September Pieces Of My Mind #1

  • Learned a neat German expression: Eier kraulen, lit. "to fondle the eggs", means "to fondle someone's testicles", that is, "to stroke a man's ego".
  • Lithuanian plumbers put the hot water to the right even though the colour coding on the taps is the reverse.
  • This Romanian researcher thinks that the Yamnaya Culture is an ancient "people" that can be identified in graves by a combination of archaeological data, genetic markers and radiocarbon dates. This is backwards. The Yamnaya Culture is a modern analytical entity resting entirely on archaeological data. No genetic data can prove or disprove that a burial belongs to it. Typical Eastern Europan ethno obsession.
  • My conference session went well except the computer couldn't display PDF files. So I had to give a talk without manuscript, rehearsal or visuals. I think I did OK though.
  • The family has gone full Chinese while I was away. Not a single table knife in the dishwasher, though plenty of spoons and chopsticks.
  • Translationale Magnetresonanztomographie
  • Buttons are already coming loose from my new Lithuanian linen shirt. /-:
  • Rode a Dash 8 Q-400 to Vilnius and back. Napped.
  • Turns out that this weird hippie bran I've been putting into my bread (to get rid of it after my wife lost culinary interest in it, sigh) isn't just bran. It's psyllium seed husk: mucilaginous anti-constipation bran. No wonder my bread has been like a wet sponge lately.
  • My buddy gave me some of the venerable yeast levain he's been keeping alive over years of baking. I have now arranged a cage fight between it and the humble spontaneous sourdough I make on the kitchen counter for flavour in the days before each baking night. Those are some pretty confused microbes right now.
  • Cousin E teaches me Chinese middle-school English. "Recite" means to study or do homework, as in "recite maths". "Nerd" means someone who focuses entirely on work and has no hobbies. Cousin E, who is passionate about maths and video games and is not into sports, was very surprised to learn that I consider him a fellow nerd.
  • Had a nice sunny sailing trip and then a swim in Lake Lundsjön on 10 September. Both may be the latest in the year that I've done.

More like this

Learned a neat German expression: Eier kraulen, lit. “to fondle the eggs”, means “to fondle someone’s testicles”, that is, “to stroke a man’s ego”.

For some reason, I have only, errm, encountered the literal sense. :-)

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 14 Sep 2016 #permalink

@2: Let's not forget Snoopy's contribution to the field:

Joe Anthro was an authority on Egyptian and Babylonian culture. His greatest accomplishment, however, was his famous work on the Throat culture.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 14 Sep 2016 #permalink

Greg Laden says " I would like people who pass this cartoon around to make a brief statement, like, “I hear the prehistory is oversimplified a bit, but this makes a great point about climate change”

By birgerjohansson (not verified) on 14 Sep 2016 #permalink

There are specific Y haplogroup subgroups, R1a and R1b, that have been identified in remains associated with Yamnaya culture burials at very high frequency, which have not been identified with previous cultures or other cultures during the same period. So these 'genetic markers' have come to be associated with the Yamnaya culture. I'm not professionally qualified to say whether that is getting things backwards or not, but I can see how people have arrived at regarding individuals with one of these subgroups as belonging to the Yamnaya 'people'.

It is possible to identify specific Y haplogroup subgroups and specific mt DNA haplogroup subgroups as being 'Australian Aboriginal' - I'm pretty sure about that. They have been identified in living people, ancient remains, showing genetic continuity over a very long time span, and those subgroups have not been identified in any other people, either living people or ancient remains.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

My complaint with that scholar's presentation was twofold.

Firstly, an archaeological culture is defined by material culture. I can't identify haplogroups on the strength of arrowheads. Geneticists can't identify archaeological culture on the strength of DNA.

Secondly, the Yamnaya culture is too widespread and too long-lived to represent a single integrated ethnic group. It's not "a people".

By 'ancient remains', I'm talking about 37,000 years old, and living people, both carrying the identical genetic signatures.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

It depends on how widely and at what frequency those genetic markers were distributed, and whether people who carried it were endogamous, doesn't it? I don't know what you mean here by 'ethnic' and what defines a 'people', its material culture or its genes.

Sub-Saharan Africans have been pretty long lived and pretty widespread, but most people have no difficulty in identifying them as Africans, albeit with very substantial genetic substructure. They certainly don't represent a single integrated ethnic group, but can be readily identified as Sub-Saharan African by their genes - more, they can be identified as coming from a particular part of Africa.

It depends on whether you regard Africans as 'a people' or not.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

When steppe herders migrated into/across Europe, I was kind of careful to label them descendants of Yamnaya, rather than Yamnaya, because they carried the R1a and R1b haplogroups that have come to be very strongly associated with the remains of people associated with Yamanaya archæological remains. But you're saying that's wrong, because there were no Yamnaya 'people'. Well, OK, but there were people with genetic signatures at very high frequency whose remains were associated with Yamnaya material culture.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

"Ethnicity", as the term is used in academic anthropology, resides entirely in a person's mind.

If there's any continent on Earth whose inhabitants are most definitely not one people, then it's Africa! It's got the genetically most diverse human population there is. But John knows that in much greater detail than I do.

Martin@11 - Yes, indeed. They are typically contrasted with Native Americans, who exhibit the least genetic diversity. But it seems from a recent paper that the Danes are so genetically homogeneous that they might challenge Native Americans for having the least genetic diversity. Hard to imagine, but in fact modern Europeans as a whole exhibit relatively little genetic diversity.

Coincidentally, I was reading this morning that there is very strong genetic evidence of a very large back migration of people from Eurasia into Africa about 3,000 years ago. This is noted most significantly in the genes of modern East Africans, most notably in Ethiopian highlanders, but the back migration was so large that it is estimated that all living Africans carry at least 5% ancestry from this back migration. That's huge.

The other thing I read recently is the theory that R1a (Corded Ware) were Indo-European speakers and R1b (Bell Beaker) were Vasconic speakers - R1b occurs at particularly high frequency among Basques. So the idea is that the Basques were Indo-Iranian speakers who acquired a Vasconic language is the wrong way round, and that it was the rest of the Bell Beaker people who lost Vasconic language and acquired Indo-European languages. I realise I'm breaking all kinds of logical rules with that statement, but I have been infected with the disease of associating genetic signatures with certain material cultures and linguistic groups.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

I forgot to add that the back migration of grain growing Eurasians into Africa is what might have kicked off the Bantu expansion - have farming, will expand population and travel.

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

John@13: I have heard that the people of Iceland have a particularly low diversity, between having settled that island from Scandinavia and then being isolated for hundreds of years. There is apparently even an app for Icelanders to find out if the person they are trying to hook up with is a third cousin or some such relation--the population is sufficiently inbred that even third cousin marriages are risky. And since Iceland retains to this day a strict rule of patronymic surnames (e.g., sometime SB author Steinn Sigurdsson is literally the son of a man named Sigurd, and if his daughters had been born in Iceland, their surname would be Steinnsdottir, i.e., Steinn's daughter), it can be particularly hard to realize that somebody is a relative.

I'm not sure I buy the part about low diversity among the Danes. Modern Denmark is a peninsula plus a bunch of islands, true, but until the mid 19th century what is today the German state of Schleswig-Holstein was part of Denmark.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

"until the mid 19th century what is today the German state of Schleswig-Holstein was part of Denmark"

So? Do you think that the people of Schleswig-Holstein are that different, genetically, from Danes?

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

"I have heard that the people of Iceland have a particularly low diversity, between having settled that island from Scandinavia and then being isolated for hundreds of years."

I remember a study which showed that Icelanders are most closely related to Irish---probably because of slaves.

A ruling class does not imply that the ruled people are similar genetically. Probably not that many Anglo-Saxons came to England, which is probably why many English people (especially children) are immediately recognizable as such. It was just one generation between Canute the Great and William the Conqueror. Did the Northmen learn French in a generation?

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

I think the norse in Normandy arrived a couple of generations earlier.

By birgerjohansson (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

Eric@15 -…

"Denmark presented genomic affinity with primarily neighboring countries with overall resemblance of decreasing weight from Britain, Sweden, Norway, Germany and France. A Polish admixture signal was detected in Zealand and Funen and our date estimates coincided with historical evidence of Wend settlements in the south of Denmark."

By John Massey (not verified) on 15 Sep 2016 #permalink

So, who would have predicted that Danes have the closest genomic affinity with the British?

1066 was a huge game changer politically, but the number of Normans who stayed living in Britain was trivial in total population terms. And the Normans were so skilled at mingling with the locals that within a few hundred years of their invasion of Britain, they had ceased to exist as a recognisable distinct ethnic group.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

Icelanders do a good and careful job of avoiding inbreeding, and well they might. But there is a simple solution to inbreeding depression, if it happens - outbreeding just once papers over all of the cracks. Icelanders could do well to import a load of Chinese migrants and marry them all - it would solve their inbreeding concerns in a jiffy.

Reyjavik is really rather interesting, for reasons you don't usually read about. Bedrock is at a shallow level below the city (i.e. it is not underlain by hundreds of metres thickness of soft alluvial deposits, etc. unlike, say, Bangkok) and, encouraged by the climate, Icelanders have made extensive use of underground space, by tunnelling through the rock, constructing underground caverns, etc., which they use to house all manner of things, including services like water supply, sewerage, roads, oil storage...all kinds of things.

It is one of the very few cities that includes systematic planning of the use of underground space in its town planning, which it does notably well. It often serves as the desirable 'model' for other cities to copy who find surface space to be at a premium and need to start making use of the sub-surface (e.g. Singapore).

Hong Kong has hundreds of kilometres of tunnels, mostly for road, rail and water supply, but so far not much use has been made of man-made caverns to house facilities that could be considered as 'bad neighbour' facilities (sewage treatment works, water treatment plants, domestic refuse transfer stations, oil storage tanks and other potentially hazardous installations), in order to free up precious surface land.

The downside to use of underground space is that it is relatively expensive and time consuming to construct. But in a situation where surface land is in very short supply and precious, it becomes feasible to use it, provided the town planners have enough vision to plan far enough ahead.

Norway also makes notable use of underground space, but no one can beat the Icelanders for their careful forward thinking and planning.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

John@23: I don't know how much risk Hong Kong faces from rising sea levels--I do know that Guangzhou, about 100 km away, is in the top two along with Miami in terms of property value at risk--but I'd be wary of building underground hazmat storage facilities in a place that might be underwater in a century.

I'm not familiar with the details of Guangzhou's risk, but having lived in Miami, I know something of the situation there. It's a matter of time before Miami will have to be abandoned, and it could happen during my lifetime. Where bedrock exists in that area, it consists of porous limestone very close to the surface. So in Miami's case building a seawall won't help: the water will come through the ground rather than over the ground.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

Eric@25: You need to understand the topography and geology of Hong Kong. To construct an underground cavern, you don't need to dig *downwards* - you just dig sideways straight into the side of a steep hill. And you can set that access as far above sea level as you want to - easily high enough. The cavern is 'underground' in the sense that it is below the ground surface, but that ground surface could be a hundred metres above current sea level if necessary, no problem.

The parts of Hong Kong to worry about are already there - the main urban areas, the underground mass transit railways and some of the road tunnels. In Hong Kong's case, seawalls will definitely help - they are already there, and designed not to be overtopped by a big storm surge from a tropical cyclone. But a lot of them will need to be raised. But that's not a really difficult or slow job.

Guangzhou's topography is nothing like Hong Kong - it's flat. Hong Kong is anything but flat. Guangzhou could well have a problem, but it's not my problem. Shanghai will have a big problem, but that is not my problem either. If they want to pay me to make it my problem, it could become my problem, but so far no one has made me any offers.

My problem is Hong Kong, and we've got tabs on it. We've been expecting/planning for sea level rise since the 1980s. In the newer areas, it's already been designed for.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

OK, having steep hillsides will protect you from sea level rise, but I would also have to ask about earthquake risk--most of the US coast has at least one of those two risks. There are parts of Maine that would be alright, and the major Hawaiian islands would be alright, but the entire Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast from about Brunswick (Maine) southward have wide coastal plains, and the entire Pacific coast has some degree or another of seismic risk.

I'm about 20 km inland, but at a low enough elevation that were the Greenland ice sheet to melt completely, I would likely have oceanfront property. That's far enough in the future that I (or my heirs) would probably have to sell the house long before then, but it will be an issue sooner or later.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

What about earthquake risk? I don't understand the point of your question.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

"So, who would have predicted that Danes have the closest genomic affinity with the British?

1066 was a huge game changer politically, but the number of Normans who stayed living in Britain was trivial in total population terms."

But is the affinity from the Normans, or from the Vikings? Or from the Jutes?

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

At a guess, I would say that the affinity is from Danes who invaded Britain, or people who invaded from what is now Denmark, which would include Jutes. I think the amount of Norman ancestry is probably too small to make a difference; particularly, by 1066, the Norse ancestry of a lot of Normans was watered down by intermarriage with Franks in Normandy.

By John Massey (not verified) on 16 Sep 2016 #permalink

On the awesomeness of elephant DNA.…

15x coverage is truly awesome.

China had straight tusked elephants in ancient times. In fact, it looks like there were two species - an extinct straight tusked elephant in southern and central China but extending as far north as Anyang, and Indian elephants in south-western China. There are still some in the south-west.

By John Massey (not verified) on 17 Sep 2016 #permalink

Re. straight-tusked elephants.
If the elephant species diverged relatively recently, it may not be necessary to get intact DNA from 300 individuals (the minimum to avoid inbreeding) to resurrect an extinct species. Alleles from remaining elephant species could be used as "padding", maybe? A question for Pääbo and his team.

By Bir gerjohansson (not verified) on 17 Sep 2016 #permalink

"1066 was a huge game changer politically, but the number of Normans who stayed living in Britain was trivial in total population terms."

The other result of 1066 was the establishment of a New England on the Crimean Peninsula by some of those who wouldn't swear loyalty to the new Norman regime. A lot of them wound up working in the Byzantine emperor's personal bodyguard. I doubt they had a big impact on haplotypes though.

Just out of interest, current estimates of the size of William I's army at Hastings put it at 10,000, comprising about 5,000 infantry, with the remainder split equally between cavalry and archers. It was a combined force made up of Normans, Bretons, French (? Carolingians) plus some from Picardy, Boulogne and Flanders, of whom it is estimated that 2,000 might have died in the battle.

Assuming that 50% of the total force were Normans, and that an equal proportion of them died in the battle, that would mean that no more than 4,000 Normans survived the battle, some of whom are known to have returned to Normandy afterwards.

But it is also probably reasonable to assume that some Normans moved to live in England after Norman rule was established.

Even so, we might be looking at a total of maybe 5,000 or so Norman settlers in England as a result of the Norman conquest. It is reasonable to assume that they would each have produced a higher number of children than the average. But it is also known that, after the first generation or so, they freely intermarried with women from the former Anglo-Saxon elite.

So, while Norman Y haplogroups no doubt descend to the present day in England, that represents only a tiny fraction compared to autosomal DNA, and it is doubtful that any kind of 'Norman' genetic signature could be found among the modern English - bearing in mind that by this time 'Normans' were themselves a hybrid group of Scandinavians who had intermarried with the natives in Normandy.

That can be contrasted with other previously invading groups who settled in England in sizeable numbers: Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Danes, all of whom can be identified in modern English DNA.

There is no Romano-British genetic signature identifiable either.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

Kaleberg@33 - The same or even more so would be true of Anglo-Saxons who chose to go into exile rather than live under Norman rule; a few very rare Y lineages might be identifiable, but that's about all.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

As I understand it, the size of William's 1066 army has nothing to do with the number of subsequent Norman settlers in the British Isles.

Normandy itself was established by Rollo, thought to be Norwegian, with a combined force of Norwegians and Danes in 911 CE. By 1066, I count at least 5 generations, and it is known that they intermarried freely with the native Franks, converted to Catholicism, and adopted French speech (producing their own dialect of Norman French), manners and customs. They also adopted the cavalry warfare that was common among the Carolingians, rather than retaining the Scandinavian-Germanic form of infantry shield wall warfare still practised by the English.

Looking at William's own genealogy, it is evident that his ancestors in Normandy married local women, just going by their names.

So the Norman invaders of England were a well mixed group by that time.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

Martin@36 - True, to a point. But the original invading force who chose to remain in England were rewarded by William with the grant of land there. Normans settling in Britain after the battle would be looking for land holdings. So, while no doubt there were some, the total number might not have been that large.

Impoverished Norman knights continued to export themselves elsewhere, e.g. Sicily and Antioch.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

The original invaders who remained in England imported Norman wives, and no doubt their extended households, but beyond the first generation they were intermarrying freely with the locals. By the start of the 100 Years War in 1337, less than 300 years after 1066, descendants of those people were identifying themselves as English; there was no longer any sense of a residual Norman identity. I mean, they did not think of themselves as Norman, but as English.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

@38 - Normans, being both noted pious Christian converts and very warlike, were also very enthusiastic Crusaders. IOW, they put themselves around a lot and, in so doing, managed to make themselves disappear very effectively as a distinguishable distinct population group.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

To try to put this another way, what matters in genetics is the total genome, most of which is autosomal DNA. Y DNA and mt DNA count for only a small fraction.

I have observed that a lot of British people are very keen on identification of 'important ancestors', and say things like "I am descended from a Viking." That seems to be a very popular one. How the hell they can possibly know that their male line originated with a Viking, rather than some other random Scandinavian, is beyond me. (I have a Singaporean friend who attended university in the UK and worked there for her own self-established very successful company for some years afterwards, and she used to get so cheesed off with this process that she used to respond with "I'm descended from a shipping clerk and a bus conductor." In fact, she can trace her Han ancestry to Hainan Island, and was secretly very pleased when she returned to Hainan for the first time to find out what it was like - at the time, it's no exaggeration to describe it as a tropical paradise, with beautiful unspoiled white sand beaches and tall, very green mountains.)

Well, equally, I can say that I am descended from a Norman, and I even know what his name was (Hugh de Mascey), where in Normandy he originated (there is still a place in Normandy called Mascey) and where he settled in England after the Battle of Hastings (in Cheshire, where he was granted land by William the Bastard, and from where my great grandfather migrated from a small Cheshire village to Australia, practising the lofty and noble profession of making bricks - I have never been to Cheshire and from what I hear I have no desire to go there, but I am told that it is absolutely crawling with people surnamed Massey). Big deal. That doesn't make me a Norman, or anything like it. In fact, I know from having my own DNA tested that I have very mixed ancestry. (In fact, it seems to be unpopular among Brits to claim to be the descendant of a Norman, as in the popular imagination, Normans are commonly thought of as 'the bad guys' who used cowardice (unlikely) and low cunning (possible) to defeat the 'noble' English King Harold, and thereafter put the English under the 'Norman yoke' (i.e. feudalism.)

England, Ireland and Scotland are full of people with Norman surnames, and no doubt Norman-derived Y DNA. That's because after the invasion of England (and the subsequent Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1166; and Anglo-Norman landed elite and claimants to the throne of Scotland), people derived from a Norman male ancestor were dominant. But those male lineages interbred with all manner of people of varying descent in the UK and Ireland. The proportion of ancestry that derived geographically from Normandy (either as invaders or as Norman migrants to Britain after the invasion) as represented in people in the 21st Century, must be tiny. It certainly can't be identified, except for the Y haplogroups and by Norman surnames, both of which are abundant due to early Norman dominance after the invasion. (Historically, non-paternity events, i.e. children produced by cuckoldry, is surprisingly low, as low as 1 to 3%, so most of this descent is likely to be genuine.)

But in terms of total DNA, that original male ancestry is trivial. There is no identifiable 'Norman' genetic signature among the British and Irish, even if there ever was such a thing that could be identified separately from Norwegian, Danish and Frankish.

I claim to be Norman as a joke, particularly as they are so often regarded as 'bad guys' in history, and to poke fun at the Brits, with their obsession about having Important Ancestors. In reality, I'm a melange of north western European (including British+Irish, German+French and Scandinavian), Iberian, undifferentiated southern European, northern African, and with a very small component of Oceanian. Where most of that comes from, in genealogical terms, I haven't a clue, and lack the necessary zeal and self-obsession to find out.

What I do find interesting, although in real terms it is absolutely trivial, is that my mt DNA derives from a European hunter-gatherer (being a lady, I assume she was more into gathering than actual hunting) from at least 8,000 years ago - such maternal lineages are now rare in Europe. Now, that *is* interesting, although it says virtually nothing about me in genetic terms.

By John Massey (not verified) on 18 Sep 2016 #permalink

A spoon-bending "psychic" fraud named after an urinal is going nuts with predictions. No, I am not linking to it. Monday is bad enough already.

By Birgerjohansson (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink

Martin@36 - Not to keep belabouring the point, but I have found what I couldn't find before. According to Wikipedia, Historians estimate "8000 Normans and other continentals settled in England as a result of the conquest." That's land holders, so adult males, not whole families. And "Some of these new residents intermarried with the native English, but the extent of this practice in the years immediately after Hastings is unclear." So, some married Anglo-Saxon women, but not all.

Now consider the average Norman guy in 1066. Rollo's invasion of northern France was with a male army, not a folk migration, i.e. guys only. Take a Dane who invaded with Rollo, married a Frankish woman, and had a son. And that son married a Frankish woman and had a son. If we keep doing that, then after 5 generations, the resulting Norman son who went to invade England was well over 90% French genetically.

I have looked at PCA plots at a fine enough grain to separate European population clusters into their modern national groups. The English and French clusters are pretty close genetically, but they form distinct groups with a gap between them, with no overlap, i.e. there is no obvious French signature among the English.

Now consider the number of Angles and Jutes who took part in the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England, and the number of Danes who were likely to migrate into England after the invasion of the Danish-led Viking army which resulted in the establishment of the Danelaw. We aren't given any numbers, but genomic analysis of large samples of modern English people show a very substantial Danish component, particularly among English people now living in areas that were settled by Danes.

Hence my conclusion that, while the Normans left a lot of legacy in England in terms of names, speech, laws, etc., they made little impact on the genomes of modern English people, whereas the Danes definitely did.

Likewise, the Romans ruled England for about 500 years, but left no trace in the genomes of modern English people that they had ever been there.

So I think that answer's Phillip's question - the close affinity between English and Danes is the result of fairly large scale migrations of Jutes, Angles and Danish Vikings into England that took place before the Norman conquest.

I'll get off it now.

By John Massey (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink

Birger@42: I'd expect Danish, and most of the languages of continental Europe for that matter, to be easier than English. English has borrowed so prolifically from so many different languages that it has an unusually large vocabulary and a spelling system that could be generously described as haphazard. English also has an unusually large collection of phonemes. Most European languages have a reasonably consistent relationship between spelling and pronunciation.

Chinese, and even more so Japanese, are likely to be harder because the historic use of characters, combined in the case of Japanese with kana, result in many possible spellings of a given word. But a speech-to-Pinyin system should be straightforward: as long as the software recognizes tone, it can take advantage of the one-to-one mapping between spelling (including tone markers) and pronunciation. Vietnamese, which uses a Latin-based character system exclusively but is also tonal and uses diacritics to mark the tone, would be only slightly more difficult (six tones rather than four).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink

Yes, English has the bug/features you mentioned. However, it doesn't have cases, has only minimal conjugation, and so on.

Keep in mind that all languages seem to be equally easy to native speakers. The difficulty in learning one as an adult depends mainly on the similarity to languages one already knows.

Finnish is completely phonetic, but has 18 cases and a different conjugation if a verb is negated. Most languages in Europe have 3 or 2 genders (which might be masculine and feminine, or masculine and neuter). Cognates don't necessarily have the same gender, so here knowing a similar language might be a disadvantage. None of these is an issue in English.

Dutch has more vowel sounds than any other language, and also the most headwords in the dictionary.

And so on.

An "easy" language would be written as spoken and vice versa, would have no cases. OK, there is Macedonian (the eastern south-slavic language), but it does have conjugated verbs, three definite articles (like in Scandinavian languages---also postponed, like in Scandinavia---almost all other slavic languages have no articles at all), and the Cyrillic alphabet might make it difficult for some.

By Phillip Helbig (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink

@47: We're talking about two different things here. You are discussing the difficulties of a human learning an unfamiliar language. It is difficult to learn unfamiliar phonemes after childhood, which is why an otherwise fluent speaker who learned the language as an adult will almost always have a foreign accent. And grammatical rules can be hard to internalize, especially when they conflict with the corresponding rules of one's native language.

But Birger's link, which I was commenting on, was discussing speech recognition software. As long as the grammar of a given language has been codified, it is (relatively) easy to teach a computer that grammar, because you can explain the rules. Likewise, as long as the mappings between symbols and phonemes are reasonably consistent, it is easy to teach a computer how to transcribe speech in that language. It's the latter point that makes English language speech recognition such a difficult problem, because there is such a high degree of inconsistency in the mapping between the written and spoken word. For instance, consider "threw" and "through". These words are pronounced the same, at least in the standard American accent, so the only way for a computer to tell which word is meant is by context. Converting speech to hanzi or kanji/kana is even more difficult, which is why business cards remain so important in China and Japan. But most European languages have far less ambiguity--in some languages there may be a question of whether to double a particular letter, but Spanish, for example, doesn't even have that issue.

Then there are mondegreens, the results of incorrectly parsing a series of phonemes. To take a famous example, in the song "Purple Haze", many people hear Jimi's line "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky" as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy". In that particular example context doesn't help much, as either version would work about equally well at that point in the song (the preceding line is, "Acting funny but I don't know why", and at the time the song was written homosexuality was severely frowned upon in both the US and the UK). Another classic example (with similarly unhelpful context) would be T-shirts from Apple's speech recognition attempts from ca. 2000: "I helped Apple wreck a nice beach." I don't know how common mondegreens are in other languages, but they are common enough in English to have inspired multiple web sites. My guess is that a more heavily inflected language is less likely to have issues with mondegreens, because the inflections will provide some context.

Using different character sets shouldn't make a big difference either, as long as they are phonetic. Whether they are Greek or Cyrillic letters, or Korean hangul, you can teach the computer that this character represents this sound (syllable, in the case of Korean). So a computer can easily go from sounds to symbols.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Sep 2016 #permalink