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Balancing Acts

By Georgie O’Mara

One of my favourite hobbies is reading the Chinese translations of signs around my city. Mandarin, mostly. They’re not particularly common (sadly), and I don’t actually know how to read Chinese characters, but I have a thing for non-Latin scripts. Very mysterious. What secrets do they hold? A menu? A train timetable? I stare in wonder at these glyphs while my friends tap their feet impatiently, already four steps ahead of me. ‘You could just learn Chinese,’ they tell me, ‘if you’re so interested.’ I would very much like this, but I am not here to kid myself; language learning is, for me, a nigh-impossible task, and would certainly be a Mission Impossible for a language as complex as Mandarin. My friends look at the unfathomable characters and tell me I have a point. Of course, Chinese is very hard. We keep walking and the sign remains undeciphered.

It is a curious habit of humans, to categorise and rank languages in terms of their complexity. It’s almost innate, and aptly seen throughout European history. During the 19th century, literary languages like Ancient Greek and Latin were placed on pedestals, regarded as the best languages spoken by the best people – a marker of refined cognition and thought. Notions of Orientalism were also rife, spurring beliefs that Semitic languages were less ‘organic’, to quote philologist Edward Said, than those spoken within Europe – despite the fact that the latter were used prolifically throughout the entire Middle East. Classical Chinese, with its non-inflecting grammar, was once noted by linguist and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt as being an apt vehicle for conveying ideas, but inferior to inflecting languages like Latin, which could properly convey human thought.

Inherently, there is an obvious undertone here that connects language ‘complexity’ with its speakers’ cognitive processing capabilities, and this of course has led to much racial and ethnic bias throughout history. This is less salient today, and there is a general consensus that either a) all languages are equally complex, or b) they aren’t equally complex, but it doesn’t matter – every language can convey exactly what it needs to convey. That’s its purpose, after all.

One of the most baffling things about defining language complexity is that it is almost totally subjective, and anything can be marked as ‘complex’ if you want it to be. I do a cryptic crossword every morning, in preparation for my grandmotherly years. Many people find these too complicated because the clues are kind of funky; but each clue technically comprises two clues, so it actually provides double the amount of information from which to deduce the answer. Just because someone perceives something to be complex, does not necessarily meant they are correct. It’s based on what we already know and what is different to what we already know, and what we already perceive to be difficult. Whilst I may claim Mandarin is a difficult language to learn, I’m doubtful a native speaker of Cantonese would share that view.

But surely there must be some reason to class one language as more complex than another, right? Languages uncommon with click phonemes? Words that can go in any order? Scripts that look like tiny pictures? Letters that can be pronounced any number of ways (I’m looking at you, English vowels)? In blanket terms, yes. A language that has thirty consonants, for instance, will be more complex than a language with only, say, eleven consonants, simply because there’s more stuff to remember. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it any easier to quantify, because languages have a habit of balancing complex and simple structures within different parts of their grammar – sometimes even within the same part. Let’s take phonology, for example – the sounds of a language. We can consider a language with thirty consonants compared to one with eleven, like we saw before. We’ll call them Languages A and B, respectively. What if Language A only has three vowels, and Language B has five? What if Language A has tone distinctions? What if Language B has a lot of allophones – a sound that is realised a little differently depending on what surrounds it, but which is still perceived as the same sound? Suddenly it’s very difficult to crown Language A as more complex than Language B, even if we’re only looking at phonology. Imagine what’s going on in the rest of its grammar!

This is a jazzy little phenomenon called trade-off theory, and it’s at the core of our modern assumption that all languages are equally complex – every language system is just a big balancing act. This is something that’s easily overlooked when we classify one language as ‘harder’ than another, particularly for English speakers. For instance, highly-inflecting languages – those that use affixes instead of separate words to encode information – are often regarded as quite complex; they usually have pretty long words, and they come in a bunch of different forms depending on number, gender, case, as well as any number of other properties. What it does mean, however, is that you can sum up what would otherwise be a whole sentence in English – like “my dogs did not eat your shoes” – with only a few words in a language like Turkish – which would be köpeklerim ayakkabılarını yemedi. And this shorter sentence is, well, shorter, so naturally it’s quicker and easier to understand, even though internally it’s a little more complicated.

I like to consider the trade-offs in Mandarin Chinese before I decide whether or not I should tackle it. Obviously, the Chinese script is the first hurdle; it’s intricate, artistic and largely logographic – you can’t read them phonetically, but they also don’t usually resemble anything. Some, however, do resemble their meanings, like the characters for “up” 上 and “down” 下. The character 休, which means “rest”, is made up of the radicals for “person” 人 and “tree” 木, and it vaguely looks like a person sitting underneath a tree. Very relaxing. And in these sorts of characters, we see a trade-off between how hard they are to read or memorise and how much semantic information they’re automatically offering us.

The second hurdle for me is tone – phonemes in Mandarin are differentiated depending on whether you say them with a high pitch, a low pitch, or even a rising pitch. We don’t have this in English; it’s not a very easy phenomenon to pick up. Mandarin does, however, have a markedly simpler tense system than English; verbs aren’t inflected for past tense, for instance, and are instead marked by an adverb like “yesterday”. So, the energy one might spend on conjugating a verb can instead be redirected to ensuring the tone is correct, although of course this isn’t a conscious process. The brain works in mysterious ways.

The moral of the story is that there’s no fool-proof method of determining if one language is more complex than another, and whether you find it easier to learn is simply going to be based on what you already know. This is almost comforting to me – one day I might decipher those signs, and you’d best believe I’ll bask in the praise and admiration lauded to me for cracking such an intimidating code. After all, my friends don’t need to know about the balancing acts.

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