is to be a signpost, after all, not a weathercock that flips with each language fad that blows through.

Fair enough: We look to the dictionary to know what the accepted words and meanings are. If we want to know what some asinine adolescent thinks should be a word, or thinks an existing word should mean, we go to Urban Dictionary, which is the great graffitied bathroom wall of the language. But when you put up a signpost, it has to point to the actual correct way to the destination, not to where you think they should have put the destination or the road to it. It also has to be updated with new signs when new towns or subdivisions are built. You might want to go to one of them, after all — just as you might want to know exactly what all those young people mean when they say, “My bae subtweeted me with a lolcat.” Where else than a dictionary will you find out? (You don’t want to ask one of those youths. They will just roll their eyes at you.)

A dictionary needn’t include every passing bit of slang that sprouts in the morning and withers in the afternoon, of course. A word has to have some staying power; it has to be well attested in published texts. Which means that you, dear readers, are the real bouncers at the language pub. As editor Sarah Grey told editors at the recent EAC conference, paraphrasing lexicographers Kory Stamper, Ben Zimmer and Steve Kleinedler, “If you’re waiting for dictionaries to say a word is OK, you should know that they’re waiting for you to start using it.”

It is always a judgment call, of course, as the good people at Oxford tell us. Some words don’t last as long as we think they will. Weblog is already archaic, shortened down to blog, and it has been a long time since anyone other than my father said zowie or anyone other than Prince Philip said gadzooks. But others have more staying power. As Ammon Shea tells us, a century ago Merriam-Webster’s Third Collegiate Dictionary added a large number of slang words, which some saw as disgraceful weeds in the language. Among them were several words that likely passed without remark in my opening paragraph — grouchy, awful (meaning bad), fake, bootleg and leery — along with bouncer, pub and many more.