The world’s strangest languages and unknown facts about them
According to research, English is one of the most bizarre languages in the world, as evidenced by many of its features.
In the article, we describe what features of languages are taken into account when it comes to the more or less “foreign” nature of a language. We also cite examples of languages used in small communities whose names hardly anyone has heard of, which also makes them strange.
So join us on a fascinating linguistic journey.
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The world’s strangest languages – Ibidon classification
Today, there are 6,000 to 7,000 different languages spoken around the world. Many of them seem less foreign to us than others. These certainly include European languages and some Asian languages. But is it just about their popularity and availability? Or when we speak of a foreign language, do we mean its distinctiveness and certain originality? How do we really determine whether a language is closer to us or more distant and thus more “foreign”?
Take a closer look at the analysis, and the results may surprise you.
According to a study by Ibidon, the strangest language is the one that differs most from all others in several ways, which were called “aspects”.
Ibidon listed several features of each language and kept those common to at least 100 languages (21 aspects). The company then removed from the ranking languages that had fewer than ten of these aspects (in the end, 239 languages out of 2,676 exist in the world).
For each aspect of the language, the relative frequency of this feature was calculated for all other languages analysed, e.g. subject-verb-complement structure.
For example, the World Atlas of Language Structures registers 1,377 languages, and 35.5% of them have a subject-verb-object structure. On the other hand, only 8.7% of languages start sentences with a verb – like Welsh, Hawaiian and Manjang.
The strangest language also has a structure where the verb is placed first. This is the Mixtec (Chalcatongo de Hidalgo) language spoken in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
According to the ranking, English is also a rather bizarre language. Shakespeare’s language ranks 33rd out of 239 in the world’s weirdest languages.
English – high on the list
At first glance and the first audible sound, English seems to be the most accessible, most straightforward and “most ordinary” language we encounter daily. But this “ordinariness” of the language only scratches the surface.
This is because English has more phonemes than many languages, about 44, depending on which type you speak. It has an unusually large set of vowels – there are 11 of them, while most spoken languages have only 5-6 vowels.
This is just one reason why English spelling is so complicated. It inherited five letters for vowels from the Roman alphabet, and speakers have to make them include twice as many sounds.
English also has relatively unusual consonants. The two sounds, represented by the “th” in “bath” (bath) and “bath” (bathe), respectively, occur in less than 10% of the languages surveyed in the language rankings. Typically, they are among the last sounds children acquire, and some English varieties in adults do not use them at all.
At the other end of the ranking, the most accessible language is Hindi, which according to the survey’s criteria, has only one “strange” aspect.
However, following the lead of a language user, a listener or an amateur of foreign languages rather than a linguist, the ranking of strange languages, could be classified completely differently, for example, according to the number of its users. The strangest languages would have the least number of them. Here’s how we can list some of them.
The world’s rarest and strangest languages – examples
The Pirahã language is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people of the hunter-gatherer tribe of the same name, living deep in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest.
The preservation of this indigenous language is explained by the fact that it is immune to any borrowing and assimilation of foreign concepts. In Brazil alone, there are 190 languages in danger of extinction. Pirahã, however, does not fit on this alarming list, as its speakers have no intention of giving it up. The language is part of a family called proto-mura-pirahã-matanawi, which seems to be its last representative.
Several elements make this language strange, starting with the complete absence of numbers and the singular. Another peculiarity is the non-existence of colours – everything is light or dark. However, if precision is required, tribal members use comparisons (e.g. red = blood).
The list doesn’t end there! You can’t give orders in Pirahã, and there is no vocabulary to obligate or force someone to do something.
Family-related vocabulary is also unique. The word “father” is the same as “mother”. The word “brother” is identical to the word “sister”, making this language the poorest in terms of family connections.
Continuing with the vocabulary theme, there are also some lexical nuances that do not exist, such as dying/killing, looking/seeing, and even feeding/eating. However, their language system distinguishes between animate things (people, animals), inanimate things (pebbles, trees) and aquatic animals.
Moreover, at the syntactic level, it is impossible to combine expressions such as “Patrick’s sister’s car”. In Pirahã, they will say, “Patrick has a sister. That sister has a car”.
Additionally, phonetically, Pirahã is more than original: it has only 10 phonemes, while most languages have about 23. To be precise, there are 3 vowels and 8 consonants, including, almost uniquely compared to other languages, the absence of nasal consonants (like m or n).
Interestingly, there is an allocation of consonants by gender. Thus, the voiceless slit consonant S is the prerogative of a man, and H is assigned to a woman.
Is it really not strange?
The complete opposite of the language with the least number of phonemes is !xóõ. Belonging to the large family of Khoisan languages spoken mainly in Botswana and Namibia, !xóõ is the living language with the highest number of sounds. According to sources, !xóõ has 58 consonants, 31 vowels and 4 intonations or 87 consonants, 20 vowels and two intonations. In any case, it is not surprising that linguists have difficulty understanding this language, as only 4,200 people speak it.
Another linguistic peculiarity is the Archi language – a Caucasian language from the Lezgic language group and the Nacho-Dagestan language family.
Artchi is spoken in the Dagestan region of Russia. It has 1.5 million possible conjugation endings. For example, a verb ending in -cugu expresses doubt, in -ra, allows one to express a presumption about an accomplished reality, and -er about a past fact. Only 1,000 people use it, and this is very few indeed.
Rotokas, spoken on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, has a reputation for having no nasal phonemes, unlike most other languages worldwide.
In addition, its alphabet is the shortest in the world. It has 11 characters, including 5 vowels and 6 consonants.
The Tuyuca language spoken in the Amazon, Colombia and Brazil is probably one of the most challenging languages in the world. Why? Because it has no less than 140 different words specifying species of living beings. For example, there is terminology in Tuyuca specific to bark not attached to a tree.
It is a Native American language from the Caddoan family of languages, spoken by the Indian tribe of the same name in the United States. It resembles a jigsaw puzzle. To form a word, you add other words to it. To say “it’s mine” (“kutatii’i”) we shorten two morphemes, one indicating possession and the other indicating existence. We call such a phenomenon a polysynthetic language. Such languages in Europe are Basque and Finno-Ugric.
It is impossible in this list of peculiar languages not to mention Inuktitut, the Eskimo-Aleut language of the Inuit. This dialect even has its alphabet (utterly incomprehensible to us) in the form of symbols, which you can see below:
Nüshu (meaning “women’s writing”) is a writing system used exclusively by women in Jiangyong District, Hunan Province, China. It is a notation incomprehensible to men. However, the use of this script ended in 2004, with the death of the last user, Yang Huanyi. The manuscripts were also buried with her.
Xhosa, which means “clicking”
Xhosa is included in the list of the 5 most unusual languages. The reason? It is pronounced by “clicking” of the tongue in the mouth.
However, it is one of the more important languages in the South African upheaval area.
Like the Bushmen-Hottentot languages, such as the Khoisan language, used by African tribes, Xhosa speakers communicate by clicking. It is estimated that such languages are spoken by some 100,000 to 200,000 people living in southwest Africa.
In writing, however, they use the Latin alphabet, enriched with diacritical marks.
Silbo, or “whistling”
The Silbo language is characteristic of one of the Spanish Canary Islands – La Gomera. Each word is whistled in a very specific way. However, the vocabulary necessarily needed to be limited. However, this does not prevent all conversations in Silbo, and the range of whistles can reach 8 to 10 km.
The language was developed to communicate in mountain valleys over long distances.
Pitjantjatjara – vowel language
The very name Pitjantjatjara sounds rather strange. The unique peculiarity of the speech is the fact that it contains only three vowels – a, i and u. It features a variety of words that take specific forms. The language is spoken by Aborigines of the Anangu people, who live in central Australia.
A language without an alphabet?
An example of a language without an alphabet is the aforementioned Archean (Artchi) language, which has no written form at all. Interestingly, there are about one and a half million conjugations in it.
The language of gestures
There are currently about 300 sign languages in use around the world.
Why isn’t sign language universal?
Sign language is not universal, even if the basis of its varieties is the dactylic alphabet. Not all countries use the same alphabet, which prevents universality.
In addition, each sign language has its lexicon, grammar and syntax. These languages are as rich and diverse as spoken languages, natural languages that have been built up over time.
Sign language works in accordance with the spoken language of each country and is also a visual language – it is closely related to a country’s culture. Each country or region has its own peculiarities, even if the base is similar. Indeed, cultural differences prevent the use of universal sign language. Social habits and behaviour vary from country to country. Signs do not work with the messages of other cultures.
Sign language in different countries is created in huge or small communities. The first use a far more universal, already accepted language. The second use sign languages called local indigenous languages or rural sign languages. Geographically close communities may use completely different sign languages.
Sign languages are not yet recognised everywhere, and since they are not used on a mass scale, they are still minority languages. Therefore, there is still too little data on them.
The main classification of sign languages includes families:
So how do deaf people communicate when they meet internationally, such as at their Olympics? Of course, they “reach” for International Sign Language. Also called gestuno, the language consists of some 1,500 gestures and has been in use since the 1970s.
Interesting facts about languages from around the world
The largest number of different languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea – about 840 in just one country.
Indonesia comes second with more than 700 languages, and Nigeria is third with more than 530 languages spoken there.
The longest alphabet is found in Khmer. It is the national language of Cambodia and has 74 letters, making it the longest alphabet in the world.
On the other hand, the shortest alphabet has the Rotokas language used on the island of Bougainville. It operates with 12 letters: A, E, G, I, K, O, P, R, S, T, U, V. The language is spoken by about 4,000 islanders.
Chinese has the largest number of indigenous speakers. That’s more than 1.3 billion people communicating in the language.
The fastest language in the world is Japanese. The speed of a language is measured in the number of syllables spoken per second or per minute, and Japanese utters as many as 7.84 syllables per second.
At the other end of the scale – the slowest languages – are Mandarin and German, with scores of 5.18 and 5.97 syllables per second, respectively. Korean has the largest number of words. More than 1.1 million, to be exact. It is followed by Portuguese with about 820,000 words and Finnish with about 800,000 words. English ranks seventh with about 520,000 words.
Isn’t that interesting? Have you ever looked at languages this way?
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