What's the world's weirdest language?
This is a fascinating article in Foreign Policy of all places, that reports on a researcher who coded in 21 different factors releating to 239 different languages to come up with what he calls the "weirdest" language spoken in the world.
Are you one of the 6,000 people in the world who speaks Chalcatongo Mixtec? Congratulations! You speak the world's weirdest language.
That's what Tyler Schnoebelen and the researchers at Idibon, a natural language processing company, found when they statistically compared 239 languages to see how like or unlike they were to one another. Using the World Atlas of Language Structures, Idibon coded the languages for 21 characteristics including, for example, how subjects, objects, and verbs are ordered in a sentence, or how a language makes clear that a sentence is a question.
When Schnoebelen ran the numbers, Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, was the least like the majority of the world's other languages. And it is pretty unusual: Schnoebelen describes it as a "verb-initial tonal language" that has no mechanism for demonstrating questions (so "You are alright." and "Are you alright?" sound the exact same). "I have spent part of the day imagining a game show in this language," Schnoebelen wrote in his analysis (for more on how to say everything from "I am sick" to "I bought many long ropes" in Chalcatongo Mixtec, see here). It's probably not surprising that some of the strangest languages are some of the most obscure. The second weirdest is Nenets, spoken in Siberia, followed by Choctaw, a Native American language from the central plains.
But some of the weirdest languages are widely spoken. The seventh-strangest language, Kongo, is spoken by half a million people in Central Africa. After that comes Armenian, then German. English ranks fairly high as well, coming in 33rd. There's also no particular region of strange languages -- the top 25 weirdest (pictured with red dots in the map below) are scattered across every continent. Mandarin is one of the strangest languages, while Cantonese is one of the most "normal." And linguistic families are also no guarantee of similarity. Schnoebelen notes that while Germanic languages are all pretty weird, Romance languages run the full breadth of the strangeness spectrum, from Spanish, which falls in the Weirdness Index's top 25, down to Portuguese, which ranked as one of the most mundane languages.
I'd love to meet this fellow Tyler Schnoebelen. Anyone who tries to imagine a game show in one of the most obscure languages in the world has to be a fascintating guy to sit next to on a bar stool.