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Thread: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard

  1. #1 Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard 
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    I was once at a luncheon with three Ph.D. students in the Chinese Department at Peking University, all native Chinese (one from Hong Kong). I happened to have a cold that day, and was trying to write a brief note to a friend canceling an appointment that day. I found that I couldn't remember how to write the character 嚔, as in da penti 打喷嚔 "to sneeze". I asked my three friends how to write the character, and to my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the "Harvard of China". Can you imagine three Ph.D. students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word "sneeze"?? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China. English is simply orders of magnitude easier to write and remember."

    by David Moser
    University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies
    http://www.pinyin.info/readings/texts/moser.html


    I'm learning Mandarin(Chinese), Chinese shares very little vocabulary with European languages...


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  3. #2  
    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    I've learned some Mandarin myself. I have nothing but total disgust for the language. It's by no means as bad as Hindi, which has sounds so indiscernible from one another you can't make out words without knowing them...Mandarin has four pronunciations for every vowel. These are so indistinct that, in casual conversation, nobody but a highly skilled Mandarin speaker can know the difference. This problem is made even WORSE by the fact each individual pronunciation is a completely different word on its own.

    I hate languages with this bullshit, I hate the use of shit marks on vowels to make a complex system that much worse, I hate poor vocalization, and most of all I hate Kanji. It would seem that, no matter how hard I look, Latin and English are the only languages where pronunciation is clear and simplistic. Unsurprisingly, Latin is the only other language I know as a result. Excluding about 50 or so words from a dozen other languages.


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    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    It would seem that, no matter how hard I look, Latin and English are the only languages where pronunciation is clear and simplistic.
    English? You must be joking. Among languages using the Latin alphabet, English is one of the very few where monolingual dictionaries have to include pronounciation (written in weird phonetical marks), or else, upon reading a word for the first time, you wouldn't have a clue how to pronounce it.

    How come "bow" is pronounced differently depending on whether it means a respectful greeting, a part of a ship, or an arrow-shooting weapon? Why does "i" sound so different in "bit" and "bite"? Why does the "gh" in "cough" not sound the same as in "ghost"? The list goes on. Mark Twain poked fun at the system by challenging his fellow native speakers of English to pronounce "GHOTI". Nobody guessed it was his way to spell "fish" - "GH" for [f] as in "enouGH", "O" for [i] as in "wOmen", and "TI" for [sh] as in "staTIon".

    We unfortunate students of English as a foreign language have in fact to learn two languages, or at least two sets of words: written and spoken. Don't tell me it's clear and "simplistic" (whatever, in this context, it might mean other than "simple").

    Give me the Italian pronounciation, or Spanish, or even German any time. My native Polish has sounds that sprain foreign learners' tongues, but at least you know which sound you should try to make upon seeing a particular combinaiton of letters.

    So there.
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
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  5. #4  
    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    Cute, and I deny none of it, but English is still better. That says something about other languages. English has problems with arbitrary rules that make no sense, and this includes pronunciation rules, but at least it's clear and distinct. I again must point out that Hindi is the exact opposite.

    As for German, I found it too much like English to bother learning. Italian is, as a language, falling apart due to the new generation. More and more words are being deprecated in favor of something like "net speak", to a point where I found learning it to be useless. And I know some Italians that have told me this. Spanish? Ahahahaha. We're back to shit marks. No.

    Incidentally, while you may bitch about some exceptional cases, the majority of English words follow basic pronunciation rules. To argue this is simply incorrect, as I know many people that have English as a second language and pronounce most words fine first try.
    Om mani padme hum

    "In dishonorable things we are not bound to obey any man." - The Book of the Courtier [1561], pg 99 (144 in pdf)
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  6. #5  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Cute, and I deny none of it, but English is still better. That says something about other languages. English has problems with arbitrary rules that make no sense, and this includes pronunciation rules, but at least it's clear and distinct. I again must point out that Hindi is the exact opposite.
    English is better than what? Than Hindi? I'm not arguing that because I don't know a thing about Hindi. As for (Mandarin) Chinese, I suppose a Chinaman is as perplexed about our (pan-European) distinction between the consonants [R] and [L] as you are by his four different tones.

    English is better in what respect? Better for/to whom? Any language sounds "clear and distinct" to its own native speakers, and to speakers of languages that share the same sounds. But rest assured, Polish kids get furious and demotivated when their English teachers try to explain how the "th" in "the" should be pronounced. I suppose so do their German, French, and Russian peers. Hey miss, there is no such sound!

    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Italian is, as a language, falling apart due to the new generation. More and more words are being deprecated in favor of something like "net speak", to a point where I found learning it to be useless. And I know some Italians.
    Funny, I had the same experience trying to speak English to young English (whereupon their - also English - teacher exhorted them to speak correct English for a change). And I was not nearly the first to have this experience. To put it in the unforgettable words of Professor Henry Higgins: use proper English - you're regarded as a freak. Why can't the English learn to speak?
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
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  7. #6  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    English is better than what? Than Hindi? I'm not arguing that because I don't know a thing about Hindi. As for (Mandarin) Chinese, I suppose a Chinaman is as perplexed about our (pan-European) distinction between the consonants [R] and [L] as you are by his four different tones.
    Than any language listed so far.

    English is better in what respect? Better for/to whom? Any language sounds "clear and distinct" to its own native speakers, and to speakers of languages that share the same sounds. But rest assured, Polish kids get furious and demotivated when their English teachers try to explain how the "th" in "the" should be pronounced. I suppose so do their German, French, and Russian peers. Hey miss, there is no such sound!
    I am not biased in this matter, as the grand majority of people I know online speak English as a second language. Some of them are forgetting their own language in favor of English, mostly Estonians and Finnish (yay, 40 character words!), and I get input from them. Due to the amount of languages I've learned a little of, and became semi-fluent in, I think my general experience is a good indicator of how clear something sounds. As my acquaintances often agree with me, I'm led to believe my ears are correct.

    As for how it's better, I did list a short explanation. Like Latin it's simple, barring rule "exceptions" that should not exist, and you need only know basic grammar rules to make coherent sentences. You can in no way try to type "This cat is brown" and get "Dog eats your mom", as you can in Chinese. Furthermore, pronunciation is very clear and distinct, though maybe not from written form. Although certain English accents are clearer than others.

    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Funny, I had the same experience trying to speak English to young English (whereupon their - also English - teacher exhorted them to speak correct English for a change). And I was not nearly the first to have this experience. To put it in the unforgettable words of Professor Henry Higgins: use proper English - you're regarded as a freak. Why can't the English learn to speak?
    This is true, and I love "my fair lady". More specifically, why can't the English teach their children how to speak. I've refused to associate with any dullard that does not speak an already simple language properly. Fact is, Italian is having a tougher time at this than English...at the moment.
    Om mani padme hum

    "In dishonorable things we are not bound to obey any man." - The Book of the Courtier [1561], pg 99 (144 in pdf)
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  8. #7  
    Forum Professor marcusclayman's Avatar
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    The ability to differentiate sounds that you cannot, makes someone the speaker of a lesser language?
    Dick, be Frank.

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  9. #8  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    English is better than what?
    Than any language listed so far.
    Joseph Stalin reportedly claimed Russian is the best of languages, for any purpose...



    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    English is better in what respect? Better for/to whom? Any language sounds "clear and distinct" to its own native speakers, and to speakers of languages that share the same sounds.
    I am not biased in this matter, as the grand majority of people I know online speak English as a second language. Some of them are forgetting their own language in favor of English, mostly Estonians and Finnish (yay, 40 character words!), and I get input from them. Due to the amount of languages I've learned a little of, and became semi-fluent in, I think my general experience is a good indicator of how clear something sounds. As my acquaintances often agree with me, I'm led to believe my ears are correct.
    (...)
    Furthermore, pronunciation is very clear and distinct(...)
    I understand English is your mother tongue, or possibly your second language learned at an early age (such as moving to the UK or US at 9). If so, you _are_ biased in its favour because your auditive cortex has been trained, if not "hardwired", to distinguish the sounds spoken English is composed of. This is why it sounds so "clear" to you, and to your ESL-speaking friends.

    A more impartial judge would be someone who has learned English as one of many foreign languages, preferably coming from a "neutral" background in the sense that his mother tongue is "equally dissimilar" (by whatever measure) from all of them. How about a Pole who has learned English, French, German and Italian as foregin languages? I do not count Russian because it is closely related to Polish. Now in my experience and perception, English sounds the least clear, although the relationship between the spelling and the pronounciation is arguably even more messy in French.

    On the other hand, I fully agree the English grammar is very logical, if not always simple.
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
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  10. #9  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard i_feel_tiredsleepy's Avatar
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    I don't find French all that difficult to pronounce, although the Parisians with their ridiculous lilting pronunciation doesn't help anything.

    Edit: Of course my parents taught me both French and English as a child and I attended school in French until secondary school. We become habituated to languages we are exposed to as a child.
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  11. #10  
    Reptile Dysfunction drowsy turtle's Avatar
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    I've always found German the easiest to pronounce. Read it as it's written, and you're away.
    "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair." ~ Douglas Adams
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  12. #11  
    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    Joseph Stalin reportedly claimed Russian is the best of languages, for any purpose...
    groan. How fucking dare you, sir. How fucking dare you conflate my objective analysis to the self absorbed ramblings of a tyrant. Chances are Stalin didn't consider the science, or the opinions of those who learned Russian as a second language, or anything at all. Latin and greek are responsible for the creation of new words, for example, not Russian. Nice indicator there. Also? Russian has shit marks.

    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    I understand English is your mother tongue, or possibly your second language learned at an early age (such as moving to the UK or US at 9). If so, you _are_ biased in its favour because your auditive cortex has been trained, if not "hardwired", to distinguish the sounds spoken English is composed of. This is why it sounds so "clear" to you, and to your ESL-speaking friends.
    Nice try, but no. I'm gifted with learning languages and distinguishing sounds, which is why I've "dabbled" in so many so quickly with the proper accent. Japanese, for example, is almost completely different from English, but I can understand the difference between most words just by listening. It's a vocal language, where sounds are (mostly) distinct from one another. On the other hand, can anyone distinguish words in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZA1NoOOoaNw

    As for my "ESL" friends, most of them learned English recently. Being biased toward your language at a young age is the average, but it's not something I've had a problem with.

    A more impartial judge would be someone who has learned English as one of many foreign languages, preferably coming from a "neutral" background in the sense that his mother tongue is "equally dissimilar" (by whatever measure) from all of them. How about a Pole who has learned English, French, German and Italian as foregin languages? I do not count Russian because it is closely related to Polish. Now in my experience and perception, English sounds the least clear, although the relationship between the spelling and the pronounciation is arguably even more messy in French.
    The majority of people I know, combined with my own analysis, disagrees completely. If you care to check phonetic charts, it's obvious how you're wrong. Most letters and sounds, interpreted phonetically, sound completely different from one another, which allows for sounds to be very distinct. Best yet, this allows for words to be easily differentiated with little to no training.

    Here's another tip for you: I hate English. In fact, in truth, I hate all languages I've heard. I simply hate English least. I've often thought of inventing my own language that's constructed in a logical, possibly mathematical, manner. All sounds would be COMPLETELY distinct from one another, all words would hard (for example, "g" would not exist), and grammar rules would be concise and simple as humanly possible. It enrages me that no language has these features.

    Quote Originally Posted by Drowsy Turtle
    I've always found German the easiest to pronounce. Read it as it's written, and you're away.
    This is true, for the most part, and it made me seriously consider German. Where it falls apart, though, is the use of "ß", and it's stagnation (I prefer English because it's easy to form neologisms). Its sounds are also less distinct than English, even examining the phonetic chart, and begins to progress toward "sounding like you have a mouth full of shit" in casual conversation. I hate Dutch for the same reason.
    Om mani padme hum

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  13. #12  
    Reptile Dysfunction drowsy turtle's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Quote Originally Posted by Drowsy Turtle
    I've always found German the easiest to pronounce. Read it as it's written, and you're away.
    This is true, for the most part, and it made me seriously consider German. Where it falls apart, though, is the use of "ß", and it's stagnation (I prefer English because it's easy to form neologisms).
    It can be replaced with "ss" instead, and is most often written so more recently.

    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Its sounds are also less distinct than English, even examining the phonetic chart, and begins to progress toward "sounding like you have a mouth full of shit" in casual conversation. I hate Dutch for the same reason.
    Strange, I thought German was quite clear. I would have said something similar to what you said about French, to be honest.
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    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    It does depend on how it's accented, this I'll admit, but the majority of Dutch and German I've heard sounds...muffled. Words are (mostly) distinctive, but the speech feels rather constrained. Its liberal use of softer sounds in words (from what I've seen) seems to be to blame. As I said, though, I seriously considered German. If I had to learn another language, that's the one I would choose.

    And yes, you're right, French does deserve the "talking with shit" label more than German.
    Om mani padme hum

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    Forum Freshman Incoming Dessert's Avatar
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    The useful thing about English is that it's a mishmash of many European languages, based in Latin, and so it's not too difficult to learn. It's also got fairly easy grammar, with no genders and no rearranging the sentence to make it work. However, as mentioned before, because English is such a mishmash, it's also got a lot of anomalies, which each have to be learned individually. Personally, I prefer English as a language, but then I'm biased of course. It's also a very useful language to learn, as there are a vast amount of English speakers in the world, and a number of powerful nations have it as a first language.
    The wise man believes half of what he reads. If he knew which half to believe, he'd be a much wiser man.
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  16. #15  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    Joseph Stalin reportedly claimed Russian is the best of languages, for any purpose...
    groan. How fucking dare you, sir. How fucking dare you conflate my objective analysis to the self absorbed ramblings of a tyrant. Chances are Stalin didn't consider the science, or the opinions of those who learned Russian as a second language, or anything at all. Latin and greek are responsible for the creation of new words, for example, not Russian. Nice indicator there. Also? Russian has shit marks.
    I didn't mean to attribute to you any of the monstrous characteristics of JVS; my apologies if I sounded that way. I was just citing an anecdotal case of a person perceiving his own language as the best. As you cited your own experience, I made (and, I admit, rather brutally drove home) the point that a native speaker's experience will naturally be biased towards their mother tongue.

    As an unrelated side note, I am not sure if Russian was Stalin's first language or second (after Georgian).

    I don't quite get the point about creating new worlds. The Roman and Greek civilizations did, but to what extent did their languages contribute to this creation?

    What do you mean by "shit marks"? I am no big fan (to put it mildly) of the Russian empire at any stage of its history, but I like the language.


    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Now in my experience and perception, English sounds the least clear, although the relationship between the spelling and the pronounciation is arguably even more messy in French.
    The majority of people I know, combined with my own analysis, disagrees completely. If you care to check phonetic charts, it's obvious how you're wrong. Most letters and sounds, interpreted phonetically, sound completely different from one another, which allows for sounds to be very distinct. Best yet, this allows for words to be easily differentiated with little to no training.
    Easily differentiated by whom? Is there a truly objective measure of difference between sounds, independent of a listener's background?




    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    I've often thought of inventing my own language that's constructed in a logical, possibly mathematical, manner. All sounds would be COMPLETELY distinct from one another, all words would hard (for example, "g" would not exist), and grammar rules would be concise and simple as humanly possible. It enrages me that no language has these features.
    An artificial and more or less logically structured language is Esperanto, but I am not sure its creator approached phonetics with any level of scientific method. Anyway, like it or not, none of us is likely to live to see the demise of English as the de facto global language.

    Also, why do you see "g" as evil? Do you meen the "g" as in "go" or as in "gene"?

    Later,
    Leszek
    (going offline soon, for the weekend)
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
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  17. #16  
    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    I didn't mean to attribute to you any of the monstrous characteristics of JVS; my apologies if I sounded that way. I was just citing an anecdotal case of a person perceiving his own language as the best. As you cited your own experience, I made (and, I admit, rather brutally drove home) the point that a native speaker's experience will naturally be biased towards their mother tongue.
    Bias is excluded in scenarios where knowledge is prevalent over ignorance. I am an avid study of other languages, due to my desire to seek the best one. I believe if my language was anything other than English, the result would be the same. The only thing you have done to counter this explanation is compare me to a blind raving lunatic that had no such experience or knowledge.

    I don't quite get the point about creating new worlds. The Roman and Greek civilizations did, but to what extent did their languages contribute to this creation?
    The Sapire-Whorf hypothesis, now known as Linguistic Relativity, is exactly why the creation of new words takes precedence.

    What do you mean by "shit marks"? I am no big fan (to put it mildly) of the Russian empire at any stage of its history, but I like the language.
    My (incredibly uncreative and pejorative) term for diacritics.

    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Easily differentiated by whom? Is there a truly objective measure of difference between sounds, independent of a listener's background?
    Yes, the human ear. Contrasts between each sound in a word, and alphabet, produce the easiest understanding. For example, use this simplified alphabet, and see the remarkable difference in how easy it is to HEAR words:

    A B D E F H I J K L M N O P R S T U V Y Z

    Replacing "C" with "K", "G" with "J", "Q" with "K", "W" with "V", "X" with "Z". There are still soft sounds present, but further removals would deprecate vast amounts of English words. Just by replacing some, and deprecating duplicates, the system is made even more clear and simpler.

    If I made my own language, though, it would be composed of a smaller alphabet with wildly contrasting sounds, so as to make mishearing impossible, and spelling fully phonetic.

    Also, why do you see "g" as evil? Do you meen the "g" as in "go" or as in "gene"?
    It is the perfect example of a soft sound (g as in "go" or "ing") that needs replacing with a hard one, namely "j".
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  18. #17  
    Forum Ph.D. Leszek Luchowski's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    I believe if my language was anything other than English, the result would be the same. The only thing you have done to counter this explanation is compare me to a blind raving lunatic that had no such experience or knowledge.
    Your belief in your own impartiality is hardly scientific evidence.


    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    I don't quite get the point about creating new worlds. The Roman and Greek civilizations did, but to what extent did their languages contribute to this creation?
    The Sapire-Whorf hypothesis, now known as Linguistic Relativity, is exactly why the creation of new words takes precedence.
    We were discussing the clarity of the phoneme systems of languages, not their semantic matrices, which is something completely different.



    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    What do you mean by "shit marks"? I am no big fan (to put it mildly) of the Russian empire at any stage of its history, but I like the language.
    My (incredibly uncreative and pejorative) term for diacritics.
    Which Greek has but Russian has not (the two dots over the E can only be found in some books for children or foreign learners).



    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    Easily differentiated by whom? Is there a truly objective measure of difference between sounds, independent of a listener's background?
    Yes, the human ear. Contrasts between each sound in a word, and alphabet, produce the easiest understanding. For example, use this simplified alphabet, and see the remarkable difference in how easy it is to HEAR words:

    A B D E F H I J K L M N O P R S T U V Y Z

    Replacing "C" with "K", "G" with "J", "Q" with "K", "W" with "V", "X" with "Z". There are still soft sounds present, but further removals would deprecate vast amounts of English words. Just by replacing some, and deprecating duplicates, the system is made even more clear and simpler.
    The human ear differentiates nothing because there is no such _thing_ as the human ear. Unless you can cite tests done on unborn children of dumb (I mean speechless, not stupid) mothers, everybody's auditive cortex has been trained to discern the sounds of the language that was spoken around them in their childhood, possibly including the in utero period.

    You are asking me to use my own ear to judge your alphabet. Now my ear is Polish; ask a man from the Middle East (a speaker of either Hebrew or Arabic), and he will tell you "B" and "V" are two subtle nuances of essentially the same consonant. Ask an Asian, and he will be astonished that you keep both R and L, which, to him, are anything but clearly differentiable.

    Also, if you mean the letters of your alphabet to stand for sounds, and given that we are discussing in English, you would need to add some comments to each of the vowel letters - sadly, A, E, I, O, U and Y all have several possible pronounciations in this language.



    Quote Originally Posted by Darius
    If I made my own language, though, it would be composed of a smaller alphabet with wildly contrasting sounds, so as to make mishearing impossible, and spelling fully phonetic.

    Also, why do you see "g" as evil? Do you meen the "g" as in "go" or as in "gene"?
    It is the perfect example of a soft sound (g as in "go" or "ing") that needs replacing with a hard one, namely "j".
    Jood idea.

    (OK, if you create your own language, you will not be "replacing" G with anything, any more that ancient Romans "replaced" cannon with arcaballistas. You will just not use it to begin with).
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  19. #18  
    Forum Ph.D. Darius's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leszek Luchowski
    Your belief in your own impartiality is hardly scientific evidence.
    Your belief in my own partiality is hardly scientific evidence.

    Which Greek has but Russian has not (the two dots over the E can only be found in some books for children or foreign learners).
    That would explain a few things.

    The human ear differentiates nothing because there is no such _thing_ as the human ear. Unless you can cite tests done on unborn children of dumb (I mean speechless, not stupid) mothers, everybody's auditive cortex has been trained to discern the sounds of the language that was spoken around them in their childhood, possibly including the in utero period.
    The statement was that the human ear is hardwired to hear contrasting sounds better than sounds that are very similar. This is true even on an empirical basis, for contrasting sounds often have completely different wave lengths and structures. In this sense there is most certainly a standard for the human ear: Contrasting sounds are favored, due to how simple they are to distinguish.

    You are asking me to use my own ear to judge your alphabet. Now my ear is Polish; ask a man from the Middle East (a speaker of either Hebrew or Arabic), and he will tell you "B" and "V" are two subtle nuances of essentially the same consonant. Ask an Asian, and he will be astonished that you keep both R and L, which, to him, are anything but clearly differentiable.
    How "B" and "V" are pronounced is quite different. One requires the lips together, as in "ba", and is completely "explosive". "v", on the other hand, leaks some air out while pronouncing "v", and requires your teeth. If I were to pick one, it would likely be "b", as it's even more clear than "v", but English pronunciation distinguishes between the two quite clearly. As evidence of this, try analyzing "va" and "ba" in an audio recorder (like Audacity).

    Speaking of "R" and "L", they are very similar, but I originally kept them in order to better distinguish between English words (Read vs. Lead). I favor "L", to be honest, because it can be continually pronounced clearly by a simple movement of the tongue. "R" is harder, by comparison.
    Om mani padme hum

    "In dishonorable things we are not bound to obey any man." - The Book of the Courtier [1561], pg 99 (144 in pdf)
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