I have a question on languages and their respective characteristics.

Different languages are good at expressing certain things. For example,

  1. Japanese is good for expressing sublime images very concisely because of its abundance in nuanced words. (This is not a feature unique to Japanese of course; however perhaps relative to English, Japanese is more descriptive.) I think one can see this in action when one reads Japanese haikus.

  2. French is often described as being a very beautiful language. I think this is due to how the language "flows" from the liaisons. (Maybe there is a technical term for this. I am not a linguist, sorry.)

  3. German is very precise and methodical (or so I was told).

While a characteristic of a language (such as beauty) is subjective, I think there are objective features as well (such as number of words describing the same sort of idea).

My Question. Is there a document that describes the characteristics of each language, in the sense described above?

P.S. I hope this is an appropriate question. I am new to this community, so please let me know if I should reformulate the question to make it community-appropriate.

1 Answer 1


As usual, yes and no depending on what you mean. I disagree with the characteristics attributed to Japanese, French and German. I do however understand that there are popular language stereotypes, and in theory someone could conduct a survey of people asking what they thing about some list of languages. You would probably get a lot of characterizations based on language sound, like German being "guttural", but also ideas like "Arabic doesn't use vowels). These stereotypes only apply to fairly big languages, hence there is no stereotype of Ket or Saami. The point is that popular stereotypes / idealizations are really about prejudices, and you don't want to try to discern "universal prejudices" from just a sample of English speakers. A serious scientific balanced survey of humans and their attitudes towards particular languages would most yield empty cells with responses that translate to "What are you talking about?", "Why are you bothering me?".

However, there are actual language characteristics, that is, structural facts about a language. One kind of document about a single language, which sets forth the characteristics of that language, is a descriptive grammar. There are thousands of them (better start reading!). Since this is an impossible lifetime task, one alternative is to focus only on specific languages, for example you could decide that you wanted to compare French, German and Japanese. In that case you could study those three languages. If you only want to compare Japanese and German, you might look into "contrastive linguistics", which is a domain of linguistics where someone contrasts the characteristics of two specific languages.

Another kind of document is a reduced version of "read every grammar". Languages are organized into genetic groups, so you could look for the books that, in one place, summarize The Uralic Languages, or Semitic, or Bantu (etc). There are quite a number of such volumes, which typically have a number of chapters that try to condense the essential facts of a language to 20-30 pages.

Finally, you could look at language differences w.r.t. particular domains, forsaking an overall understanding of the workings of a particular language. This is the area of typology, whose most popular document is the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. This allows you to pick certain structural topics and see some of what the range of variation is, and what languages have what values (though these are author-driven entries where each author has their set of languages that they have data on, ranging from 1519 languages in the Order of Verb and Object chapter to 5 in the Double-Headed Relative Clauses chapter (in 192 chapters).

Related to this approach, you might look at an introductory linguistics book. The problem, though, is that most such books avoid exotic languages (including French), and exemplify technical concepts with English data. The books Languages and their speakers and Languages and their status is halfway between a massive (unmanageable) typological survey and an Anglocentric introduction to technical linguistics theory.

  • I'd call it genealogic instead of genetic, but fair enough.
    – user31030
    Jan 31, 2021 at 2:39
  • "Genealogic" is a better term than "genetic". In the metaphor historical linguists use for reconstructed languages all the later languages that contribute to the reconstruction are said to be "genetically related", which is a very unfortunate metaphor, in these days where biologists can reconstruct DNA. The problem is always that any human has only one genome, but potentially dozens of languages. As for the actual question, one answer is WALS, but I'm not sure whether it's the short or the long answer.
    – jlawler
    Jan 31, 2021 at 17:19

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