We all know it’s hard to learn a new language. Transitioning from one language to another is way more difficult than transitioning from using the system of a Windows PC to that of a Mac laptop. The realm of languages is so vast and diverse that it’s almost impossible for one person to master them all – the about 7,000 languages spoken in today’s world, and the 180 spoken solely within Toronto.
With that being said, just how different can languages be? Why is translation more than replacing words from one language to another? What makes language learning and services such intellectual works that require years of training and professional qualification? From the different aspects, we are going to delve into the topic and explore a little bit about the diversity within the world of languages.
The most visual difference among languages upon the first look is how differently they are written. Most European languages use the Latin alphabet or the Roman alphabet, the one that starts with ABC that many of us have known since we were little. For different languages, the Latin alphabet comes with variations, such as the vowel ö used in German, œ in French, and ø in Scandinavian languages. Letters like y or w in the Latin alphabet are often dropped in some European languages (e.g. Italian, Spanish), and are only used for the spelling of borrowed words, often from English.
Other languages have developed alphabets of their own; and the first lesson, or the first challenge that comes with learning these languages, is often to correctly memorize the whole chart. One of the most ancient examples is the Greek alphabet. Developed some thousand years ago, the Greek writing system is the first alphabetic script that used the combination of distinct consonants and vowels to make up words, and is one of the first languages that made the revolutionary change of differentiating upper and lower cases in sentences.
One of the many “children” of the Greek alphabet is the Cyrillic alphabet, which is widely used in the writing systems of Slavic and Central Asian languages. What makes the Cyrillic alphabet stand out, though, is that the letters do not only represent pronunciation. They also carry numeric values.
Some alphabets, such as Arabic, have only consonants, and vowels are represented by slight modifications (diacritics) added onto the consonant letter. Other languages, Tibetan for example, add diacritics to vowels to change the pronunciation. The feature of using diacritics to show different vowels also applies to many other languages In Europe and Asia.
To further confuse non-native speakers, some languages that are notoriously difficult for English speakers to learn even use two alphabets at the same time. Take Japanese for example. The two completely different sets of systems are designed to differentiate words that originated from Japanese culture and the huge amount of loan words from other languages. Rather than separating consonants and vowels, every unit within the alphabet is a syllable.
There are also languages that have no alphabet at all, where the pronunciation of words can’t necessarily be represented by the way they are written and have to be memorized one by one (a nightmare for language learners). The most famous one surviving today is Chinese. Each Chinese character in the system carries multiple meanings and can be seen as either an individual word, or similar to a prefix or suffix. When put together, they make up new words (e.g. 海sea/mer-/marine + 星star/planet = 海星starfish). This feature makes it extremely easy to invent new words in Chinese (hence the huge vocabulary), and it is also the same way Chinese names are created: rather than taking popular names, parents make up baby names by themselves.
An important step in localization for the digital era is to adapt digital publishing platforms to different writing directions so that a greater variety of languages can be seen on screen. Apart from the left-to-right writing direction used by most European languages that we are familiar with, another commonly seen writing direction is right-to-left, which is used by many languages with written histories that can be traced back thousands of years, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, and Ancient Greek.
Languages in Asia, such as Chinese, Korean, Japanese and many more, are often traditionally written vertically from right to left, top to bottom (left-to-right, top-to-bottom for Mongolian, Old Uyghur and Manchu). This vertical style of writing was gradually abandoned by many languages in the past few hundreds of years due to influences from the West and the limitations of printing and digital presentation. Some cultures though, like Japanese, kept the vertical style and are still using it along with the modern horizontal format. With the rise of Japanese manga’s worldwide popularity, this traditional writing direction is being revived.
Believe it or not, there are languages that are written following even more different directions. The Batak language from Indonesia and Tagbanwa from the Philippines both are written horizontally from bottom to top, and Ancient Egyptian can be written either way that’s convenient.
The grammar of European languages from the same families of English are so similar that the most distinctive differences are sentence structure, genders of nouns and verb tenses. English sentences tend to follow a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure, while there are often debates about German and whether it’s an SVO or SOV language, since German always puts verbs at the very end and listeners won’t know what’s going on until the whole sentence is finished. French is an SVO language, although unlike English, the adjectives are always placed after the nouns they describe. When most European language learners complain about how much harder the language is than English, they are usually talking about the genders of nouns and the amount of verb conjugation that English doesn’t have.
When moving forward to other languages, brand new concepts can be introduced. For instance, agglutinative languages like Japanese, Turkish and Hungarian use an abundance of suffixes added to the stem form of words to express different meanings, and sometimes a word can become really long due to this feature. A simple search of “agglutination + (language)” on the internet can lead you to many lovely comparison charts that will leave you in awe.
Lastly, there are always fantastic words in different languages that just don’t translate into another language, and only the native speakers can get a glimpse of their full beauty. To name a few:
Schadenfreude (German): the joy that you obtain through other people’s misfortune.
Gigil (Tagalog): an irresistible urge to hug something cute.
Backpfeifengesicht (German): a face you hate so much that you would like to punch.
Qi chang 气场 (Mandarin): an overpowering atmosphere that comes with a person’s presence. A strong energy field in a non-physical but psychological way.
Tsundoku つんどく / 積ん読 (Japanese): the behaviour of buying books and letting them pile up unread.
Languages around the world come with many fascinating features that go beyond non-native speakers’ imagination. From visual presentation to pronunciation, from vocabulary to grammar, the diversity among languages is so huge that every experience of getting to know a new language can feel like an adventure. Thinking of all the 180 languages and their speakers living in Toronto, you’ll realize there’s still so much about this city and this country that we don’t know about, should we choose to look at them with eyes of curiosity and respect.