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How To Learn Sign Language

The Hardest Language To Spell

I have this dream of doing a spelling bee
on steroids. The contestants line up facing a wheel labeled with a bunch of the world’s
languages. Step right up, spin that wheel and, wherever it happens to land, you have
to read a word and write a word in that language’s native writing system. Whohooh! As a language nerd, there’s a lot
that intimidates me about this spelling bee. But I must confess there’s one maniacally
tough written language that I really hope this wheel never lands on. Wooh, I am excited! Let’s go through and list
why each one of these scripts has some tricky letters. And then at the end I will reveal
to you the language with the world’s scariest spelling! Number 10… wait, what was that? Come again?
This just in, but apparently someone else already answered my question. Uh, he swears
that the worst script ever is… Thai? Hmm. Really? I mean, I messed with Lao and
Thai a few years ago and, yeah, they weren’t super easy. But Thai?!? Ok, here’s his complaint. See, when a written
language grows up and gets old, the way people speak it changes over time, but the way people
write the language stays fossilized. The result is historical spelling. And Thai has some
blatant historical spelling. Not only is written Thai pretty old, but even when it was new
it modeled its letters on Sanskrit, so it inherited fossils from the get-go. Thai has an alphasyllabary with 44 consonant
letters for writing just 21 consonant sounds. Plus vowels and tone marks. Plus a complicated
way of figuring out how all of those letters work together to tell you which tone to pronounce
on which vowel. Yeah… But I think this missed the point: what is
it about historical spelling that makes a script tough? Consider two people. First, the reader. (Won’t
you consider the reader?) A script is hard when I don’t know which sound to say for the
letters I’m about to read. And for the writer, this script is hard if I don’t know which
letters to use for the sounds I want to write. Now glance back at Thai. There’s something
regular and predictable about it. Especially for the reader. We can sum it up in a not-too-long
page on Wikipedia, we can dust our hands off and set you loose on the language and you
should do fairly well. In fact, I think of Thai spelling as not too
different from Greek in a way. A bunch of letters come together to represent a smaller
set of sounds. It’s that same many-to-one correspondence. Uh, also, like Thai, some
sounds influenced others in predictable ways. And, yeah, there aren’t those Thai tones to
deal with, but you’re stuck with the Greek tónos system with its movable accents and
double accents based on how pitch and vowel length used to work way back in Ancient Athens! No. No. No! Don’t fear Thai, my friend. Look
elsewhere. It’s got mountains. It’s got Lamas. It’s got
Buddhists talking dhamma! Welcome to Tibet. History tells us that Tibetans have this guy
to thank for writing: Songtsen Gampo. Pardon the spelling there, heheh. Sneak preview.
He brought kingdoms together to form the vast Tibetan Empire. He said, “Hey guys, we’re
Buddhist now!” And around the year 630 he sent a young minister to India to learn how
to write. What he brought back from India was a new
alphasyllabary. Just like Thai. They both emphasize consonants and surround them with
vowels. They both came with Buddhism, so both have special conventions for transcribing
sacred Sanskrit terms. And, nowadays, they both have to deal with tones in convoluted
ways they weren’t designed to handle. But written Tibetan is much, much older. Here’s
the basics. You start with the base consonants with their built-in dummy vowels. Then you
learn to write vowels and w’s and r’s and y’s as little flags on the consonants. But
it gets even more exotic. Tibetan can stack consonants. It can flip consonants. It can
clunk together masses of consonants to build syllables that look like this. This is how Tibetans spell these words…
and this is how they say them. Did that sink in for you? This is what people are reading.
This is what people are saying. This tangled mess of consonants is why Yeti
“yache” is spelled gya’-dred, why the Tibetan language is “y˧˥˧ʔ” even though it’s really
dbus, and this, the name for this Klingon-looking beauty that is the Tibetan script, how do
you think it’s pronounced? Any clue? Time’s up! It’s “utɕɛ̃”. If you think reading with these letters is
hard, you should try writing with them. In Lhasa, the sounds “tup” might mean any of
these words: it might mean “overflows”, “accomplishes”, “sews” or even other forms of the verb “accomplish”
like “accomplished” and “will accomplish”. But guess what? Those are all spelled differently. The puzzles don’t stop. Take two words with
very similar spelling. The one spelled “grags” gets pronounced “tha”. And “grogs”? Why, that’s
“rɔ”. Give up yet? Well, there is some logic here.
Here’s the deal. Tibetan has core letters, it has vowels around those core letters and
then outside letters. Once you grasp that basic fact, you can start
figuring out which letters to ignore. Like in this verb that looks like “bsags”, b- is
a prefix and the -s is a suffix, so you can just concentrate on getting these middle letters
right. “Sak”… maybe. Ok, and now you’re thinking, I get it! It’s the
vowel and some other letters in the middle of the syllable I care about. I can just ignore
everything else. BAM! I’m Tibetan! Dangerous strategy there. For two reasons.
Number one: you need to know which letters not to ignore. And reason number two? Well you can’t just
drop letters and walk away like that. Tibetan has a complicated relationship where letters
influence the pronunciation of other letters. Meaning a silent letter can still change the
way other letters get pronounced! So the name of one of the major schools of
Tibetan Buddhism is written like this. We might innocently cross out all of these sounds
and say something like “ka-kyu”. But that “u” actually sounds like the German “üüü”
there. It acts that way because of the final d that’s after it: “kacyː˥˥”. Lucky you though,
“u” to “ü” isn’t the only vowel change that works this way and “d” isn’t the only consonant
that triggers it. So you’re dropping letters here. You’re influencing
letters with ghost letters. And sometimes you’re not even just dropping and influencing,
you’re finding out that clusters of letters interact together to create totally different
sounds. Complex patterns! It’s all complex patterns! Now things ratchet up another notch when you
put syllables together. Sometimes you’ll find a letter that’s silent, like say silent r
before another consonant in the word “tɕeː˩˧”. So you might cross it out and then forget
about it, just to have it suddenly pop out when you smash it against another syllable.
Like in this name. Keep every little bit of this in mind when
you run crying to your Tibetan dictionary for help, because the Tibetan idea of alphabetical
order is not organizing words by the first letter. No, no, no. They use that root letter,
wherever it happens to be. Why do you do this, Tibet? Science… says that, being a high-altitude
mountain people, Tibetans have physiological advantages like increased bloodflow to the
brain. Maybe they’re spending that power on this bizarre writing system. But, honestly,
they did try to get rid of this bad spelling karma. Really, Old Tibetan got a spelling
reform in the year 800! And then, well, that… that was it. 1200 years ago. Think of what’s happened in
1200 years. The Viking Age. The Norman conquest of England. Everything ever written in Thai.
The last Mayan codices. Chaucer. Shakespeare. The Tokugawa Shogunate. These are current
events compared to the last time Tibet changed its spelling. That is some serious historical spelling.
And it’s why, when I’m standing there watching the wheel clack, clack, clack around deciding
my fate in that multilingual spelling bee, I really, really hope that wheel doesn’t land
on Tibetan. Assuming we’re thinking spelling means segmental
scripts, ones where we’re matching letters to sounds. But I’m going step out of the bounds
of this gameshow here, because, if we color outside the mandala lines, Tibetan isn’t even
the worst offender when it comes to historical, ahem, “spelling”. There’s a written language
that plays much faster and looser with its symbols and expects way more of readers and
writers than Tibetan ever could. Thanks for joining me in my spelling bee.
I really liked having you here! Stick around and subscribe for language. I’m Tibetan on you!

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