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This is sort of the old question that you'd see whispered about a lot in Western academia, and shouted out by linguists of the past, who had their own circumstances, own canons, own less-connected (?) cultures to influence their reasoning and prejudices: Which language is the best one...? Which languages are better...? Which ones are inferior? What circumstances lead to this...? Why those circumstances? Does this justify our conquests, empire and spreading our religion/language?

I am a native 'British-ish' English speaker, 'upper-class', never really learned another language properly though I understand bits of some other languages when I hear them spoken by the speakers I'm exposed to. So at least some of my biases are on display - I would appreciate answers that discuss and/or challenge these and maybe reframe the question.

I hope that it doesn't just scream 'racist, unpleasant to answer' but I don't mind answers talking about these. Very incomplete answers are fine - uncovering a small part of the puzzle is OK if it doesn't obscure the big picture or become a big red herring/distraction...

Metrics could include, but are not limited to:

  • Syntax, and how you'd 'rank' this.
    • Character density under 'common' and more 'specialised' conditions.
    • "Grammatical consistency" and "variation" of this between speakers, and how this is understood by different speakers. Differences between spoken, written?
    • Legibility under different/damaging conditions when written and spoken (ie. variance between writers and speakers of the language, how easy is it to read when scrawled on a sign, in a book that gets damaged by water).
    • How does the syntax impart meaning and concepts and thought and abstract imagery and emotion into a speaker, and how would this vary by language? (results of brain scans of different language speakers when the 'same' concepts are being talked about in their languages could maybe offer insight, or the pictures/symbolism they might draw or invoke when asked about the 'same' things).
  • 'Speed' at which they're picked up, and the conditions this varies by, reasons why it varies and the distribution of what is picked up and by who.
  • Popularity as 1st language, demographics, geography of... why/how this is...
  • Understandings and interpretations of time, spirituality, kinship, death, bonding, sexuality, societal organisation and hierarchy... and how this crosses or doesn't cross between different cultures and places that speak the same language. (ie. for English you could compare its use in Britain, US, Canada, South Africa and by the places/demographics in those countries).
    • Hierachies and social/economic inequality, enshrined in the language/its use. If you're ranking this, how to rank and why and under what conditions to rank? Is it inherent to the language, chicken-and-the-egg, does this vary? (ie. Western-style debates done in English are usually adversarial and pit one person against another. Does the language end up structured around this kind of aggressive stand-off... other languages less so, different way, not adversarial in most debates?)
  • Correspondence between what one speaker says and how another replicates the concepts in their mind?
    • Connections with mathematics, why this is, teaching of mathematical and physical concepts in the language and who this trickles down to.
  • 'Weird quirks' (to me as an English speaker???) (type, distribution, 'severity', demographics) that might be caused by the way the language is taught that manifest in most of the population that uses it as a 1st, 2nd, etc language?
  • How easy it is to pick up as a 2nd, 3rd... language, and how this varies by what 1st, 2nd... language the person learning it speaks.
    • How easy it is for someone unfamiliar to 'understand'...

Mathematical models that weight these metrics, account for their uncertainties, the stats distributions of, etc...(does not have to be a constant weighting regardless of conditions or context) would be welcomed in answers too.

I don't mean to scare anyone off who doesn't feel up to doing all that in their answer though or isn't answering the entirety of the big-picture question - if I have, what to do? I understand this is probably one of the most difficult questions to really answer well and I am a newcomer.

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    This isn't a difficult question, this is a meaningless question. – curiousdannii Sep 22 '19 at 21:08
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    In 15 years in Western academia I've never heard anyone whisper about this question. – TKR Sep 22 '19 at 21:18
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    I'm voting to keep this question open, because this is a common misconception among non-linguists that's worth debunking. – Draconis Sep 22 '19 at 21:52
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    This is essentially a duplicate of the question that led to some extended discussion back in 2016: Could we rank languages, saying one is superior to the other? – tum_ Sep 23 '19 at 6:47
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Seeing you nor anyone else knows what you consider to be good in a language, or what a language should be good for as opposed to be could be good for, nobody can tell you what is the best language.

  1. I can tell you that when you are doing your French A-level in the UK, the best language to use for your essay is French.

  2. I personally find that Georgian script has exceedingly beautiful design capabilities.

So given a sincere context and a sincere question an answer might be possible, but this isn't the case here.

I can tell the Original Poster that this question here will be as well received as one on Physics SE asking Which is the best speed?, one on Chemistry SE asking Which is the best element?, or one on Psychology SE asking What is the most inane question one can ask?

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I don't see any relationship between the various measures and the notion of some language being "best", a notion that is similar to the question "what is the best car?". However, you might be able to try measuring some of these specific properties. For example,

"Grammatical consistency" and "variation" of this between speakers, and how this is understood by different speakers. Differences between spoken, written?

I don't know what you mean by "grammatical consistency" – all languages are internally consistent (by definition). However, especially from the E-language perspective, there can be a lot of variation between individual speakers, or not much variation. A classic example is Chinese which has massive variation, to the point that linguists don't even say that Chinese is one language, it's a family of languages with the same name. English is not quite as diverse as Chinese, but it is pretty diverse. In comparison, Finnish is much less diverse. I should also point out there are 500 times more speakers of English than Finnish. The differences between written and spoken English are fairly minimal, compared to the differences between written and spoken Arabic: so one can certainly try to quantify the differences that exist in a language. Because of the huge number of speakers of English, I distrust claims about variation in English that go beyond saying "We encountered these forms from that person". Individual variation is generally discounted, in favor of broad social trends.

How does the syntax impart meaning and concepts and thought and abstract imagery and emotion into a speaker, and how would this vary by language? (results of brain scans of different language speakers when the 'same' concepts are being talked about in their languages could maybe offer insight, or the pictures/symbolism they might draw or invoke when asked about the 'same' things).

There is no brain imagery that results in different head-shots from people hearing "I saw a cat", "I saw a rat", "I saw a vat" or "I bought a cat". You can't identify a specific lexical item in one speaker of one language from brain imagery. We don't know how sentences map into mental states – we can't mechanically describe the mental states. So we can't compare languages on the basis of brain states resulting from utterances.

'Speed' at which they're picked up, and the conditions this varies by, reasons why it varies and the distribution of what is picked up and by who.

All we can say is that children learn language pretty quickly. We cannot say for example that children learn Zulu quicker than they learn English, mainly because there is no definite endpoint where you're done learning a language. Plus, we don't have much data on children learning Zulu. It does seem that properties that require a child to understand complex social rules in the society are learned late, so when a language has numerous grammatically-encoded social registers (for example, Javanese), a child learning one of those languages will not acquire the whole system as early as children that don't also have to learn obscure social conventions.

Popularity as 1st language, demographics, geography of... why/how this is...

Well, as a first language, the Logoori language is mainly learned by children in Logoori-speaking families, most of which are in Kenya. That's different from the Haya-learning children, who live in Haya-speaking families, most of which are in Tanzania. Sure, you can try to gather all sorts of social statistics about individual languages, and put them in a table. The reason why the Haya-speaking comunity lives in Tanzania and the Logoori-speaking community lives in Kenya has to do with where their respective ancestors migrated to and from, and that is far enough in the past that we don't know (e.g. did the Wataka family chase an antelope to the west and did the Limbonde family chase a zebra to the south? We don't know).

And none of this tells you whether a language is good or bad.

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To extend Araucaria's analogy, this is a bit like going to Physics.SE and asking "what is the best unit?". Well, it depends on your use case. If you want to measure time, then the best unit might be the second, or the microsecond, or the hour, or the year. If you want to measure distance, the best unit might be the meter, or the kilometer, or the light-year.

Similarly, the "best" language depends on your use-case—and this is in fact a very relevant question in sociolinguistics, the intersection between linguistics and sociology. In certain national beauty pageants in Kenya, for example, contestants can choose to give an interview in English or Swahili. On the one hand, English is seen as a language of the elite, the language of government and commerce. On the other hand, Swahili is seen as a Kenyan language, a language of the Kenyan people, not of the colonialists. Most people in Kenya speak both, so the choice of which to use comes down to complicated social factors.

But this is inextricable from the specific set of circumstances. Some fascinating papers have been written on the relationship of English and Swahili in Kenya. But if you're applying to Oxford or Cambridge, it's almost always going to be better to write your essays in English than in Swahili. Not because English is a "superior" language, but because it's the appropriate language for those circumstances.

And trying to determine a single "best" language, overall, is like trying to determine a single "best" unit in physics. It's pointless. How can you decide if a meter is better or worse than a second? Does the kilogram outrank the coulomb? It's not just unanswerable—the question doesn't even make sense.

Now, you could choose one particular metric to go by, and rank languages that way. You could rank by average number of phonemes per word, in which case Inuktitut is near the top and Mandarin Chinese near the bottom. Or you could rank by number of first-language speakers, in which case Mandarin (and English) are at the top. Or you could rank by geographic length of the longest dialect continuum, and Slavic would win. But all these measurements are arbitrary; they just depend on what factors you care about. One objective measurement might be "how much information does each language convey per second, on average?"—and a recent study (which I keep linking people to because it's really cool) showed that every language they examined ranks about the same! In other words, all languages convey about the same amount of information per second, no matter what.

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