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PhiNotPi's avatar

What would the simplest language be like?

Asked by PhiNotPi (12647points) January 12th, 2012

This is related to an earlier question about the effects of a very complex language. Instead of simply asking the reverse, I am asking what a very simple language is like.

So, what would happen if we were to reduce a language down to the bare necessities, the crucial framework that is truly needed for a language?

I’m not just talking about simplifying a language, I’m talking about making it almost unnaturally simple. Modern natural languages have very complex rules that were slowly formed and changed over thousands of years. If you really dig deep, you can find countless places where a language is redundant or inconsistent. For example, English usually negates verbs by inserting another helping verb and then negating that verb instead.

What can we remove from a language without restricting its universality? What rules can we make universal in a language?

Do we really need to distinguish between I and me? How many tenses do we need? Do we need to conjugate verbs, or can this be inferred by knowing the subject of the sentence? Do we need contractions? Do we need to distinguish the words he/she/it?

To give you an idea of what sort of extreme simplification I am talking about, consider the Pirahã language. It only has three standard personal pronouns, one for I, one for you (singular), and one for he/she/they. They have managed to do this for many hundreds of years by simply combining them, such as “I you” for we.

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20 Answers

filmfann's avatar

Sign language.
American signers find that, with only a couple days exposure, they can speak to French signers.

CaptainHarley's avatar

The simplest spoken language is Esperanto.

PhiNotPi's avatar

I’m not asking what the simplest language actually is, but how simple a language could become.

CaptainHarley's avatar


The simplest language would be one that uses a limited number of nouns for common items, a limited number of verbs to indicate action, and little else. No conjunctions, no modifiers, no tenses… just the bare minimum necessary ti get across the simplest ideas.

zenvelo's avatar

Indonesian does not have plurals, but repeats a noun to indicate more than one. The verbs do not have a past tense, but have an adverb for future and another for past. It was a created, simplified, version descendant of Malay, adapted to be a national language in a country with hundreds of dialects and individual languages.

So it is a good model of what a simple language would be like.

King_Pariah's avatar

I think 1984’s Newspeak is a good model as what a simple language would be like.

Pandora's avatar

It would be a combination of hand gestures, grunts, moans and vowel sounds. Just watch a 18 month old try to communicate.

poisonedantidote's avatar

Well, for starters you could do away with any notion of male or female words, languages such as Spanish have male/female variations.

You could also get rid of all past, present and future variations, and instead include 3 new words that are used at either the beginning or end of something to let people know if it happened, is happening or will happen.

You could merge words such as ‘Is’ and ‘are’, kind of like they do in Chinese. As you mention you can also do away with ‘I’ and ‘me’ and other such terms.

I guess you could probably do away with with plural and singular variations, as well as all other variations and synonims of words leaving just the simplest version, e.g. use ‘but’ and never ‘however’, and just keep going until you get it down to the bones. Maybe even use abreviations as much as possible too.

You could also do away with a lot of words by making a language based on assumption. Instead of saying “I like apples so I’m going to the shop to buy some apples” you could just go with something like “I like apples so I’m going to the shop”, and just let it be assumed that you are going for apples.

An example could maybe look something like this:

Past I study school IES Son Servera, Past I finish study + Present I have diploma. Future I job office, I computer—I job chance good, but present many look job, I compete but no.

jazmina88's avatar

body language. with signing

linguaphile's avatar

IMO the most simple concepts are expressed, internationally, with:
The gesture for eating
The pee-pee dance
The gesture for sleeping
The gesture for taking/giving
The gesture to decline or accept
A hug or bow to show like, love or deference
And expressions such as- smiling, frowning, laughing, crying or being angry

ragingloli's avatar

It is Binary. You can not get simpler than that.

Boogabooga1's avatar

I agree with @King_Pariah.
Huxley’s 1984 is a great reminder that simplifying a language is an effective way to remove power.

Four words
Food, Sex, Submit and Fight would be ample enough words for us to survive in an Neanderthal like environment.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
Skaggfacemutt's avatar

We could simplify language to a simple yes and no, but effective communication would go out the window. To continue to communicate effectively, we could simplify by doing away with words that mean the same thing. (I.E. crazy, mad, nuts, insane, bonkers, crackers, one beer short of a 6-pack). We could also use one verb for “to be”, such as using “are” instead of is/are/am. In the Swedish language, they use “ar” (are). There is no “is” in Swedish, and they don’t seem to miss it. These are just some examples.

King_Pariah's avatar

@Boogabooga1 it’s George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World.

LostInParadise's avatar

We could get rid of the inclusive or and use DeMorgan’s rule. It would make for some convoluted sentences. “Bring a pen or pencil” becomes “Do not not bring a pen and not bring a pencil.”

We could also get rid of the exclusive or by replacing “You must choose one or the other” with something strange like, “Choosing the one is logically equivalent to not choosing the other.”

As a side note, it is interesting how little confusion there is between inclusive and exclusive or. Until I was told about it, I did not even realize that there was a difference. I wonder if there are any languages that have separate words for the two uses.

Esedess's avatar

I’m with @ragingloli. Binary is what you’re talking about here. It’s just composed of 1’s and 0’s. 1=on, 0=off (or something like that). If you wanted to translate that to spoken word, it would be a communication style where the alphabet consists of 2 letters (“Y” & “N”), and where all questions, responses, and reactions would be verbalized as 1 of 2 sounds meaning “yes” or “no”.

guywithanaccountnow's avatar

There was once an experiment where a guy determined that by only using about 850 Engish words, you can describe anything that currently you can with the complete version of English. The drawback is that certain words become as long as sentences and certain sentences become as long as paragraphs, etc. I’m having a bit of trouble finding where on the internet I read that, but that’s where his name was. If I find it, I’ll post it.

hsrch's avatar

Check out the Hawaiian Language – five vowels, eight consonants, several diphthongs.

mattbrowne's avatar

These twins will show you

Can’t get much simpler, I guess.

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