Culture 4 min read

Why English is Among the 'Weird Languages' of the World

Aysezgicmeli /

Aysezgicmeli /

As weird languages go, English could be one of the weirdest.

Speaking for all non-native English learners out there, I can safely say that English is difficult to master, though individual experiences may vary.

Because of the phonological and morphological proximity, a German speaker, for example, might find English easier to learn than an Arabophone speaker like myself. English isn’t a weird language only because it has some complex grammar and spelling rules.

But what is a weird language anyway, and where does English stand among the world’s weirdest languages?

Let’s just say that according to a thorough survey, English stands high on the weirdness index, and yes, there’s one such index! But for what it’s worth, English isn’t as weird as Mandarin Chinese or Chalcatongo Mixtec.

Weird, Weird Languages!

Today, there are over 6,000 spoken languages in the world. There are some with over a billion primary and secondary speakers like Mandarin Chinese and English, and many endangered tongues (1,514 languages) having less than 1,000 native speakers.

The World Atlas of Language Structures (WLAS) catalogs 2,676 living languages, evaluated according to a set of 192 phonological, grammatical, and lexical features.

The WLAS database is a goldmine to computational linguists, especially those who specialize in Natural Language Processing (NLP), which is a subfield of computer science.

One team analyzed a sample of 239 languages representing different regions of the world and classified them according to their “weirdness.”

They think that to determine weird languages, or if a language is indeed weird, there has to be a comparative context. Meaning they wanted to find out how languages compare to each other based on the largest set of atypical, or weird, linguistic features they have. Researchers restricted themselves to 165 features found in at least 100 languages in them.

The results of the study show that English, coming in #33 out of 239 languages (0.756 weirdness index value), is actually a weird language with more than 80% of its features being uncommon in other languages.

For example, the basic word order in English, subject-verb-object (SVO), just like in 35.5% of languages in the WALS database, while 8.7%, like Welsh, Hawaiian, start with a verb. But 41.0% of languages follow an SOV word order.

Verdict: Which Language is the Weirdest?

In the Language Weirdness Index the team established, the title of the weirdest language, or that with the most unusual features, goes to Chalcatongo Mixtec, with 6,000 native speakers (Oaxaca, Mexico) — and it happens that it’s coded for verb-initial word order.

Mixtec scored 0.972 on the Weirdness Index.

“There is an even more unusual way to deal with yes/no questions, and that’s what Chalcatongo Mixtec does: which is to do nothing at all. It is the only language surveyed that does not have a particle, a change of word order, a change of intonation…”

Coming in second, 22,000 people speak Nenets in Siberia, Russia. English has two words with Nenets origins; the word Nenets itself and parka. Spoken by about 10,000 native Americans in Oklahoma, the Choctaw, language is number three.

While they occupy the top positions, languages with small communities aren’t the only ones with a fair share of atypical features. Some of the world’s major languages — such as German (9th), Spanish, Dutch, and Mandarin Chinese — are among the weirdest languages in the world.

Surprisingly, while Mandarin is in the top 25 weirdest, Cantonese Chinese is in the bottom 10, a fact researchers attribute to their different sound structures.

With a Weirdness Index of only 0.087, Hindi is “the very most super-typical, non-deviant language of them all.” It only has a single weird feature, Feature 117A in the WLAS database, or: Predicative Possession.

You can check the full list of the Weirdness Index here.

The systematic approach of the survey and its results are of great value to future research on the subject because as enlightening the findings are, they only cover a small portion of the world’s languages. The WALS itself still lacks any data at all on thousands of other living languages.

Read More: Can Language Apps Really Teach You A Foreign Language?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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