Which languages are the most “efficient”? Which are the least?

Perhaps you’ve learned some Latin, or German, or Russian. If so, you probably don’t find those languages very “efficient”: they have too many fussy endings, too many details you have to pay attention to.

If, however, you speak Mandarin, that language probably seems very efficient, practically stripped down. (Tones may throw you, but they have nothing to do with efficiency. Writing does, but we’re talking speech here, not writing.)  The knowledgeable and always interesting John McWhorter has written an excellent article on this subject. You’ll learn something about some languages you’ve heard of, and even more about languages you probably haven’t heard of.

  • For instance, consider the Riau dialect of Indonesian/Malay, spoken by several million people (that’s Riau alone; altogether Indonesian/Malay is spoken by almost 300 million!). According to McWhorter:

 ayam means chicken and makan means eat, but “Ayam makan” doesn’t mean only “The chicken is eating.” Depending on context, “Ayam makan” can mean the “chickens are eating,” “a chicken is eating,” “the chicken is eating,” “the chicken will be eating,” “the chicken eats,” “the chicken has eaten,” “someone is eating the chicken,” “someone is eating for the chicken,” “someone is eating with the chicken,” “the chicken that is eating,” “where the chicken is eating,” and “when the chicken is eating.”

  • At the other end of the spectrum, consider Kabardian, spoken by well over a million people in the Caucasus even though you probably haven’t heard of that one either. McWhorter tells us that sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś means “saw” — I’ll take his word for it — in certain contexts:

other than the part meaning “see,” there is a bit that reiterates that it’s me who was seen, even though the sentence would include a separate word for “me” elsewhere. Then there are other bits that show that the seeing was most significant to “me” rather than to the men or anyone else; that the seeing was done by more than one person (despite the sentence spelling out elsewhere that it was plural “men” who did the seeing); that this event did not happen in the present; that on top of this, the event happened specifically in the past rather than the future; and finally a bit indicating that the speaker really means what he’s saying.

And you thought Latin was complicated! (Remind me to tell you sometime about the Unified Verb Theory that one of my Lincoln-Sudbury students developed in the 1970s.)

The bottom line is that all these languages are fully communicative, even though they vary enormously in complexity and efficiency. But go read the entire article.



Categories: Linguistics