The Hardest Language To Spell

I have this dream of doing a spelling bee
on steroids. The contestants line up facing a wheel labeled with a bunch of the world’s
languages. Step right up, spin that wheel and, wherever it happens to land, you have
to read a word and write a word in that language’s native writing system. Whohooh! As a language nerd, there’s a lot
that intimidates me about this spelling bee. But I must confess there’s one maniacally
tough written language that I really hope this wheel never lands on. Wooh, I am excited! Let’s go through and list
why each one of these scripts has some tricky letters. And then at the end I will reveal
to you the language with the world’s scariest spelling! Number 10… wait, what was that? Come again?
This just in, but apparently someone else already answered my question. Uh, he swears
that the worst script ever is… Thai? Hmm. Really? I mean, I messed with Lao and
Thai a few years ago and, yeah, they weren’t super easy. But Thai?!? Ok, here’s his complaint. See, when a written
language grows up and gets old, the way people speak it changes over time, but the way people
write the language stays fossilized. The result is historical spelling. And Thai has some
blatant historical spelling. Not only is written Thai pretty old, but even when it was new
it modeled its letters on Sanskrit, so it inherited fossils from the get-go. Thai has an alphasyllabary with 44 consonant
letters for writing just 21 consonant sounds. Plus vowels and tone marks. Plus a complicated
way of figuring out how all of those letters work together to tell you which tone to pronounce
on which vowel. Yeah… But I think this missed the point: what is
it about historical spelling that makes a script tough? Consider two people. First, the reader. (Won’t
you consider the reader?) A script is hard when I don’t know which sound to say for the
letters I’m about to read. And for the writer, this script is hard if I don’t know which
letters to use for the sounds I want to write. Now glance back at Thai. There’s something
regular and predictable about it. Especially for the reader. We can sum it up in a not-too-long
page on Wikipedia, we can dust our hands off and set you loose on the language and you
should do fairly well. In fact, I think of Thai spelling as not too
different from Greek in a way. A bunch of letters come together to represent a smaller
set of sounds. It’s that same many-to-one correspondence. Uh, also, like Thai, some
sounds influenced others in predictable ways. And, yeah, there aren’t those Thai tones to
deal with, but you’re stuck with the Greek tónos system with its movable accents and
double accents based on how pitch and vowel length used to work way back in Ancient Athens! No. No. No! Don’t fear Thai, my friend. Look
elsewhere. It’s got mountains. It’s got Lamas. It’s got
Buddhists talking dhamma! Welcome to Tibet. History tells us that Tibetans have this guy
to thank for writing: Songtsen Gampo. Pardon the spelling there, heheh. Sneak preview.
He brought kingdoms together to form the vast Tibetan Empire. He said, “Hey guys, we’re
Buddhist now!” And around the year 630 he sent a young minister to India to learn how
to write. What he brought back from India was a new
alphasyllabary. Just like Thai. They both emphasize consonants and surround them with
vowels. They both came with Buddhism, so both have special conventions for transcribing
sacred Sanskrit terms. And, nowadays, they both have to deal with tones in convoluted
ways they weren’t designed to handle. But written Tibetan is much, much older. Here’s
the basics. You start with the base consonants with their built-in dummy vowels. Then you
learn to write vowels and w’s and r’s and y’s as little flags on the consonants. But
it gets even more exotic. Tibetan can stack consonants. It can flip consonants. It can
clunk together masses of consonants to build syllables that look like this. This is how Tibetans spell these words
and this is how they say them. Did that sink in for you? This is what people are reading.
This is what people are saying. This tangled mess of consonants is why Yeti
“yache” is spelled gya’-dred, why the Tibetan language is “y˧˥˧ʔ” even though it’s really
dbus, and this, the name for this Klingon-looking beauty that is the Tibetan script, how do
you think it’s pronounced? Any clue? Time’s up! It’s “utɕɛ̃”. If you think reading with these letters is
hard, you should try writing with them. In Lhasa, the sounds “tup” might mean any of
these words: it might mean “overflows”, “accomplishes”, “sews” or even other forms of the verb “accomplish”
like “accomplished” and “will accomplish”. But guess what? Those are all spelled differently. The puzzles don’t stop. Take two words with
very similar spelling. The one spelled “grags” gets pronounced “tha”. And “grogs”? Why, that’s
“rɔ”. Give up yet? Well, there is some logic here.
Here’s the deal. Tibetan has core letters, it has vowels around those core letters and
then outside letters. Once you grasp that basic fact, you can start
figuring out which letters to ignore. Like in this verb that looks like “bsags”, b- is
a prefix and the -s is a suffix, so you can just concentrate on getting these middle letters
right. “Sak”… maybe. Ok, and now you’re thinking, I get it! It’s the
vowel and some other letters in the middle of the syllable I care about. I can just ignore
everything else. BAM! I’m Tibetan! Dangerous strategy there. For two reasons.
Number one: you need to know which letters not to ignore. And reason number two? Well you can’t just
drop letters and walk away like that. Tibetan has a complicated relationship where letters
influence the pronunciation of other letters. Meaning a silent letter can still change the
way other letters get pronounced! So the name of one of the major schools of
Tibetan Buddhism is written like this. We might innocently cross out all of these sounds
and say something like “ka-kyu”. But that “u” actually sounds like the German “üüü”
there. It acts that way because of the final d that’s after it: “kacyː˥˥”. Lucky you though,
“u” to “ü” isn’t the only vowel change that works this way and “d” isn’t the only consonant
that triggers it. So you’re dropping letters here. You’re influencing
letters with ghost letters. And sometimes you’re not even just dropping and influencing,
you’re finding out that clusters of letters interact together to create totally different
sounds. Complex patterns! It’s all complex patterns! Now things ratchet up another notch when you
put syllables together. Sometimes you’ll find a letter that’s silent, like say silent r
before another consonant in the word “tɕeː˩˧”. So you might cross it out and then forget
about it, just to have it suddenly pop out when you smash it against another syllable.
Like in this name. Keep every little bit of this in mind when
you run crying to your Tibetan dictionary for help, because the Tibetan idea of alphabetical
order is not organizing words by the first letter. No, no, no. They use that root letter,
wherever it happens to be. Why do you do this, Tibet? Science… says that, being a high-altitude
mountain people, Tibetans have physiological advantages like increased bloodflow to the
brain. Maybe they’re spending that power on this bizarre writing system. But, honestly,
they did try to get rid of this bad spelling karma. Really, Old Tibetan got a spelling
reform in the year 800! And then, well, that… that was it. 1200 years ago. Think of what’s happened in
1200 years. The Viking Age. The Norman conquest of England. Everything ever written in Thai.
The last Mayan codices. Chaucer. Shakespeare. The Tokugawa Shogunate. These are current
events compared to the last time Tibet changed its spelling. That is some serious historical spelling.
And it’s why, when I’m standing there watching the wheel clack, clack, clack around deciding
my fate in that multilingual spelling bee, I really, really hope that wheel doesn’t land
on Tibetan. Assuming we’re thinking spelling means segmental
scripts, ones where we’re matching letters to sounds. But I’m going step out of the bounds
of this gameshow here, because, if we color outside the mandala lines, Tibetan isn’t even
the worst offender when it comes to historical, ahem, “spelling”. There’s a written language
that plays much faster and looser with its symbols and expects way more of readers and
writers than Tibetan ever could. Thanks for joining me in my spelling bee.
I really liked having you here! Stick around and subscribe for language. I’m Tibetan on you!

100 Replies to “The Hardest Language To Spell

  1. I have a friend who is a Khmer native speaker and he knows how to also speak Thai and english and understands chinese but cant speak well. He can write and read thai but its very hard for him to read or write in Khmer, he can only a little bit, even though thats his 1st langauge. his mom cant write well in khmer either but can perfectly write in chinese and thai. So id think by this khmer must be harder to read and write than thai.

  2. I'll always have difficulties saying E in French, honestly. Don't get me wrong, I can handle any frère or arrêt or forêt you throw at me, but honestly I don't think my American ass was prepared for the off u sound e makes when isolated.

  3. Damn man this is so cool. I'm a language geek as well but far less learned on the subject. I have basically gone through many different languages just trying to learn the basics on a lot of them to understand similarities and differences between all kinds of different languages from different places and cultures. It's a lot of fun. The only languages I've really done much work with are French (because I'm Canadian), German, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian. I wish I knew some people into this stuff though so I could actually geek out with them and we could help each other learn more, while also motivating each other to work harder.

    Definitely subscribed now though.

  4. How the heck you are so smart? =/ Like seriously just what your brain consists of so that you can master so many languages? I'v spent alot of time to learn english and now im learning chinese, but looking at how it goes, i will probably be around 80 years old by the time i could say "yes i know chinese". But you are so young and it feels like you know almost every language in the world.

  5. I haven't tried learning many languages, but I can say for sure that Japanese is pretty hard. In fact, they even created "furigana" for a reason. People usually write with Kanji, but when they know their writing could be read by someone who doesn't know those Kanji, they write the pronunciation on top of it so people know how to pronounce it and what it means (if they already know the pronunciation). In fact, one single Kanji can have a lot of pronunciations depending on their use and/or which Kanji is before or after it. If you don't know a Kanji, you don't know it at all. It's been fun learning Japanese, and I wish to learn more languages through my entire life

  6. I'm still convinced that Tamil have one of the worst spellings. Almost all words used for literary prurposes rather than everyday use have to be remembered by heart. Just a slight millimeter wrong placement by the toungue makes you look like en idiot reading texts.

  7. Japanese Kanji is especially hard to read and write for me lmao. You have like 5 different readings for one kanji AND theres a stroke order!

  8. Omg only a handful of people spell Javanese right, especially since the majority don't know the native handwriting (Carakan script). They spell ⟨a⟩ as ⟨o⟩ like Jowo, which should be Jawa. Like, it's not ꦗꦺꦴꦮꦺꦴ, it's ꦗꦮ

    And then the pronunciation … I've yet to encounter someone in the internet who pronounces ⟨tha/ꦛ⟩ & ⟨dha/ꦝ⟩ as retroflexes

  9. Japanese borrows from China and has a hard writing system
    Tibetan borrows from India and the same happens
    China and India have easier writing systems
    Korea makes its own to get the easiest….

  10. Everything said here about Tibetan can be applied to English. As a non-native english speaker I trend to consider that, actually there is no such thing as spelling rules in English. You just have to memorize the spelling of every single word. Why bother think of setting rules when they don't work two thirds of the times?

  11. Croatian is so terrible. Why is there an unnecessary extra ć letter when there's already the č one? Why does i and ij sound the same? Ugh.
    By the way, I'm sure Czech is even harder than Russian. I would say Czech is the hardest of all. Apparently if you know Croatian, you know Serbian.
    But the hardest in the WORLD EVER, now that's an instant Arabian.

  12. So happy for my serbian. In 19th century a wise man reorganised our writing so that each sound has its letter. 30 letters total, easy to read in both latin alphabeth and our cyrilic one, and we use both, even more latin nowdays. You can never go wrong with how to read it. Dunno why everyone dont do it.
    Pozdrav is Srbije.

  13. As a Tibetan I am pretty impressed how you pronounced the word like 90% correctly… well done about the information too… the emperor sent to India to learn bhoekay(Tibetan language) was known as thumi sambota.😁 #bhoegyalo

  14. །ཊཉའཧའབ་འེས འི་རེབིདེརའཏ་འེས འ྄འཧིར འེ སའད མུའུདེཀ དིརའསོ འེ་འབེ།


  15. GeshelbHELLOgyudut, kisigrathuWHATberingdiq ilibidArrigsia budulunNICEbyrdygg abashtuviaDAYbaylaq!
    That's basically how Dzongkha works.

  16. Woah woah woah. Dont go saying there are differences between the languages other than skin color. As we all know, race is just skin deep.

  17. Tibetan has 45 letters. All of them are silent. And yet the put the "ram" in "rama lama ding–dong". And also the lama and ding-dong.

  18. O.K. Good! ….now my question is…. Who the HELL needs/wants/desires to put him/herself through that mess? To speak the language of a country which doesn't even exist anymore because it's been syphoned off by China? And a country which has utterly nothing to contribute except some confusing Tibetan rituals which they don't even understand themselves? Please!

  19. polish

    idzie puchatek przez las nagle patrzy w gów*o wlazł więc bierze nogę i wyciera o podłogę kupa była Krzysia więc przykejiła się do misia puchatek po długim zmaganiu usiadł zrezygnowany cały w gów*ie umazany zawołał prosiaczka małego smarkaczka ten gdy to zobaczył tak się wystraszył że aby uciec na czas pierdnoł misiowi w twarz
    Puchatek śmierdząc jak d*pa zaczął udawać trupa i aby nie robić obciachu zakopał nogę w piachu

    and what this is not hard?

  20. I am Polish and I am so ashamed about all these “Polish is the hardest language” comments. Our spelling is easy, it is quite modern, almost always phonetic. We use super easy Latin alphabet. But there are some dumb-asses who cannot learn how to spell and they are making all these stupid comments to justify their stupidity.

  21. FYI, it's pretty racist to suggest that there are physiological differences between races which would influence cognitive ability.

  22. Compare it to this in German:
    H in Hund (dog): /h/
    ch in ich (I): /ç/; ch in Dach (roof): /x/; ch in sechs (six): /k/
    Sch in Schule (school): /ʃ/
    Tsch in tschüss (bye): /t͡ʃ/

  23. I think languages like Serbian, Croatian and such are the easiest when it comes to writing. 30 letters, you pronounce each one, no silent letters, they don't affect each other and one letter one sound. But grammar is an absolute nightmare

  24. Fun fact: In Finnish, spelling has actually changed a lot more than the pronunciation, in the past few centuries. My favourite example of this is the Finnish word for ”June”, ”kesäkuu” [kεsæku:]. Back in the 1500s, it was, as far as I understand, pronounced pretty much the same way as today, [kεsæku:], but it was actually spelt ”käsekw”. So, in Finnish, historical spelling is an opposite phenomenon.

  25. What is amazing is how the human brain on many different cultures came up with a very different way to create sentences and written language. That means that we humans are capable of communication in tons of ways and still understand each other even when we learn a new way of communication from a group different than ours. Could it be that we humans all have some hidden basic universal language deep in our brains but for some reason we ended up deviating from it and now we lost the road back? We would have to do an experiment: have groups of babies isolated in different places, never speak to them in any language, and let them come up with their spontaneous way of communication. Do this with different groups, and compare the language that each group invents to see if they have similarities.

  26. Arabic is cursive for example
    The person who writes arabic has the choice to add tashkeel or to not make the tashkeels visible and I am the writer so for example
    See what I did there

  27. Compare Tibetan script with Chinese one makes no sense at all. Tibetan uses a phonetic writing system but Chinese uses an Ideographic one. To add an important fact about it; both are the oldest literary languages of the Sino-tibetan macrofamily (next is Burmese). Since Chinese has always used an Ideographic writing system, it has been really hard to guess how old Chinese sounded. However, one of the most useful tools to reconstruct Chinese phonetics through history has been to use Tibetan Spelling because it is highly archaistic and preserve intact old roots than help linguists understand and approach to the protolanguage phonetics which Tibetan, Chinese and Karenic come from.

  28. Hardest language to spell is English.
    I once saw an example of this on a comment, and it went something like this: “english is hard, but can be understood through tough thorough thought though”
    And that sentence is perfectly fine.
    Another example is pronouncing the word “Australia”
    You pronounce each “A” differently!
    Dont even get me started on the silent letters, the bajillion different ways to spell the “E” or “F” sound, or “two, to, and too.”
    English is broken.
    In technical terms, it’s the hardest language to learn. Not because there is a complex set of hundreds of rules: it’s the fact there’s no fucking rules at all

  29. All of the letters just look like lowercase q’s and letter-sized semicircles in random order with random accent marks

  30. Ok read it: გქფრცქვნი,ბრდღვნა, ამას ვიცი რომ ვერ წაიკითხავ,ტაილანდურის წაკითხვა ვიცი უიოლესია I know u can’t read it

  31. These are only my opinions:
    Maybe the silent consonants are the way Tibetan distinct words and syllables for distinctive grammatical rules. Another silent consonant, another syntactical function. Maybe? Idk, i'm not Tibetan.

    And Remember that Tibetan is a tonal language. So maybe the silent "unecessary" consonant have significant affect of what tone used in a syllable.
    I'm just asuming

  32. Thanks God Portuguese is my first language. Portuguese may be the language with most precise spelling of the world, because every few years there is a revision (the last was in 1990, and introduced k,w and y to alphabet and get rid of a lot of no longer pronounced consonants) in how to write down the language.

  33. As a trilingual, I know English (obviously), Finnish, and German. I saw some other languages and I thought Mongolian was pretty tough.

  34. Epäjärjestelmällistymättömyydelläänsäkäänköhän..Yea, that's a finnish word which is easy for me to say (because I'm from Finland, but I admit that's a hard one)

  35. I actually made some language that was spread across my town and its now used as temporary language
    It consists of french, german, russian, and mostly asian and european languages
    Although, spelling and pronouncing is hard, grammar makes it worse
    Like say, I even get stressed on my own language (thats correct I made it up on my own)
    And to demonstrate I will give you a starting sentence that is rarely used:
    Trouç cu cous der se coustouç'e?
    Which initially means:
    Is there something I can help?
    Okay, so If you actually have learned my language you would translate that sentence into
    Druiçé se zovut truçcous der kleinfreigschtenn?
    (No shortcuts, no grammar, just plain literal)

  36. spell the word непротивоконституциоствувателствувайте in bulgarian . Yes that s a word not random letters

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