77 votes
Accepted

Is English tonal for some words, like "permit"?

"Tonal" is one of those words that everyone vaguely understands, but is annoyingly hard to actually define. Most people agree that English isn't "tonal". But there's not a clear dividing line between "...
  • 53.9k
28 votes

Is English unusual in having no second person plural form?

English marks plurality in first and third person pronouns (I vs. we, he/she/it vs. they), but not in the second person (you). (The singular thou did exist in English in the past, but is now ...
  • 2,715
27 votes
Accepted

What are some interesting features that are common cross-linguistically but don't exist in English?

I'll give the glib answer: A straightforward/predictable orthography. Out of all the languages which have established writing systems, the vast majority are to some extent phonemic; not all have a one-...
  • 53.9k
25 votes

What is the proper definition of a verb?

It's important to draw a distinction between syntax and semantics. In syntax (how words fit together), words are put into "categories" based on the way they fit together with others. If I ...
  • 53.9k
22 votes
Accepted

Fourth person (in Slavey language)

The fourth person is a (rare) synonym for the obviative. In languages with this feature, when there are two third-person referents and one of them is less salient, the less salient one may be marked ...
22 votes
Accepted

Phonetic distortion when words are borrowed among languages

The term is loanword adaptation. It happens every time someone tries to use a word from a different language when speaking another. It's because every language has a different set of sounds that can ...
  • 4,742
20 votes

Fourth person (in Slavey language)

As a layman in linguistics I found this explanation pretty illuminating: In English, when we have a non-SAP (speech act participants) involved in the discourse, there is the potential for ambiguity. ...
20 votes

Is English tonal for some words, like "permit"?

The usual account of the difference is that the location of "stress" differs between perMIT and PERmit. You cannot tell the difference between tone ans stress just based on phonetics (that is, "higher ...
  • 70k
18 votes
Accepted

How languages compare with the number of different syllables from all words?

Yoon Mi Oh's 2015 thesis (pages 44-45) provides estimates of the number of syllables for various languages, gathered by taking the 20,000 most frequent words in a corpus of each language and counting ...
  • 53.9k
17 votes

What characteristics are unique to English (or at least rare among language as a whole)?

While it is not clear to me what should be considered as "unique" to a language, since all the languages are different, so also unique in many ways, but they also share many basic features and ...
17 votes

What are some interesting features that are common cross-linguistically but don't exist in English?

Here are some features that are common to many languages, but absent in English. It's worth taking WALS entries with a grain of salt, but the chapters are great at calling out potential issues and ...
  • 1,100
16 votes
Accepted

Is a language possible without verbs or without nouns?

It is not possible for there to be a human language that does not have a way of referring to entities, or to predicate states and actions of an entity. If that is what you mean by "noun" and "verb", ...
  • 70k
16 votes

Is it possible to have a word-based language completely without word inflection?

The problem is, things like "word-based" vs "character-based" as you put it (the standard words are alphabetic vs logographic) apply to writing systems, not languages. Languages, both historically and ...
  • 53.9k
14 votes
Accepted

Are there any languages which inflect the noun for morphosyntactic categories normally reserved for verbs (e.g. tense, aspect, etc.)?

Here is a relevant Wikipedia article: Nominal TAM There is a fair amount of literature that mentions the existence of languages that mark tense on nouns; the first result I found on Google was this ...
  • 16.7k
13 votes

What characteristics are unique to English (or at least rare among language as a whole)?

John McWhorter recently explained some. I'll add to that here. English has a number of features that, while not absolutely unique to English, just rare in the world, are unique to English as a ...
  • 4,374
13 votes

What are some interesting features that are common cross-linguistically but don't exist in English?

English lacks a simple vowel system: Cross-linguistically, three (/a/, /i/, /u/) or five (/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/) vowel systems are very common, having a lot of different vowel qualities like English ...
11 votes

A list of parts of speech

The problem with this question is that parts of speech are just a construct used for the description of language - not necessarily a real thing in a language. You can see that across languages only ...
11 votes

Is it possible to have a word-based language completely without word inflection?

There is no such categorization of languages as "word-based" vs. "character-based". Not all Chinese speakers are literate. Standard Chinese has certainly been affected by the character-based writing ...
  • 16.7k
11 votes

Is English unusual in having no second person plural form?

Although largely archaic, in some locations (some parts of Northern England/Cornwall/Ireland, among others) the word "ye" is still used as second-person-plural. It can also be found in some older ...
11 votes

Phonetic distortion when words are borrowed among languages

It's not "deliberate" – it's the automatic, nigh-inevitable result of fitting a set of sounds from one language's inventory into a different inventory. It's like changing a photo from RGB to CMYK or ...
  • 2,199
10 votes
Accepted

How to distinguish a polysynthetic language from other languages? When is something a word?

The important feature is that in a polysynthetic language, a single word may contain more than one lexical root. This means that e.g., to choose the most frequent example, a complex verb may not only ...
  • 6,075
10 votes
Accepted

Do there exist languages with wh-prepositions?

German does have something like this: (list of abbreviations see below) Wo-r-auf hast du ein Spielzeug gelegt? where-ITF-on have you a toy put.PSTPTCP Where did you put a toy on? Wo-von ...
  • 6,075
10 votes
Accepted

What are some of the most prefixing languages?

Athabaskan languages would be the "most prefixing", in (a) being almost or in fact exclusively prefixing and (b) allowing many prefixes (11 positions). Papers on Navaho include this, as well as J. ...
  • 70k
10 votes
Accepted

Are there languages that inflect adverbs for gender

Although adverb agreement in gender/noun class is far from ubiquitous, there seem to be (apparent) examples of this kind of agreement in a fair number of languages. I am most familiar with examples of ...
  • 16.7k
10 votes
Accepted

Why is tense obligatory in some languages and not in others?

All human languages allow the expression of distinctions in time reference, so there's always a way to describe the situation that one event precedes another. Some languages do this with special ...
  • 70k
10 votes

Why is tense obligatory in some languages and not in others?

Ultimately we can't answer why one language grammaticalises tense and why another language doesn't. But what we can say is that all languages have at least one major verbal grammatical category. Tense ...
  • 5,444
9 votes

What are languages whose name contains the word for "language"?

The (Equadorian) Quechua name for the language is Runa Shimi meaning "Language of the People". All of the Saami terms for the languages (e.g. North Saami, Lule Saami etc) include the word "language", ...
  • 70k
9 votes

Are there any languages with only one of "yes" or "no"?

Finnish has particle words for "yes": "Kyllä" (formal) and "joo", "juu", "jep" (very colloquial), but no such words for "no". However, one ...
  • 3,024
9 votes

Can languages restrict their number of distinct syllables when written by syllabaries?

No. The use of a ‘characters writing system’ (I take it you mean something not simply alphabetic) does not restrict the number of distinct syllables. Even if you look at Yoon Mi Oh's list there's no ...
8 votes
Accepted

A list of parts of speech

The most important message is that about one dozen parts of speech seem to be sufficient for part-of-speech (POS) tagging. Additional markers often include things not classically regarded as parts of ...

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