What's the Most Efficient Language?
It's 2025, and alien explorers from a distant planet are set to make first contact with Earth. Conveniently for us, they have a universal translator. Unfortunately, for us, they've intercepted far too many episodes of Jersey Shore and have a skewed perception of our species.
So, in an effort to put humanity's best foot forward, Earth's welcoming committee -- composed of scientists, politicians, celebrities, etc. -- decides to make first contact in a language that conveys the most information in the shortest amount of time, a symbolic gesture to show how efficient and intelligent we are. So, which spoken language should they choose? There are between 5,000 and 7,000 languages on Earth, so the decision won't be easy.
If scientists had a lot of time and resources on their hands, this is how they might go about researching the question: First, select standard written passages of decent length and word variety. Then, travel the world and record at least a dozen speakers of every language reading those passages aloud at their normal cadence. Count the overall number of syllables used for each passage and measure the time it took subjects to read their passage. Divide the syllable count by time to get the number of syllables spoken per second. Next, come up with some value for how much meaning is packed into each syllable, which will give you an average information density per syllable. Finally, use those values to derive an "information rate."
University of Lyon researchers François Pellegrino, Christophe Coupé, and Egidio Marsico didn't travel the world, nor did they survey every single language, but back in 2010, they did use the process above to determine the speech information rate of seven of the world's most spoken languages: English, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Mandarin, and German.
English came out on top, but not by much. Most of languages grouped pretty closely together, however, Japanese lagged behind the rest.
Interestingly, the languages that conveyed the least amount of information per syllable, like Spanish, Japanese, and French, tended to be spoken at a faster rate. This allowed these languages (apart from Japanese) to deliver a similar amount of information compared to more meaning-dense languages like Mandarin and English.
Of course, if Earth's welcoming committee really wanted to be ambitious, they could create a new, artificial language, one whose aim "is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language."
Conveniently enough, there's already a language like that, Ithkuil, created by John Quijada, a middle manager at the California D.M.V. Don't let Quijada's humble background fool you, Ithkuil is surprisingly brilliant, although painfully complex. Nobody, not even Quijada, can speak it fluently. (Here is a sample.)
We wouldn't need to speak it fluently, however. We'd just need to deliver a brief welcome to our extraterrestrial visitors, enough to impress them, apprise them of our species and our myriad languages, and inform them that we are interested in peace.
Hopefully their universal translator will be able to comprehend Ithkuil...