The diversity of humanity’s languages is dying. In the wake of cultural globalization and global trade, our languages are becoming increasingly homogenized. Today, almost half of the world’s population speaks one of only the top eight most-spoken languages. Nevertheless, some 7,000 languages are still currently spoken and signed, many of which are unbelievably unique and wonderfully weird. Dig deeper into the past and you'll find even more examples of fascinating language systems that have fallen into extinction or obscurity.
The Basque language is one of the most unique languages still spoken today in Europe. Also known as Euskara, the language is spoken in the Basque Country, a region on the western edge of the Pyrenees mountains between the borders of France and Spain.
It’s considered to be an extremely unique language as it emerged from a completely separate branch of the family tree from every other language currently used on Earth. From English and Spanish to Hindu and Russian, the overwhelming majority of Europe and significant portions of Asia speak Indo-European languages.
However, Basque comes from a separate branch on the family tree. While its age is not certain, the language’s origins lie in a time before Indo-European languages had conquered much of Europe. Against all the odds, Basque managed to survive the linguistic invasion and remain relatively unchanged.
Out of a population of around 2.2 million in the Basque Country, approximately one-third can speak the language today. Most of the population tends to speak French or Spanish in everyday interactions. However, to the average Spanish or French speaker, the language is almost totally unintelligible.
Pirahã is an indigenous language spoken along the Maici River in the Amazon region of Brazil that often attracts the attention of linguists. It has just eight consonants and three vowels, which is incredibly little compared to other languages.
It’s partially unusual because the tone of voice is just as important as the consonants and vowel sounds in their words. There are several other tonal languages, such as Vietnamese and Chinese, but Pirahã takes it to a whole other level.
As just one example, the word for friend and enemy is the same, but the tone of the spoken word dictates how it is interpreted. It also has no words for colors or numbers. Instead of saying something like “seven” they would describe it in a way that loosely translates to something like “a somewhat larger amount”.
Silbo Gomero is a whistling language used by some inhabitants of La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands. It originated as a way for people to communicate over vast distances across the island’s deep ravines and narrow valleys, since the sound travels much further (and with less effort) than shouting. It’s far-traveling sound also means it’s a useful tool for public communication.
Users will place their fingers in their mouths to let out short, sharp, and vaguely melodic whistling sounds. It might sound simplistic, but skilled “speakers” can communicate a surprising amount of information with these noises.
Silbo Gomero is only used in specific contexts and no one would consider it their mother tongue. However, it’s estimated that around 20,000 people on the island of La Gomera can understand parts of the language.
Taa (ǃXóõ) is one of the handful of African languages that use clicking sounds. However, it’s arguably the most complex of all, encompassing 160 different phonemes (units of sound in a specified language), 110 of them made from clicking sounds. For context, the average number of distinctive speech sounds in the world’s languages is about 25 to 30.
Today, it’s an exceptionally obscure language, spoken by just 3,000 people or so in parts of Botswana and Namibia.
Pormpuraaw is a language spoken by an Indigenous community native to an area within modern-day Queensland, Australia.
It’s a fascinating language simply because it doesn’t have terms that relate to “left” or “right” at all. Instead, they use “north”, “south”, “east”, and “west". Research has indicated stories told by the Pormpuraaw using a flow of time that seems very unfamiliar to us: time flows from left to right when one is facing south, from right to left when one is facing north, toward the body when one is facing east, and away from the body when one is facing west.
Esperanto was first developed in the late 19th century in an attempt to create a universal second language for international communication. The language is designed to be neutral and easy-to-learn, encompassing vocabulary that is primarily derived from numerous European languages.
Some basic Esperanto words are “saluton,” which means “hello”, and “dankon”, which means thank you.
The constructed language garnered a fair amount of interest in the 20th century, but it ultimately didn’t catch on. Today, fewer than 2 million people speak it, but it’s largely faded from public consciousness.
Nüshu was a language used exclusively by women. It was developed some 400 years ago by ethnic Yao women in Jiangyong county of southern China as a means to communicate with each other without men understanding. Loosely translated to “women's writing” in today's Chinese, it's the world's only script designed and used exclusively by women.
“Women used their own script to tell stories, to comfort each other, to sing out sorrow and to express admiration. In the process, a paradise was built,” explains Zhao Liming, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who has studied Nüshu for decades.
“The content of Nüshu works comes from women’s everyday lives – marriage, family, social interactions, anecdotes, songs and riddles. These are rich in folk custom and are important for the study of linguistics, grammatology, archaeology, anthropology, and other human and social sciences,” added Zhao.
It fell into extinction in the 20th century, but there are attempts to revive the lost language.
Computational linguists used data from the World Atlas of Language Structures to find out which languages had the largest number of features that differed most from other languages. Coming in at number one was Mixtec (Chalcatongo) spoken by just 6,000 individuals from the Mixtecs Indigenous people of modern-day Mexico.
One of its most peculiar features is that it doesn’t have any way to distinguish between questions and statements. For instance, statements like “Are you well?” and “You are well” sound exactly the same.
The Incas' Talking Knots
Although not technically a language, Quipu is sometimes considered to be a writing system and deserves a mention in any article about fascinating linguistic systems. It involves a series of color-coded cords that a tied in knots at certain points to signify numerical information.
Also known as Talking Knots, it was used by the Inca people to store and communicate huge amounts of information in the absence of written records. It was primarily to document numbers, a bit like an abacus, for the purposes of tax records, population censuses, and military organization. However, some argue that Quipu might have also been used to encode long-lost stories, myths and songs too.
Last but not least: English
English is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not unusual or easy to learn. It’s said that “spelling bee” competitions don’t tend to exist in non-English speaking countries, simply because their words have a straightforward correspondence to the way people pronounce the words.
English has 44 phonemes, way more than the average of 25 to 30. It also features a bunch of unusual consonant sounds as well. For instance, the “th” sounds heard in the words “bath” and “bathe” are found in fewer than 10 percent of the world’s languages.
On top of that, English is filled with grammatical quirks. For instance, the sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” makes sense. This is because buffalo can mean three things: the hoofed animal, the city in New York, and to confuse or intimidate someone.