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The world's most difficult language, again

Following up on the last post, I ran across yet another online stab at "the world's most difficult language".

The writer ends with a neutral "every language has something difficult", though he does menton Japanese in passing:

for japanese, the main thing that i found extremely difficult at first was suprisingly not the writing, but the multitude of ways one could say something. long ago, japan borrowed many words from china and now modern japanese has multiple ways of saying almost every word/morpheme depending on context. (so they are not synonyms). for example, the word for light is hikari and the word for year is toshi but light-year is kounen. hikari and toshi are native japanese while kou and nen are borrowed from china. however you could not say hikari-toshi. another example is the word for day...the other day is senJITSU, everyday is maiNICHI, mother's day is haha no HI, and today is kyoU. the capatilized part being the various pronounciations of "day". these are not interchangable so you have to learn each one on its own.

The writer has a point (if not a Shift or Caps key), regarding the multiple readings possible for a single Chinese character. But he expresses it somewhat confusedly.

"The multitude of ways to say something", as seen in the availability of Chinese-derived words and native Japanese words, is nothing special. It's the same thing as English's giant vocabulary of "native" Anglo-Saxon/Germanic words, and words taken from Latin (or Latin languages like French).

Using the author's own examples of "light" and "year", we have "native" English words like "brightness" and "yearly", and Latin-derived words like "luminosity" and "annual". It's pretty much the same thing as the use of "native" vs Chinese-derived words in Japanese, right down to the relative "feel" of the words: the "native" Japanese and English words commonly have a "down-home" feel, while their Chinese or Latin counterparts often carry a "high-falutin'" caché.

What the author means to relate is that the Japanese language will use the same Chinese character for both a Japanese and Chinese word, with no overt indication of which word the character is meant to transmit. In other words, the character 日 could be the Chinese-derived jitsu, or the native Japanese nichi. As the technical explanation goes, the character 日 might be read with its on (Chinese) reading or its kun (Japanese) reading.

To make matters more complex, the character could have multiple on or kun readings, just as 日 might take the kun reading nichi or hi. As well as other special readings: 今日 is pronounced kyou, something you won't get by knowing jitsu, nichi, or hi!

How do you learn the proper reading for any given appearance of 日? You'll develop a "sense" over time that helps, but overall, the answer is "memorize". 

Contrast that with English. Sure, you can find a mess of ways to label any given thing - consider "two", "duo/dual", "pair", "couple", "bi-", and so on for the concept of "two" - but each of those is obviously written differently, a big help for the reader.

In summary: There's nothing special about a "multitude of ways to say something", but multiple exclusive pronunciations for a single ideogram is a feature that makes a written language decidedly more complex to learn. (Important note: This is NOT a feature unique to Japanese! But it's a feature that's very heavily used in Japanese.)

A final bit from the writer:

in contrast, the grammar is not as irregular as european languages


but there is a lot more of it.

Huh? What the heck does that mean?

the writing which consists of two syllabaries (hiragana and katakana) and about 3000 logograms (kanji) are a lot to memorize but in themselves are not difficult.

Let me note in passing that multiple character sets is neither unusual nor particularly a difficulty. As for logograms, an estimate of about 3000 is a good one, I think; a literate reader of Japanese will know the basic 1945 joyo kanji, plus quite a few more used in personal names, place names, archaic and literary terms, old forms of basic characters, and so on. 

I will add that one doesn't often see a depiction of learning kanji as "not difficult"! If the writer finds them easy to learn, good on him. (Many students will be envious!)

last but not least...japanese has a very lengthy honorific system that takes a long time to learn.

No argument there!


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