The World’s Most Unusual Languages
How Many Languages are Spoken in the World Today?
The answer is probably more than you think: there are around 7,000 languages in use today. The exact number is difficult to count because so many are spoken in isolated, difficult-to-reach areas, or only spoken by a diminishing number of elders in minority groups.
Amongst these 7,000 languages, though, are some truly fascinating examples. From whistling languages to completely made-up ones, let’s explore some of the most unusual languages spoken in the world today.
7 of the World’s Most Unique and Unusual Languages
1. Silbo Gomero
Spoken on the Spanish island of La Gomera, Silbo Gomero is a language that consists entirely of whistling.
Originally developed to allow communication at distances of up to 5km through the mountainous island’s valleys, Silbo Gomero is regular Spanish transposed into simplified, short whistling sounds. Its efficiency and usefulness for outdoor workers helped it survive into the modern era.
Unfortunately, Silbo Gomero fell out of fashion between the 1960s and 1980s, shunned by the Spanish middle classes, who didn’t want their children to be negatively associated with the whistling language of rural peasants.
During the 1990s, though, the language began a healthy revival, with ample promotion and protection through education policy. All Gomeran children now learn to speak Silbo Gomero in school. Gomerans now cherish and embrace their language as a cultural asset. And what’s more, UNESCO has officially pledged to protect the language as an example of intangible cultural heritage.
If you’d like to hear Silbo Gomero in use, here’s a video that demonstrates how Silbo Gomero is related to spoken Spanish.
A Native American language from the Platte River region in modern-day Nebraska, Pawnee is Interesting in that it has only 13 phonemes or individual sounds that make up the language.
For comparison, the average number of phonemes in a language is 25-30. English, which is more diverse than most languages, has around 42 phonemes.
Although it has few sounds, Pawnee is a highly polysynthetic language, meaning that words are qualified with additional meanings by adding suffixes, with almost no limit to the number of suffixes that can be added.
Learners of Finnish, Hungarian, and Swahili might recognize this trait: these languages all have similar structures for qualifying nouns.
But in Pawnee, the adjoining of words and phonemes is so rife that ten-syllable words are completely normal and common. There are many words that have over 30 syllables!
Although Pawnee is critically endangered, with only 100 speakers left, the Pawnee Nation is attempting to revive it, with the language now being taught in schools and adult classes.
There are around two million Esperanto speakers in the world. Not so obscure, you’d think?
Well, the unusual thing about Esperanto is that it’s an entirely constructed language.
Created by Polish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof in 1887, it was designed as a tool to encourage better international relations. His dream was for Esperanto to become the universal second language across the world, allowing truly neutral and fair international dialogue between nations and peoples.
Mostly based on the Indo-European languages spoken in Europe, Esperanto’s vocabulary and sounds are taken from Romance and Germanic languages, with grammar coming from Slavic languages.
With no irregular verbs and easy conjugations, it is accessible to speakers of most European languages.
The language enjoyed a peak of popularity in the 1920s before Esperantists were later persecuted by many of the authoritarian regimes in Europe, who suspected Esperanto to be a cover for resistance movements.
Esperanto never recovered from this, and English instead claimed the title of international lingua franca in the aftermath of World War II.
Although Esperanto has appeared on school syllabi in Hungary and China in the past, it’s almost always taught through self-study.
Sentinelese is completely different from the other languages on this list.
Most unusual languages have a unique quality recognized and revered by linguists. But with Sentinelese, we actually know nothing about it!
The Sentinelese tribe, thought to be between 15 and 500 people, inhabit North Sentinel Island, part of the Andaman archipelago located in the Bay of Bengal.
But the Sentinelese people are as yet uncontacted. They show extreme hostility and violence towards any attempt to make contact with the island, most recently killing the American missionary John Chau in 2018.
Their complete isolation means linguists are not able to study or classify the language. Although it is thought to be similar to Andamanese, we can’t know for sure.
On the island of Great Andaman, in the same archipelago as Sentinel Island, the Andamanese language family is found.
Now close to extinction, the Andamanese languages suffered significantly from the linguistic influences of colonization, with Hindi and English now widely spoken on the islands.
These languages have some interesting lexical quirks. Firstly, nouns and adjectives are modified by compounding the body part they resemble most (either visually or functionally). This makes for some interesting direct translations:
Another interesting feature is the lack of a numbering system. Any quantities in Andamanese languages can be expressed using five number words:
- one more
- some more
Spoken by an isolated indigenous population in northwestern Brazil, the Pirahã language has only eight consonants and three vowels.
The vocabulary is concise, with few or no words for concepts that exist widely in other languages.
- There is not much vocabulary to describe family members. The Pirahã do not track family further than immediate siblings and have just one word that applies to both mother and father roles (akin to the English ‘parent’)
- There are no words to describe colors. Only ‘light’ and ‘dark’ have specific adjectives, all other colors are described by referencing a noun typically of that color (e.g. blood = red)
Although there are only around 300 speakers, Pirahã is not at imminent risk of extinction. Unlike in the Andamanese Islands, where inhabitants also speak English and Hindi, the Pirahã are largely monolingual, meaning that Pirahã is spoken every day.
7. Taa (also known as !Xóõ)
At the other end of the phonemic diversity spectrum is the Taa (or !Xóõ) language, spoken by tribes in Botswana and Namibia.
Taa has the most phonemes of any known language, at over 100, comprising 58 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones.
Like Silbo Gomero, Taa is outwardly different from other languages, even to the casual observer. The high number of clicking consonants give Taa a unique sound – 82% of basic vocabulary items start with a click consonant – and depending on dialect, there are between 80 and 160 different clicking variations.
If you’re struggling to imagine how this extremely diverse language sounds in use, here is a video of a man speaking Taa.
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