log.nikhil.io

Efficient Languages

Ross Pomeroy for RealClearScience, “What’s the Most Efficient Language?

[. . .] travel the world and record at least a dozen speakers of every language reading those passages aloud at their normal cadence. Count the overall number of syllables used for each passage and measure the time it took subjects to read their passage. Divide the syllable count by time to get the number of syllables spoken per second. Next, come up with some value for how much meaning is packed into each syllable, which will give you an average information density per syllable. Finally, use those values to derive an “information rate.”

and

English came out on top, but not by much. Most of languages grouped pretty closely together, however, Japanese lagged behind the rest. Interestingly, the languages that conveyed the least amount of information per syllable, like Spanish, Japanese, and French, tended to be spoken at a faster rate. This allowed these languages (apart from Japanese) to deliver a similar amount of information compared to more meaning-dense languages like Mandarin and English.

Jonathan McWhorter for The Atlantic, “The World’s Most Efficient Languages

When a language seems especially telegraphic, usually another factor has come into play: Enough adults learned it at a certain stage in its history that, given the difficulty of learning a new language after childhood, it became a kind of stripped-down “schoolroom” version of itself.

In contrast, one cannot help suspecting that not too many adults have been tackling the likes of sǝq’ayǝƛaaɣwǝaɣhaś. Kabardian has been left to its own devices, and my, has it hoarded a lot of them. This is, as languages go, normal, even if Kabardian is rather extreme. By contrast, only a few languages have been taken up as vehicles of empire and imposed on millions of unsuspecting and underqualified adults. Long-dominant Mandarin, then, is less “busy” than Cantonese and Taiwanese, which have been imposed on fewer people. English came out the way it did because Vikings, who in the first millennium forged something of an empire of their own in northern and western Europe, imposed themselves on the Old English of the people they invaded and, as it were, mowed it. German, meanwhile, stayed “normal.”

In Ithkuil, “Tram-mļöi hhâsmařpţuktôx” translates to “On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.” 😐

I think we all know John McWhorter is not to be relied upon when he ventures away from his bailiwick of creole languages, which he is frequently called on to do since he has become the go-to linguistics popularizer, but he does have a pleasant prose style and it’s always fun to argue about his overgeneralizations and sometimes wacky obiter dicta (like the one about the Awful Russian Language).

– Steve Dodson, Language Hat, Efficient Languages