Riau Indonesian is one of the simplest languages in the world. Tsez is one of the most complicated languages in the world. Then there are the intermediate cases, such as Mandarin Chinese and Swahili, in their own regions, of course.
Mandarin: How Many Tones is Enough?
Mandarin has four tones. On the other hand, Cantonese, down in the south, has six. Or, if you want to analyze it in a way so that you get a more impressive-sounding number, you could say nine. That’s two of seven Chinese languages. The other five all have many more tones than Mandarin. There are ones that have seven or even eight tones. That’s typical. Mandarin is kind of the odd one because its sounds are simpler.
A Mandarin syllable ( and most words are one syllable) can only end in n or ng. So you have n or ng and that’s it. You can’t end in mm or p, b. You only have those two consonants that something can end in. Whereas, in Cantonese, a word can end in six different consonants. You have p, t, k, m, n and ng. Mandarin has this kind of lesser sound system as well.
Let’s take sentence final particles that convey attitude. Cantonese has about thirty of those. Mandarin, depending on how you count it, only has about six. In general, if you are going to learn a Chinese language, Mandarin is going to give you the least trouble. Mandarin is the easy one of the Chinese languages. This is not just an accident.
Mandarin: A Mix of Speakers
As it happens, Mandarin formed in a place and a time where a lot of non-Chinese speakers were brought into the northern region of China. They spoke Tibetan and related languages, Mongolian and related languages, which are quite unlike Chinese or anything Sinospheric.
Several hundreds of thousands of these people were brought in, and they intermingled with speakers of early Mandarin. As a result of this, the Chinese language that developed there was a little less complex than the Chinese languages that developed normally down in southern China.
So in a way, Mandarin, although it is very much a full language and certainly has many complexities, is a kind of abbreviated Chinese. In this case, the abbreviation was not so extreme as in other languages, but it was intermediate. When you see a language with four tones, when all of its sister languages have eight and nine, you know that something happened. Language typically does not decide to be less tonal.
You can imagine intuitively that if a Chinese child stops using a tone, he’s going to be corrected. If everybody else is using lots of tones, one person who decides that he’s going to be kind of tone-deaf is either going to be weird or shape up. That’s not the way things happen.
This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Swahili: The Intermediate Bantu Language
Something is odd if everybody allowed radical language simplification to happen; to put a value judgment on it that actually makes no sense. Something happened to intermediate languages. You see things like that all over the world.
There is Swahili among the Bantu languages. The Bantu languages are spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. There are hundreds of them. Swahili is spoken in eastern Africa. It’s a lingua franca in many of the countries. In fact, for hundreds of years, Swahili has been spoken much, much more as a second language than as a first language.
Only a small, little community of Muslims speak Swahili as a first language. So until rather recently, you tended not to be in the cradle learning Swahili. It was always being approached by people whose first languages were something else.
Most Bantu languages are tonal. We are talking about what is usually counted as about five hundred languages. Swahili is one of the only ones that has no tones. That immediately sets you wondering: why would one of them not have any tones?
Swahili is a relatively easy language. Irregular constructions, for example, are almost oddly rare. When somebody takes Swahili in school, they really don’t have that many problems. There are no sounds that are hard to pronounce. There is very little irregularity.
It is a beautiful language that reminds one of nice, bright, building blocks when you’re little and they kind of smell like wood and they are painted bright colors and they go together and they kind of go click–click–click when you put them together. That’s Swahili.
But the minute you try to learn another Bantu language, like Zulu, you get a shock. Zulu is tonal. It’s got sounds that are hard; there are click sounds that you have to master. It’s got all sorts of irregularities. It’s something that clearly has been sitting on a shelf and stewing for a long time.
Swahili’s tidiness is because so many people learned it as a second language that it became easier. It became simplified. So Swahili is kind of the Mandarin of the Bantu group. It is less Tsez-esque than the other languages.
Complex Languages are the Norm
If you could randomly zero in on any group of people and zeroed in on some small group, then the first thing you would encounter is likely a Tsez-like complex language. In some situations, the language is not like that, and that’s generally because that language got simplified by being learned by a whole group of other people.
Generally a language is passed on by being taught to only infants and toddlers—not adults—and spoken by small groups of people. As a result, it is passed on in the best way by people who have the amazingly plastic learning abilities. When that’s possible, you get an incredibly complex language.
Basically, it is normal for languages to be very complex. It’s not that, “Boy, that language is complicated.” It’s really, “Boy, that language isn’t complicated.” That’s when you’re supposed to ask questions about what happened.
Common Questions About Mandarin and Swahili
Mandarin has four tones. On the other hand, Cantonese, in the south, has six. The other five Chinese languages all have many more tones than Mandarin. There are ones that have seven or even eight tones.
Mandarin formed in a place and a time where a lot of non-Chinese speakers were brought into the northern region of China. They spoke Tibetan, Mongolian, and related languages,.
Several hundreds of thousands of these people were brought in, and they intermingled with speakers of early Mandarin. As a result of this, Mandarin became a little less complex than other Chinese languages.
Most Bantu languages are tonal. Swahili is one of the only ones that has no tones. Swahili is a relatively easy language. Irregular constructions, for example, are almost oddly rare. There are no sounds that are hard to pronounce.
Swahili’s tidiness is because so many people learned it as a second language that it became easier. It became simplified. So Swahili is kind of the Mandarin of the Bantu group.