I know we’ve covered the topic recently, and I wasn’t going to post about The Economist‘s longish article on difficult languages, even though it has a lot of interesting examples and doesn’t get too gee-whiz about it, but when I hit this part I couldn’t resist:

For sound complexity, one language stands out. !Xóõ, spoken by just a few thousand, mostly in Botswana, has a blistering array of unusual sounds. Its vowels include plain, pharyngealised, strident and breathy, and they carry four tones. It has five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones. The leading expert on the !Xóõ, Tony Traill, developed a lump on his larynx from learning to make their sounds. Further research showed that adult !Xóõ-speakers had the same lump (children had not developed it yet).

A language that gives you a lump on your larynx just from speaking it—now that’s badass. (Thanks, John!)


  1. A strident vowel? Don’t think I’ve heard of those before…

  2. I really do hate it when people quote Bernard Shaw and write:
    “Ghoti,” as wordsmiths have noted, could be pronounced “fish”: gh as in “cough”, o as in “women” and ti as in “motion”.
    There’s never the possibility that Ghoti will be pronounced fish!
    Gh can only, but not always, be the sound of f at the end of a word and ti can only be the sound of sh when on follows it at the end of a word.
    When “wordsmiths” use that quote, they clearly can’t spell and immediately forgo their status as “mavens”.

  3. komfo,amonan says

    It seems not to have been Shaw.
    If Tuyuca is the hardest language for an English speaker, what is the hardest language, I wonder, for a Tuyuca speaker?

  4. I think GBS’s (or whoever’s) point stands: English spelling is broken and needs to be fixed.

  5. The definition of “difficult to learn” is at best only implied by this article. It seems to focus on the ease of second language learning. As well it should because all languages are EQUALLY EASY to learn by infant learners. If they weren’t, they would have failed to be learned and as such, failed to continue as a language.
    Rather, what this article focuses on, without explicitly acknowledging it, is the ease of learning a second language, once you already know at least one as a native. So the question is better posed as this: which second language is most difficult for adult learners to learn?
    My position is that this is dependent on the features of the native language (L1) as opposed to the new language (L2). Also, the sociolinguistic prestige is likely to have an effect. In other words, it depends on what your native language is and what the linguistic and cultural biases are in that language community. So the the question is even betterer posed this way:
    — What is the most difficult language for speakers of Russian to learn?
    — What is the most difficult language for speakers of Quechua to learn?
    and so on. The answer, I suspect, will be different for each L1 language.

  6. And I thought Korean was tough to pronounce for English speakers–at least no lumps!

  7. The only thing in Korean that is difficult for English speakers to pronounce is the double consonants like that at the beginning of Ssangyong. You have to pronounce them fortis. Otherwise almost all the sounds in Korean appear in English.
    Korean is a difficult language for English speakers because of the politeness levels and all the infixes.

  8. Peter Austin says

    Korean (and Japanese) are also difficult for English speakers because they are right-headed (think stacked relative clauses to the left) and have massive zero anaphora that makes reference tracking a whole nother ball game.

  9. “Korean (and Japanese) are also difficult for English speakers because they are right-headed ”
    I don’t find that aspect of Japanese (or Turkish) particularly difficult. I find the large number of near homonyms in Japanese difficult – (kyoku or kyooku? or kukyoo?). Putting the relative clause before the noun is usually the rule in languages that put adjectives before the noun, and it seems to me that American English is actually moving gradually in that direction. Americans will produce utterances like “the car driving guy” instead of the “the guy who is driving the car”. You cannot do that in Italian or Spanish, where adjectives generally come after the noun. I wonder if Italians have a harder time learning Japanese or Turkish than Americans?

  10. I agree with Peter. Head-last construction is generally the straw that breaks the learner’s back in Japanese. It’s the final hurdle that creates that unique I-know-all-these-words-why-don’t-I-understand-this-sentence frustration.

  11. I think some L2s are objectively harder to learn than others, for all foreign speakers, because there is more to them – they have bigger literatures that preserve more archaic forms, more variant forms, more of everything than languages with smaller populations, more homogeneous populations.
    Obviously even L1 speakers of these big languages will never know their own language completely. A speaker of English or Chinese (any variety) is simply ot going to be able to live long enough to master or even become familiar with every lexical item, turn of phrase an don in th whole langgaue. He is going to be perfectly competent in whatever lect his community speaks, the same as a speaker of …Hopi, for instance. But where the Hopi speaker’s competence is going to complete for his language, the Chinese or English speaker’s will not. It’s really a case of erroneously equating all all languages, when in fact some languages are almost endless formless clusters of topolects, professinal jargos, slangs and literary forms, while others just aren’t.
    Also different speakers of an L1 find different L2s difficult, and the reasons vary. Some speaker have some kind of emotional bond with their L2 – grandma spoke it or whatever – and this powers them up and over every obstacle. Some on the other hand are just inherently too provincial to deal with verb-intial syntax or whatever.

  12. “English spelling is broken and needs to be fixed.” Perhaps, but one difficulty is that every proposed spelling reform that I’ve seen has been profoundly stupid.

  13. We should use those cute Scandinavian vowels.

  14. Spelling reform ain’t gonna happen. If they can’t even agree to stop the globe warming by more than 2 degrees how are the Chinese going to get Obama to spell sox properly?

  15. Duckworth Lewis says

    Those who advocate reform of English spelling usually start from the presumption that it should be spelt as it is pronounced. Unfortunately many English words are pronounced differently in different parts of the world, so that English (rather like Chinese, I gather) presents a common written form with diverse pronunciation. How would reformists cope with an everyday word such as “butter” which in Southern England is pronounced as it is spelt, but in America is pronounced “budder”? Are there to be different written forms to reflect spoken variation, and if so, where does the process stop (and who is going to stop it)?

  16. “How would reformists cope with an everyday word such as “butter” which in Southern England is pronounced as it is spelt,”
    They don’t pronounce the ‘r’ there, so it’s not pronounced as it’s spelled.
    “but in America is pronounced “budder”?
    No. It’s pronounced with an alveolar tap, not a plosive, voiced or otherwise. ‘Latter’ and ‘ladder’ are not homophones in American English.
    And ‘spelt’ is a grain. It has nothing to do with butter until you bake it.

  17. michael farris says

    “‘Latter’ and ‘ladder’ are not homophones in American English.”
    Actually they are for most or maybe all speakers, but /d/ and /t/ have the tap allophone intervocality (it’s complicated but it would take too explain the exact distribution)
    Some have claimed that there’s a vowel length distinction (with a longer vowel in ladder than latter) but that doesn’t work at all in my dialect or any other speaker I’ve ever heard.
    writing, riding
    latter, ladder
    bitter, bidder
    are all homophonous pairs for me, even ‘hatter’ and ‘had her’ in connected speech are usually homophonous in my speech.
    I think a relatively unambitious spelling reform that changed about 10 percent of the vocabulary would make it vastly easier for native speakers to learn to read and write without greatly effecting the ability to read older materials. But there’s no political will to do so, so it won’t happen.
    I think a relativly unambicius spelling reform that changed about 10 percent ov the vocabulary woud make it vastly eesier for nativ speekers to lern to reed and rite without graitly efecting the ability to reed older mateerials. But ther’s no political will tu du so, so it won’t happen.

  18. Thought the intellectual honesty (or lack thereof)of Wikipedia might be of interest to your numerous posters. Is the subject not generally relevant to the academic disciplines discussed here?

  19. “Some have claimed that there’s a vowel length distinction (with a longer vowel in ladder than latter) but that doesn’t work at all in my dialect or any other speaker I’ve ever heard.
    writing, riding
    latter, ladder
    bitter, bidder”
    It does in mine, but these words somehow never occur in contexts where the phonetic differences are needed to distinguish them. so I guess it’s moot.

  20. Michael, haf the taim the older mateerialz alredi luk laik thaet enywey.

  21. Did he go up the ladder or the stairway? The la**er.

  22. Robert Morris says

    @michael farris: for me, there actually is a vowel length distinction such that I can tell the difference between (my own and my friends’) ‘rider’ and ‘writer,’ although I imagine it’s not the same for all speakers. Still, I have seen this trend in spectrograms of many people’s speech.
    GAE vowels tend to be longest in open syllables, next longest in those closed with a voiced segment, and shortest in those closed with a voiceless segment (although if you also alter the place or manner of articulation in addition to voicing, your results may vary), so “write” will have a longer vowel than “ride” (again, if you look at a spectogram, that’s actually the biggest difference–the [d] is surely at least partially devoiced). Apparently, this difference carries over for many people.
    Back to spelling reform, I don’t think a phonetic reform is the way to go, or we might just slip back into the pre-standardization days where everyone just spells how they see fit. (Not that that’s good or bad, but I don’t think a lot of people would like it.)
    Rather, I think a “phonemic” reform would have better chances of succeeding–something like Spanish where spelling (almost a broad IPA transcription itself) is closely tied with pronunciation, but you cannot go straight from pronunciation to one particular spelling. We could still, hopefully, maintain standardization and, at the cost of making people remember some allophones, have a more predictable and uniform spelling system.
    But I still don’t think it’s likely to happen. 🙂

  23. I wish to assert or claim that regardless of L1 Etruscan would be pretty damned hard to learn.

  24. komfo,amonan says

    As well it should because all languages are EQUALLY EASY to learn by infant learners.
    I vaguely remember reading, perhaps here, that this is not necessarily the case, & that an example was given of a language whose child speakers had a facility at age 10 analogous to what those of another had at age 6. Is this crazy talk? Unfortunately I can’t recall enough details to track the claim down.

  25. I’m for spelling reform, but doubt it’s going to happen. I’m also for the kind of generalized reform shown in the example above, something all English speakers would find useful.
    Incidentally, regarding the difference between writing and riding, I make a distinction. I recently had occasion to discuss this on lingvoforum.net. Here’s my post:

  26. I know that Japanese children start speaking with no mistakes sooner than English-speaking children, since they don’t have to worry about irregular plurals, irregular past tense forms, etc. Spoken Japanese is very simple compared to the written language, however, so when these kids go to school they have to assimilate a whole cathedral’s worth of politeness level structures. In the end it might balance out, but either way, in the early years Japanese kids aren’t constantly getting corrected, like English-speaking kids are (maked, writed, sheeps, etc.)

  27. Michael, haf the taim the older mateerialz alredi luk laik thaet enywey.
    I would make it “harf the tyme” to show my anglo-australian accent. I can’t find a simplified spelling that matches my pronounciation of look, but its certainly not luk.

  28. Canadian Raising like Marc described also occurs in my own dialect of English- I grew up in the Northern New Jersey area. There, we tend to associate varieties of English that don’t display it with the stereotypical “southern accent.” At least I did when I was growing up.

  29. And there, Paul, you have the problem.
    Japanese kids make mistakes with the honorifcs, which certainly are part of the spoken language, as far as i understand, and I am sure they need a lot of correction. If it’s anything like China, adults are not shy about gently prompting kids to bow to the right people and use the right forms of address.

  30. michael farris says

    My impression from the literature is that there is no magical age at which children become linguistic replicas of their parents.
    My readings indicate that very roughly speaking, across languages, they have the basic system down by about 4 or 5 and it may take up until about 12 or so for all of the niceties to work themselves out (just what the niceities are varies from language to language).
    Also, cross linguistically there are gaps that eventually even out. One article I read suggested that Polish speaking children learn the gender system of their language before Russian children learn theirs – apparently the final unstressed -o of many neuter nouns and some masculine nicknames in -a throw a real roadblock in the way of Russian speaking children that Polish speaking children don’t have to deal with (though the more complex Polish consonant mutations probably make aquiring the full case system more difficult than Russian).

  31. Regarding Hozo’s Wiki question, Wiki is not generally a good place to go to for discussion of controversial issues, though often it does reasonably well, but the article he links to is bogus hackery.
    Hozo may be a spammer.

  32. When do Japanese kids make mistakes with honorifics? There’s almost never a need to use them. If you mean kureru vs. ageru, I’ve never met a five-year-old who couldn’t use them correctly. Even constructions like “kaite moratta” are no problem. Something like “kakasete moratta” might come later, but the concept itself (framing the act of doing something as being granted permission to do it) is something that only comes into play once a child has a deeper understand of the relevant social structures. For a five-year-old, “kaite ii tte yutte kureta yo” is sufficient for “kakasete moratta.”
    Making kids bow is something entirely different. It’s adorable the way the parents push down on their kids’ heads to make them bow.
    The right form of address is hardly ever a problem, either, since kids are given such leeway in Japan.
    Note that I’m talking about kids up until about the age of ten, i.e., the age at which English-speaking kids no longer make mistakes along the lines of “writed.”

  33. michael, at 3:22 pm, Dec. 22, you’ve got “changed” and “graitly”; the first vowel sound in which is misspelled?

  34. The head-right phenomenon in Japanese has never particularly phased me…. but that’s only because I had the luxury of a couple of years to gradually master it through the study of written texts 🙂 I could sometimes make more sense of it than my (English) lecturer, who would make infuriating comments along the lines of “that bit doesn’t mean anything at all, it’s just meaningless stuff of the sort that the Japanese love to put in”.
    The rule to be followed in Japanese is a fairly simple one (in theory, at least): first get the topic, then translate the sentence from the end back towards the beginning. I think the same should work in Mongolian, but I’ve never actually managed to test it because the Mongolian morphology always gets to me.

  35. Actually, even Japanese adults often have trouble with honorifics. Once you join a company or workplace you gradually pick honorifics up, but it takes a while to become fluent in them. If I understand correctly, elaborate honorifics tend to be associated with urban, upper-class language, and there are local dialects in which they are much less developed (or at least they were originally less developed — the homogenisation of Japanese society could make such generalisations into statements about what used to be). So people from these dialects have to learn honorifics in the same way as foreigners.

  36. michael farris says

    “michael, at 3:22 pm, Dec. 22, you’ve got “changed” and “graitly”; the first vowel sound in which is misspelled? ”
    Neither, my idea of workable spelling reform would be to
    1. eliminate things that are never pronounced AFAIK in any dialect, like the l in would, could, should.
    2. bring order to some very confusing sequences (like ea, which i’d restrict to the sound in bread, head, weather, leather, or ate, which i’d restrict to sounds like late, mate)
    3. disambiguate homographs that aren’t homophones; live, tear, wind, read
    4. deal with some of the really bizarre mismatches
    5. maintain enough ties with older orthography to that it could still be read with no or minimal training
    in this case, the sequence -ange is pretty established and consistent and, importantly, that particular sequence isn’t written in any other way that I can think of off the top of my head.
    No need to change change or changed. Great however has a real abnormality, with ea for AFAIK [ei] which doesn’t really occur anywhere else (again, off the top of my head). In that case, I’d either respell it grate or grait (the latter if I really wanted to distinguish it graphically from grate. Actually I’d probably go with grately if I think about it more. A Farris spelling system wouldn’t be Finnish or even Spanish, just significantly easier than the current system.

  37. What about getting rid of peculiar spellings that were the result of an etymological mistake? I’m thinking of island, which you’ve already got rid of for another reason, but I’m sure there are more.

  38. What about getting rid of peculiar spellings that were the result of an etymological mistake? I’m thinking of island, which you’ve already got rid of for another reason, but I’m sure there are more.

  39. michael farris says

    Usially the etimological mistake involvs adding consonants that shood’nt be ther.
    Iland is certanly won wuch mistake and dett is anuther.
    I can’t think ov meny mor off tha top ov mye head.

  40. But what about the etymological “l” in “would”? Surely it shows the connection with “will”. (Same as the “l” in “should” — but not the “l” in “could”).

  41. michael farris says

    I thout it was already cleer that I woud/wood jettison the l in shoud/shood, coud/cood and woud/wood.

  42. See, with cute Scandinavian vowels you could eliminate a bunch of letters, and also look sort of heavy-metalish.

  43. Yukata — We were talking about children, not adults. Either way, you need to specify what kind of honorifics you’re talking about. If it’s “sasete-itadaku” instead of “suru” (etc.) that you have in mind, then kids learn that kind of thing in high school. If it’s the more elaborate “tadaima ukagai ni mairimashita” type of thing, then it’s actually the opposite of the way you describe it: people who move to or grow up in linguistic melting pots like Tokyo have a harder time using the proper honorifics than in the country (where there’s naturally dialectal variation, but the principles hold), where using elaborate honorifics is a much more natural part of the elaborate social structures that define life in close-knit communities. In the big cities, you don’t know anyone, nobody knows you, conversations can be struck up by total strangers on the bus without an introduction, etc.: the social environment out of which honorifics original sprang is gone, so naturally people don’t know how to use them. It’s also a generational thing, now that TV is so prevalent. The gradual disappearance of honorifics is a huge topic. My theory is that at one point they served a useful function in the elaborate social structure of Japan, but that social structure is changing, making such honorific language beside the point. It’s now become the realm of pedants who delight in pointing out that a secretary who says “achira de ukagatte kudasai” instead of “achira de o-ukagai kudasai” is committing an unforgivable breach of etiquette, because “ukagau” is a kenjougo for “kiku,” and must therefore be “raised” by using the honorific “o-” prefix. Or something. At one point I tried to learn some of that, but I’ve mostly forgotten it.

  44. Incidentally, if you want to hear really ornate honorifics being used with total fluency, listen to a door-to-door salesman in a small town or city in the countryside.
    John — but we’d have to change all the keyboards. And wear spandex and rouge.

  45. translate the sentence from the end back towards the beginning.
    exactly, that principle works in my language
    if one knows the words one can speak Japanese just straightforwardly, kanjis are so much hurdle for me, if i’ve learnt it when my memory was better maybe i could read by now, i’m forgetting all kanjis i knew, all 800 of them which i ever learnt, such a pity
    it would be nice if you’ll write from time to time a sentence in kanjis, B, so that i could practice 🙂 i know it’s a selfish request, that would be just that, sochetat’ priyatnoe s poleznum (to combine pleasant with useful 🙂

  46. not only Mr. B of course, all are welcome to comment in kanji ridden Japanese for my benefit 🙂
    if LH wouldn’t mind of course

  47. リードさんはどこのご出身(しゅっしん)ですか。母語(ぼご)の語順(ごじゅん)が日本語(にほんご)と同(おな)じ、ということはトルコ?モンゴル?ひょっとして、バスク地方(ちほう)?

  48. if LH wouldn’t mind of course
    I don’t mind anything people write in comments as long as it doesn’t frighten the horses. If (as frequently happens) I don’t understand it, I just admire those who do.

  49. yatta! hajimemashite, M
    yes, モンゴルjin desu, it’s perfect how you write it now, great, i can follow without looking up the characters, and i used to read some abstracts written in Japanese, junkankikei no mono mostly, now can’t at all :(, it’s amazing just a few years and all is forgotten
    hopefully in some time i wouldn’t need kanji no yomikata written together if i’ll practice more

  50. はじめまして!循環器系(じゅんかんきけい)ですか、すごいですね。じゃ、なにか専門的(せんもんてき)なお仕事(しごと)に携(たずさ)わっていらっしゃるでしょうね。僕(ぼく)は特許(とっきょ)の出願書(しゅつがんしょ)の翻訳(ほんやく)をしていますから、専門用語(せんもんようご)を扱う(あつかう)のが仕事(しごと)の一部(いちぶ)ですけど、生物学(せいぶつがく)やそういった分野(ぶんや)の用語(ようご)はさっぱり分(わ)かりません!

  51. hai, 循環器系 desu, ichiyou kenkyuushya nan desu
    maa nee, the thing is i’ve memorized them as like road signs and now have nothing left in my memory, but with some practice all hopefully could return, i didn’t know the word tazusawaru and patent/license tokkyo, thanks, two more words
    should try to read at least Yahoo! Japan news headlines, but am too lazy to struggle with the kanjis without transcriptions
    during our Japanese classes i’ve noticed we(Mongolians) learn very quickly to speak, when our classmates were steadily working through the kanjis and after some time they are fluent in kanjis what is taught, while our(my, i mean) speaking Japanese is still better, am lacking patience and stamina maybe to write kanjis many hundred times to learn it by heart
    will be looking forward to more practice! thanks a lot

  52. komfo,amonan says

    Off the top of my head the other etymological mistakes are ‘doubt’ and ‘debt’, the b’s of which were lost before the words’ adoption into English. Also, ‘victuals’.
    Looking for more, I ran across Principles of English Etymology, in which the author asserts that the ‘d’ in ‘advance’ was added due to a wrong guess about the Latin. L. ‘abantiare’ > Fr. ‘avauncer’ > ME ‘avauncen’ > ModE ‘advance’. I did not know that.

  53. @komfoamonan Very interesting book link – I did not know that “show” was spelled as “shew”, the book was published in 1892, I wonder, when the change occurred.

  54. komfo,amonan says

    Pretty sure that the US Constitution and/or Declaration of Independence carries the ‘shew’ spelling.

  55. I hold the view that Inglish spelling shood be regularized by getting rid ov the truly unpredictable spellings, so that enny nativ Inglish-speaker given the spelling ov a wurd can regularly predict its pronunciation in their own accent, but not necessarily vice versa. In particular, this means maintaining distinctions in the written language if they are required for phonemic separation in enny livving accent. Thus, not everywun ses meat and meet the same way, though most doo, and so neether/nyther wurd shood be chainged. (A small number ov wurds cannot be accommodated in this fashion, and dual spellings will still be needed for them, as shown in the previous sentence.)
    When a chainge is needed, use a spelling that suits the pronunciations ov the majority ov speakers, thus enny, not anny or inny. In addition, long-obsolete distinctions such as that between vein and vain can be dropped, as aul accents have completed this chainge. (Whether to doo this for lost initial consonant clusters is a question: naw, rite, nee, and even fotograf, which is just a matter ov spelling, may violate too strongly what Tolkien called the “Germanic feeling that the initial consonant ov a wurd is an essential part ov its identity.”)
    This reform wood make Inglish spelling about has hard as French spelling (easier, really, becoz/becuz you need not parse spoken Inglish on the fly to segment it into wurds at aul), if not as simple as, say, Check spelling. For pèdagógical púrposes óenly, it wood be éasy to mark stressed vówels with an acúte áccènt and ùnstréssed but ùnrèdúced vówels with a graav áccènt.
    More on Regularized Inglish: theory, wurdlists, sample.
    Az for show vs. shew, the latter pronunciation was obsolete by about 1700, though it persisted in writing alongside show until about 1850, and Shaw used it az wun ov his idiosyncracies of spelling, az in his 1909 play The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet. It may still perhaps be found in sum legal documents.

  56. that particular sequence [-ange] isn’t written in any other way
    Danny Ainge.
    with ea for AFAIK [ei] which doesn’t really occur anywhere else
    Steak. Break.

  57. About honorifics – there is an excellent discussion going on now (in Russian) about Russian honorifics, how they changed in 100 years, which ones are appropriate/inappropriate to use towards people who are lower or higher in social status or older/younger than yourself: http://ivanov-petrov.livejournal.com/1346653.html?style=mine

  58. I like the shimmering decoherence of English spelling-‘rule’ clumps and particles – like the regularities of Calvin’s and Hobbes’s ball game.

  59. Screw Danny Ainge. What a jerk.

  60. I doff my hat to anyone who can translate patent applications. It is one hell of a job getting your mind around long, involved technical sentences and translating them into equally long, involved technical sentences. The most mind-draining kind of translation that I could imagine.

  61. Actually, I suspect people learn “sashite morau” before “sasete-itadaku”, and I wonder if they need to get to high school before they learn it. Once you’ve learnt the basic patterns, honorifics just means upping the politeness forms. Ageru, kureru and morau don’t strike me as totally a matter of honorifics, they are verbs indicating the “direction” of giving, as it were, although there are linguistically more sophisticated ways of putting this. Each of these verbs then has its honorific or humble forms (yaru, ageru, sashiageru, morau, itadaku, chōdai suru, etc.)

  62. Az for show vs. shew, the latter …may still perhaps be found in sum legal documents.
    I remember using shew when I was 13 simply to provoke to my teacher (the headmaster), unfortunately I can’t remember if it did.
    All the different comments about spelling reform just go to shew that it’s never going to happen, and thank god for that.

  63. Az for show vs. shew, the latter …may still perhaps be found in sum legal documents.
    I remember using shew when I was 13 simply to provoke to my teacher (the headmaster), unfortunately I can’t remember if it did.
    All the different comments about spelling reform just go to shew that it’s never going to happen, and thank god for that.

  64. Shew is not obsolete everywhere.
    Mistah Sullivan, he dead.

  65. I agree. I don’t think kids use itadaku at all (except for the preprandial “itadakimasu”) until high school, and not regularly until they start working.
    Patent applications only look difficult at first. Once you master patentese, they’re actually much easier to translate than a novel, for example.

  66. Mistah Sullivan, he dead.
    So is Elvis. Or are they?

  67. Screw Danny Ainge. What a jerk.
    Charmingly aingian post. Notre Dame fan? Tree Rollins fan??

  68. Thinking about o-ukagai kudasai noted earlier, I think this is actually incorrect. The correct form should be o-kiki kudasai.
    The problem with o-kiki kudasai is that the plain verb kiku ‘to ask’ doesn’t sound polite or fancy enough, so people not adept at honorifics blindly use the most “polite” form that they know, which is ukagau, ‘to ask humbly’.
    This is a bad choice since ukagau is a humble form, not a polite form. To use it yourself is fine, but to tell someone politely to “go and ask humbly” is bad form (unless you are perhaps advising them to go and ask the Emperor — but since I have no knowledge of imperial etiquette, that is a shot in the dark).

  69. Actually, o-kiki kudasai is more likely to be used for ‘listening’. Probably a better verb is tazuneru. O-tazune kudasai.

  70. David Marjanović says

    I’ll just mention the two websites I mention every time the English spelling system comes up: this one, which spends a lot of time figuring out the rules of English spelling, concludes that they apply over 85 % of the time (making ghotiugh impossible), and (at the bottom of the page) proposes to simply abolish the exceptions; and this one, which starts from the premise that the orthography doesn’t need a reform, it needs a bloody revolution – and deals with questions such as what to do about the fact that different accents of Standard English have different numbers of phonemes.
    Patent applications: fairly easy, Chinese characters: hard.
    2 °C warming of the global annual average temperature beyond the level we’ve already reached would be utter horror. Kiss Bangladesh goodbye.

  71. I think you’re right about o-ukagai vs. o-kiki. The thing is, this has all ascended into a very Japanese realm of extremely rarefied pedantry, since neither secretary nor customer actually knows which is the correct form, or at least doesn’t feel it the way they’d feel the difference between atchi de kiite kiyagare and achira de kiite kudasai, for example.

  72. this has all ascended into a very Japanese realm of extremely rarefied pedantry, since neither secretary nor customer actually knows which is the correct form
    This is wonderful, and would make the basis for a delightful skit (if it hasn’t already).

  73. The misuse of honorifics is standard grist for the mill of pedants in Japan. But many years ago I also noticed a gentle dig at improper use of honorofics in one of the Tora-san movies. Tora-san was an itinerant ne’er do well street salesman of decidedly lower class origins, found lovable by the Japanese for his embodiment of down-to-earth, human values. His family, who were subjected to his erratic visits at very long intervals, was a lower class shitamachi Tokyo family. I vaguely remember one sketch in which the housewife of the family (Sakura was her name, I think) misused honorifics in a flustered scene where one of Tora-san’s guests arrived in the household. The effect was not vicious at all, just a gentle poke at the tendency to mix up high-falutin’ honorifics among people not used to using them in every day life.

  74. David M: While I love Zompist, he is explicitly talking only about his own accent; still, I agree with most of his principles. I’ll have to read Xibalba’s rant again.

Speak Your Mind