Ranking Languages By Weirdness

by Tracy R. Walsh

English is full of maddening irregularities, but by global standards it’s far from the most unusual language:

A recent study by a language-processing company called Idibon tried to establish not which languages are “hard,” but which are “weird.” It used a resource called the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS). WALS indexes hundreds of languages across hundreds of different features (from whether verbs precede objects to whether the language uses click-sounds as consonants). The Idibon study tried to find which languages use the greatest number of unusual features—i.e., those features shared with few other languages. But for tricky methodological reasons, the study had to limit itself 21 features. The languages that have the least “normal” values of these 21 features are the “weirdest.”

Does English rank high? Not especially. Many non-European languages dominate the top of the list. Of those languages in the Indo-European family with English, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, Spanish, Kurdish and Kashmiri all rank as “weirder.” English is at place number 33 of 239 languages in the “weirdness index.”

However, the study’s authors note that 33 out of 239 is still “highly unusual.” The weirdest tongue is Chalcatongo Mixtec, a tonal language spoken by 6,000 in southern Mexico, while the most conventional language is Hindi.