The Economist (Christmas Issue), “Tongue twisters”

December 27, 2009

In search of the world’s hardest language

Perhaps the “hardest” language studied by many Anglophones is Latin. In it, all nouns are marked for case, an ending that tells what function the word has in a sentence (subject, direct object, possessive and so on). There are six cases, and five different patterns for declining verbs into them. This system, and its many exceptions, made for years of classroom torture for many children. But it also gives Latin a flexibility of word order. If the subject is marked as a subject with an ending, it need not come at the beginning of a sentence. This ability made many scholars of bygone days admire Latin’s majesty—and admire themselves for mastering it. Knowing Latin (and Greek, which presents similar problems) was long the sign of an educated person.

Yet are Latin and Greek truly hard? These two genetic cousins of English, in the Indo-European language family, are child’s play compared with some. Languages tend to get “harder” the farther one moves from English and its relatives. Assessing how languages are tricky for English-speakers gives a guide to how the world’s languages differ overall…

Twain’s joke about German gender shows that in most languages it often has little to do with physical sex. “Gender” is related to “genre”, and means merely a group of nouns lumped together for grammatical purposes. Linguists talk instead of “noun classes”, which may have to do with shape or size, or whether the noun is animate, but often rules are hard to see. George Lakoff, a linguist, memorably described a noun class of Dyirbal (spoken in north-eastern Australia) as including “women, fire and dangerous things”. To the extent that genders are idiosyncratic, they are hard to learn. Bora, spoken in Peru, has more than 350 of them…”

(Read the whole thing.)

WorldFocus interview on Copenhagen

December 18, 2009

The Economist, “Filthy lucre fouls the air”

December 10, 2009

Arguments over money dampened the euphoria at the start of the Copenhagen climate talks

“Everyone agrees that poorer countries, including India and China, need cash for climate ‘mitigation’—adopting green technology and new approaches to land use and forest conservation—and for ‘adaptation’: coping with the anticipated effects of climate change, some of which (like a degree of sea level rise) look unavoidable. America has joined the list of countries accepting such transfers, saying it will pay its ‘fair share’. Rich countries have talked of a ‘quick start’ fund. The leaked Danish text has it starting in 2010-12 at a value to be determined; the UN has suggested $10 billion. To poor countries, this sounds paltry: responses range from ‘bribery’ to ‘it will not even pay for the coffins’. Instead, the G77 has asked for 0.5% to 1% of the rich countries’ GDPs. That implies hundreds of billions of dollars on top of existing development aid. The idea that rich countries will hand over 1.2% to 1.7% of their wealth in perpetuity is not going to fly