What is the Most Efficient Language?

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Creative Commons License photo: kalandrakas

In talking about efficiency, perhaps this post is the one to bring out the computer scientist in me. A question for all of you: of the world languages what language is the most efficient language?

Could it be English? The English language doesn’t have any government departments to deliberate over it and hence the language very quickly evolves and mutates. New words can be created without restriction which makes it possible to express new ideas. English is spoken by 1.8 billion people worldwide – that’s a lot of people. But local dialects of English could mean two English speakers in different countries won’t understand each another. It’s also a very difficult language to learn. Obviously these two things mean English is less efficient than it might initially appear to be!

Or could it be Esperanto? As a constructed international auxillary language, Esperanto is short, simple and elegant. There are no irregular forms of grammar. That might make it easy to learn and hence efficient but at the same time, very few people speak Esperanto: 2 million at the very most.

Or should it be Mandarin? With the most native speakers in the world, learning this language opens the doors to communicating with a huge amount of people.

14 thoughts on “What is the Most Efficient Language?

  1. Actually, Esperanto has no grammatical gender – that is, things are inherently genderless, with no masculine/feminine/neuter. Most animate beings are inherently genderless as well, with gender being indicated by optional affixes.

  2. Good question! Unfortunately it’s also a very difficult — and potentially even impossible — question to answer, even in theory.

    While all human languages are capable of expressing essentially the same spectrum of thoughts, desires and concepts, none can be considered optimally efficient. That’s because “efficiency” is really relative to the message being conveyed and the needs of the speaker and listener.

    A feature that makes an utterance more precise in one context may make it less succinct in another, for example. A feature that reduces syntactic complexity may make word order less flexible. A feature that increases grammatical flexibility may place a heavier cognitive load on the user. Each “advantage” in one context is a “liability” in another. So every language involves a set of compromises.

    For a more concrete example: English is extremely rich in polysemy, which means that words often have many diverse meanings. This gives more freedom to the poet to pick words to fit the desired rhyme and meter. By contrast, Esperanto is more economical with its use of polysemy, which makes writing good poetry more difficult.

    On the other hand, the English poet may have a harder time expressing her ideas concisely and unambiguously; there is much more room in English for misinterpretation. To be more clear she may need to be more wordy than she would be in Esperanto.

    So what makes English more efficient than Esperanto in one sense makes it less efficient in another.

  3. Yes, Esperanto is a planned language which belongs to no one country or group of states.

    Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years. It’s certainly both efficient and effective.

    “Cow” is “bovino” – the gender is marked there, but tables and chairs have no gender in Esperanto.

  4. Esperanto ne havas sekson. La Esperana lingvo estas tre facila, kaj oni povas lerni ĝin dum ĉirkaŭ 2 aŭ 3 monatoj. Penu lerni ĝin!

  5. Hoss: You make a fantastic point! However, I do think there may still be some redundancies which aren’t helpful to anyone. Take American English pronunciation being phonetic compared to the sometimes irregular pronunciations in British English. The irregular pronunciations don’t serve any useful purpose; only to make it more difficult to learn the language.

    Similarly, I don’t know whether the concept of grammatical genders serves any useful purpose either – it doesn’t convey any useful information (besides how well the subject knows the language!) or provide any flexibility. And it makes it a lot harder to learn.

    Actually, I did wonder… are the genders of objects in French/Spanish/etc. the same?

  6. Do you mean a common word for he and she?

    In Finnish the word “hän” is very good.
    I wish we had such word in esperanto an Swedish.
    I guess that kind of word is in Kurdish or Iranian.
    Please let me know.

  7. You wrote:
    >That might make it [Esperanto] easy to learn and hence efficient

    I wonder why you used this tense ‘might make’, when the answer is a demonstrable fact?:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaedeutic_value_of_Esperanto
    And what does the number of speakers have to do with ‘efficiency’? Might as well list the seven points of the Prague Manifesto:
    http://lingvo.org
    in support of Esperanto then!

    And you asked:
    >Actually, I did wonder… are the genders of objects in French/Spanish/etc. the same?

    Most of those nouns with the same etymology have the same gender, but there are a few which have changed. Similarly with German and Dutch.

  8. You could define efficiency as the ratio of input to output. Hence, even if Esperanto was easier to learn (had lower input) to English, the output gained (e.g. the number of people who can be talked to) is much smaller compared to English. So English is more efficient as a communication tool.

    There is also the chicken and egg problem of people not learning Esperanto if not many other people speak it.

  9. “English is extremely rich in polysemy, which means that words often have many diverse meanings. This gives more freedom to the poet to pick words to fit the desired rhyme and meter. By contrast, Esperanto is more economical with its use of polysemy, which makes writing good poetry more difficult.”

    I was surprised at the high number of poems written in Esperanto. There are more poems in Esperanto than anything else.
    I even found translated poems that were even better than the original (which was already exceptional).
    My conclusion: writing poems is relatively easy in all languages; the difficulty is writing good ones.
    A very amusing poem was written by a Russian who complained that Esperanto was completely unsuited for poetry and he explained in details why, in verses and in Esperanto respecting the metric of the language, in complete contradiction with his arguments. Unfortunately I lost the link to this poem.
    The polysemy is an advantage in English, but a poet has abundant tools to create new words in Esperanto, a faculty that we lost in our traditional languages.

  10. Great question and something I’ve wondered a lot about.

    Especially enjoyed the comments, Hoss in particular. 🙂

    I’ve come to the conclusion that body language is above all the most efficient language. We might not be able to convey complex messages to complete strangers with a single glance, but just one look from my daughter and I know more than a book could tell me about what’s going on in that head!

  11. I’m pretty sure that the most efficient language is lojban.

    It is also a constructed language, but unlike most it is not based off of standard grammar structure of romantic languages, or any other ethnic language. Instead, it rethinks completely what the most efficient syntax (or word orders that make sense in a language) really is and completely removes ambiguity from speech while introducing a completely new grammar structure.

    It was developed over something ridiculous like 50 years with research into human speech pattern recognition to be both extremely easy and fast to speak/learn, as well as extremely powerful with the potential to express complex ideas with ease.

    It’s a language who’s logical syntax is literally perfect and, though this has been tried again and again for English and other languages, apparently computers should be able to understand and speak it with 0% error.

    Though I don’t know of any poetry specifically, it is a highly metaphorical language allowing for very complex ideas and was constructed to be very flowing, natural to speak. Both of these, I can only assume, would make it very artistically powerful, despite (or perhaps because of?) its efficiency.

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