I have a lot of friends who are native Spanish speakers, and when I listen to them talk together the sheer quantity of sound amazes me. I speak a little Spanish myself, but I can't speak or comprehend as quickly as my friends can; it can take me a considerable amount of time just to formulate and enunciate proper sentences. One of the aspects of Spanish that frustrates me is its sheer inefficiency. For example, consider the following common sentences (which I'll translate with Babelfish because I'm not that confident of my Spanish):
¿Dónde está el baño? (7 syllables)As you can imagine, if a giant monkey actually were standing behind you, you'd want to know as soon as possible. Those extra 8 syllables could mean the difference between life and muerte. Spanish can save syllables relative to English in some situations -- some verb conjugations do not require explicit subjects that are necessary in English, for example -- but most of the time it takes longer to say the same thing.
Where is the bathroom? (5 syllables)
¿Tiene usted hambre? (7 syllables)
Are you hungry? (4 syllables)
Sus zapatos se arden. (7 syllables)
Your shoes are on fire. (6 syllables)
Un mono gigante está estando parado detrás de usted. (19 syllables)
A giant monkey is standing behind you. (11 syllables)
The problem is, English is hardly ideal either. Many of our most common concepts take two syllables to express (such as "maybe" and "I am"). But why think small? Sure, we can create contractions and short-cuts ("I am" goes to "I'm"), but we're still being inefficient -- let's make a whole new language built on phonemes rather than entire syllables!
There are 24 consonent phonemes and 14 vowel phonemes (in English, not all sources agree), giving us a total of 38 unique sounds to work with. (Need a review of phonemes?) An efficient language could assign the 38 most common concepts to these phonemes, and the 1444 next-most-common concepts to phoneme pairs. Not every pair or every sequence would be pronouncable, but most of them would be, with practice. What takes an entire sentence to express in modern English could be related with a single word in my new phoneme language!
The question then would be whether or not the human brain can generate or comprehend a faster, more efficient spoken language. Frankly, I doubt that it can. Even though our brains are highly specialized natural language machines, translating audio waves into mental concepts is incredibly difficult, and possibly the most complex operation our brains perform. The only other function that comes close to it in sheer processing power is our vision system.
See what kinds of nonsense I come up with when I go on vacation?