Do You Speak the World's Weirdest Language?

Are you one of the 6,000 people in the world who speaks Chalcatongo Mixtec? Congratulations! You speak the world's weirdest language.

That's what Tyler Schnoebelen and the researchers at Idibon, a natural language processing company, found when they statistically compared 239 languages to see how like or unlike they were to one another. Using the World Atlas of Language Structures, Idibon coded the languages for 21 characteristics including, for example, how subjects, objects, and verbs are ordered in a sentence, or how a language makes clear that a sentence is a question.

When Schnoebelen ran the numbers, Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, was the least like the majority of the world's other languages. And it is pretty unusual: Schnoebelen describes it as a "verb-initial tonal language" that has no mechanism for demonstrating questions (so "You are alright." and "Are you alright?" sound the exact same). "I have spent part of the day imagining a game show in this language," Schnoebelen wrote in his analysis (for more on how to say everything from "I am sick" to "I bought many long ropes" in Chalcatongo Mixtec, see here). It's probably not surprising that some of the strangest languages are some of the most obscure. The second weirdest is Nenets, spoken in Siberia, followed by Choctaw, a Native American language from the central plains.

But some of the weirdest languages are widely spoken. The seventh-strangest language, Kongo, is spoken by half a million people in Central Africa. After that comes Armenian, then German. English ranks fairly high as well, coming in 33rd. There's also no particular region of strange languages -- the top 25 weirdest (pictured with red dots in the map below) are scattered across every continent. Mandarin is one of the strangest languages, while Cantonese is one of the most "normal." And linguistic families are also no guarantee of similarity. Schnoebelen notes that while Germanic languages are all pretty weird, Romance languages run the full breadth of the strangeness spectrum, from Spanish, which falls in the Weirdness Index's top 25, down to Portuguese, which ranked as one of the most mundane languages.

"Personally, I think that every language has something weird about it," Schnoebelen tells FP by email, explaining that studying the peculiarities of different languages is part of the draw of linguistics. And of course, there were certain things that couldn't be coded in his analysis. "For example," Schnoebelen writes, "sometimes we hear a colorful idiom in another language and it really stands out. But how would you go about coming up with a scoring system that anyone could apply consistently to hundreds of languages?"

The index takes a hard look at the objective structures of languages, and makes for a good reminder. Think Hindi sounds strange? It's actually the most normal language of all. And we English speakers are pretty weird ourselves.

For those who are curious, here's Idibon's 10 weirdest languages (you can find the full ranking here)

1.  Mixtec (Chalcatongo)
2.  Nenets
3.  Choctaw
4.  Diegueño (Mesa Grande)
5.  Oromo (Harar)
6.  Kutenai
7.  Iraqw
8.  Kongo
9.  Armenian (Eastern)
10.  German



Know Your Egyptian Generals

CAIRO -- The rules of Egyptian politics just changed. On July 1, mere hours after the end of massive protests against President Mohamed Morsy's administration, Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi delivered an ultimatum giving the vying political forces 48 hours to compromise -- or else the military would unilaterally "declare a road map" for the country's future.

The Egyptian military, of course, played a key role in forcing Hosni Mubarak from office -- but many had assumed its days of playing an overtly political role were over. In August 2012, Morsy dismissed Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the military junta that governed Egypt following Mubarak's fall. In an interview later that year with the New York Times, the president batted aside a suggestion that Tantawi had resigned voluntarily. "No, no, it is not that they 'decided' to do it," he said. "The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop."

Morsy subsequently appointed Sissi as defense minister and the new military commander. The general received advanced training at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania and attracted some criticism during the 2011 uprising when he defended the military's notorious "virginity tests" of female protesters. But needless to say, any speculation that he would be more pliant than his predecessor has just been disproved: As an unnamed advisor to Morsy said of the ultimatum, "We understand it as a military coup."

The United States is getting slammed from both sides in this episode. While protesters accuse President Barack Obama of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, those close to Morsy suspect the military received Washington's blessing for its move. "The conviction within the presidency is that [the coup] won't be able to move forward without American approval," said one advisor.

So, what are Egypt's generals really thinking? Nobody is spilling the beans right now about their plans, but many researchers have studied how the Egyptian military approaches politics in Cairo. Joshua Stacher, who wrote a book comparing regime elites in Syria and Egypt, paints a picture of the Egyptian military as a fundamentally conservative force, intent on constraining the energy on the street so it can preserve its own interests. "These are elites from a regime only partially changed, who are attempting to reconstitute the system in their own image," he wrote for FP.

Other researchers suggest that the Egyptian military is more circumspect about its ability to control Egyptian politics. In this reading, the generals were distressed by protesters' backlash against them during the post-Mubarak transitional period and are looking for a way to stay behind the scenes. As Council on Foreign Relations fellow Steven Cook put it in a blog post today, the military's goal is "to rule, but not govern."

Whatever the generals are thinking, the military and the Brotherhood have a long history of striking temporary alliances. Ever since the days of the Egyptian monarchy, wrote national security scholar Robert Springborg in an article for FP last year, "for a brief period ruler and Brothers 'cohabitate,' but the marriage of convenience soon breaks down amidst mutual recrimination."

Such history, Springborg suggested, meant that the current military-Brotherhood alliance was also "inherently unstable." On that point, at least, there can be no more doubt.