Tsez: The Most Complex Language in the World?


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

It is natural to think that the more advanced the society is, the more complex its language will be, when in fact it’s the opposite. The most complex ones are usually spoken in far-off places by small, obscure groups of people. Let’s take an example of that sort of thing: a language from the Caucasus region of Asia in the mountains called Tsez.

Village in the Caucasus mountains
In an isolated area of the Caucasus mountains, the residents speak one of the most complex languages in the world: Tsez. (Image: Punnawit Suwattananun/ Shutterstock)

The Rare Sounds of Tsez

Tsez is spoken by about 14,000 people. Tsez is basically an oral language. Now, Tsez not only has the easy sounds, but it has all sorts of sounds that are relatively rare in the world’s languages, that are harder to produce and harder to mimic for adults.

For example, there is a word for to be afraid; the word for to be afraid is ˤuλ̶’ [ukOUGHkkk.] That’s an ordinary word in Tsez. No one giggles at that word; that’s normal. These are the sorts of sounds that there are. It’s full of this sort of thing. All sorts of sounds. For example, there are various sounds, not just one, made by wobbling your uvula, that fleshy, pendulous thing in the back of the throat.

Learn more about how sounds change in language.

The Four Genders in Tsez

In addition, Tsez has four genders, that include a masculine class and a feminine class. But feminine isn’t only human females, but also contains objects that are flat or pointed. No one knows now, but papers, pencils, and women are in one class.

Sun rising over mountains
In Tsez, even the Sun has a gender and necessitates a different prefix for the verb following it. (Image: Kotenko Oleksandr/ Shutterstock)

Then there is a gender that has animals and other stuff, and another gender that just has a whole bunch of stuff. It’s kind of a grab bag. And the gender marker is not attached to the noun, but it’s attached to the verbs and the adjectives or the adverbs that are associated with the noun.

For example, a mother is usually feminine. So if you want to say that the mother was afraid, and the word for mother is eniy, then you say eniy and you put your y- gender marker before the word for afraid. So the mother was afraid of is eniy y–ˤuλ̶.

Then if it’s the sun, then it’s in the gender class where you use a b- prefix: buq b-ajnosithe sun rose. Then if the day warmed up, the ‘day’ is in the ‘grab bag’ class, that has an that you put before the verb. So tatanu ɣudi r-oqxo.

This is a transcript from the video series The  Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, Wondrium.

Then there’s another weird wrinkle. The gender markers only happen when the word begins with a vowel. So if the word begins with a consonant, the rule is that you leave it off. Now girl happens to be kid in Tsez. The phrase the girl knows is kid y-iys (with the y-).

But the girl believes is kid božizi yoq-xo. There is no y- because the following word begins with a consonant. So it has gender, but you only mark the gender when the following word begins with a vowel. This is a very complex language.

Irregular Case Markers in Tsez

Now, when that person tells you that all languages are equally complex, usually they don’t know anything about Tsez, and Tsez is part of a whole family of languages just like this. Clearly, there is something different here than in English although English is complex, too.

Tsez, of course, has case markers, too. But they tend to be very irregular. In English we have irregularities like ‘child’ and then ‘children’. We have ‘goose’ and ‘geese’ and ‘person’ and ‘people’, but there are only so many words like that.

But in Tsez, this kind of irregularity is a big commonplace. The word for fish is besuro. If you want to say that something belongs to the fish, if it is the fish’s, then it is besuros. If you want to talk about fishes, that’s besurobi. That’s a regular noun in Tsez. But regular nouns in Tsez are almost the exception.

Tongue is giri. The expression the tongue’s, like in the tongue’s surface, you might expect—from the experience with besuro and besuros—giris. But no, it’s girimos. That mos is just there and you have to know it. Then tongues should be (if fish is besurobigiribi. But instead, it’s girimabi. You just have to know. The word for water is ɬi. But then water’s is not ɬis but ɬās, for no reason. And then waters is ɬidabi. And lots and lots of nouns do that sort of thing. Of course, a Tsez speaker doesn’t think about it, but it makes it very difficult to learn the language.

Learn more about developments that lead to novel grammatical features.

Ergativity in Tsez

girl washing clothes by a river
Tsez makes distinctions on the basis of whether the subject – say, a girl – is just thinking or washing clothes. (Image: Poter_N/ Shutterstock)

Then Tsez has two different kinds of subject. On the one hand, if you say the girl washed the dress, the girl is really doing something. She’s bending over, washing that dress, and the dress comes out cleaner. But if you say the girl knows, she’s not really doing anything. There is no object.

So the girl knows is kid y-iys. But then, if the girl washes the dress, and washes the dress is ged esay-si, instead of kid ged esay-si, it’s kid-ba ged easy-si. That ba just means that she is a subject that is really doing something; really affecting something. That has to be marked and is called ergativity.

A great many languages in the world are ergative. This is another way in which languages overgrow. Obviously that’s not necessary, but it is something very common in the languages of the world, and Tsez has this.

So obviously, Tsez is a very, very complicated language. Yet, people speak this every day without effort. There are Tsez kids seven and eight years old, and for them none of this is at all difficult. This is what real languages are like. Tsez is a little extreme, but just a little, and a great many languages are like this.

Common Questions About Tsez

Q. Where is Tsez spoken?

Tsez is a language from the Caucasus region of Asia, in the mountains. Tsez is spoken by about 14,000 people, and is basically an oral language.

Q. How many genders does Tsez have?

Tsez has four genders: a masculine class and a feminine class. But feminine isn’t only women, but also objects that are flat or pointed. Then there is a gender that has animals and other stuff. Then there is another gender that just has a whole bunch of assorted stuff.

Q. How are case markers used in Tsez?

Tsez has case markers, but they tend to be very irregular. In Tsez, irregular case markers are a big commonplace. There are regular nouns in Tsez, but they are almost the exception.

Q. What is special about the subjects in Tsez?

Tsez is ergative; it has two kinds of subjects. When a subject performs an action upon an object, an additional suffix is used after the subject to indicate it.

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