Linguist Danny Hieber, Editor in Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program, answers a question from one of our Facebook fans: Why are some languages so complicated? Click on the video below to hear Danny’s answer, and visit the Rosetta Stone Facebook page or comment below to ask a question of your own!
You can learn even more about languages by viewing the rest in our Question Cabin Wednesday series.
Hi, I’m Danny Hieber, the editor for the Endangered Language Program here at Rosetta Stone. Recently we had a Facebook fan ask us: “Why are some languages so complicated?” And believe me, I can relate, because we deal with some of the most complicated languages in the Endangered Language Program! Such as Navajo, some of the Inuit Eskimo languages. These languages are tough. But what is it that makes them complicated, and why are they complicated?
Well first off, some of it might just be that they’re hard to learn. A speaker of English isn’t used to dealing with things like tone, isn’t used to dealing with crazy noun classes, or verbs that have eleven different pieces in them. You’re just not used to dealing with that. But someone from another language who is used to dealing with that kind of thing could learn Navajo very easily. So sometimes it’s just…it’s the perspective from which you approach it.
But at the same time, some languages do seem to have a lot of categories or a lot of distinctions or really complicated verb structures that really just belie common sense. And you wonder: How could they ever get this complicated? For example in Navajo, you have to use a different verb when talking about certain objects depending on the shape and type of object it is. So long, thin objects might use one verb, and flat, flexible objects like a piece of paper might use another. And I think there are seven or eight different classes like that in Navajo. And the reason these things come about is because at some point, speakers of the language found that functionally useful. It was culturally relevant or it was a way to communicate about something. So there might have been objects in the environment that were useful to talk about in that manner, and eventually over time that gets coded into the language. And now speakers might not have any conscience recognition of where those came from, but because it’s part of the language they learn and speak, they’re kind of forced to use it in everyday parlance. So languages can get really complicated, really fast over time by just adding in these different pieces of the environment and world around you…way of speaking about things that get coded into the language, and then they’re stuck there.