Languages are a funny thing. There are over 7,000 languages all over the world. English is considered as the universal language and spoken by over 900 million native and non-native speakers. Yet it is not the most common language, as Mandarin tops the charts with over a billion speakers.
Not to baffle, but every language is unusual, especially to those who cannot speak them. If a person hears someone else speaking English and is not familiar with the language, he will consider it strange, right? A study focusing on the most unusual languages using strict linguistic guidelines reports that even the so-called “familiar” languages such as English or French are actually pretty strange, relatively speaking. From a linguistic standpoint, most major languages of the world are pretty unusual.
That said, some languages are considered too “strange” or “unusual” for reasons other than being so totally unlike the other languages. Out of the over 7,000 languages in the world, there are about 2,000 languages that are spoken by only thousands of people (or even less than a thousand) each. This leaves the rest of the world with more variety.
But the sad thing about the less familiar languages is that they are on the verge of dying. We must keep in mind that the death of a language means the death of a culture. Hopefully, there are active efforts to keep these strange but beautiful languages alive.
If you are into different languages (or express interest in them), then reading this article can help you realize how dynamic languages can be. Below are the ten strangest and most unusual languages in the world to help broaden your perspective a little:
Archi is a Northeast Caucasian language spoken by 970 people (as of 2010 census). These people, called Archis, live in the central village of Archib in southern Dagestan, Russia. It is the last existing place in the world where this language is still spoken.
Theoretically, there are 1,502,839 possible forms that can be derived from a single root of any given verb! For example, the English root verb “eat” can take into a few forms (eating, ate, eaten). But in the Archi language, it takes the verb “eat” and can make over a million and a half forms of it – and it doesn’t add any auxiliaries or “helping verbs” at that! That’s only one of the many claims of Archi’s bizarre linguistic claim to fame.
Another curious facet about this language is the “voiceless velar lateral fricative,” which is best demonstrated as the end sound when you say “Bach.”
2) Silbo Gomero
Silbo Gomero is a peculiar language that has been used since the 15th century. It was developed in La Gomera, one of the smallest of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of northwestern Africa.
One of the world’s most unique languages, Silbo Gomero sounds beautiful too, because it comes in whistles!
The whistles themselves consist of rising and falling pitches and tones that can easily replace spoken words. It may seem bizarre, but this language was developed for a practical reason. La Gomera is mostly mountainous, full of ravines and vast valleys. The whistles allow the locals to communicate more effectively across great distances. If you yell over a ravine, the sound might be heard to the other side, but it may probably end up jumbled and distorted. But if you whistle, the pitch will be relayed almost perfectly, and the message will sound clearly and completely intact as it reaches the other side. Vowels and consonants are distinguished by the rising and falling of the whistled melody, and when they are bound together, they create words, phrases, or sentences.
If whistling is not your thing, there’s Xhosa to get your tongue to work out by clicking. Xhosa is a Nguni Bantu language and is the official language of South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Compared to the other languages on the list, Xhosa may be considered pretty mainstream, as it has about 8.2 million native speakers. Another 11 million speak Xhosa as a second language. But Xhosa still deserves a spot because of its uniqueness – it has 18 clicking consonants. The word itself, “Xhosa,” is pronounced with a click at the beginning.
The clicks fall into three categories and tend to give foreigners, who dare to reproduce the clicking sounds, quite a challenge. Xhosa has absorbed some vocabulary from surrounding languages, such as English and Afrikaans, into its own.
Pirahã is currently one of the most endangered languages. It is spoken by about 250 to 380 people (as of 2009) who belong to the isolated Pirahã tribe in Brazil.
Pirahã is the last surviving dialect of the Mura language of the Amazonas. All other Mura languages have become extinct in the last few centuries as most Mura people have shifted to the more dominant Portuguese.
Pirahã is one of the simplest languages in existence, having only ten to twelve phonemes (sounds). What makes this language even more unique is that it has no specific words for colors. It may seem challenging for an outsider who has to go through terms without exactness, but for the Pirahã people, they are able to communicate without much difficulty. And the Pirahã language does have alternatives for colors. Instead of specific colors such as “red” or “green,” Pirahãs describe them in shades, such as “light” and “dark.” When they are talking about numbers and amounts, they describe them as “many” or “few.”
In addition to the ten to twelve sounds, Pirahã people also use humming and whistling to communicate.
If Pirahã is not the simplest language in the world, then the title should go to Rotokas, which is one of the over 850 languages in Papua New Guinea. Like Pirahã, Rotoka is believed to have only 12 phonemes (sounds) and 12 letters. As if it isn’t enough, Rotokas also lacks nasal consonants.
6) !Xóõ (Taa)
From the simplest languages, let’s go to the world’s most complex language, probably – the !Xóõ or Taa language! !Xóõ or Taa is another “clicking language,” which is native to Botswana and Namibia. It is spoken by about 2,500 people.
!Xóõ is every inch a bizarre and complicated language for a number of reasons. It uses a heavy functional load of click consonants and has a vast number of spoken phonemes – probably the largest in the world! Out of the 160 or more phonemes, 110 of them are made from clicking sounds. As if the heavy usage of clicks is not enough, the clicks can vary in tones as well, from low to high. If you think Mandarin or Arabic is the hardest language for any foreigner to learn, it would be only chicken feed compared to !Xóõ.
Up to now, the Sentinelese language has entirely remained a curiosity for one strange reason – we do not know anything about it. The North Sentinel Island, located in the Indian Ocean, is one of the few places in the world that has been untouched by civilization. No foreigner has ever set foot on the island and even lived to tell the tale. That’s because the locals are quite hostile to outsiders and won’t hesitate to aim their arrows at anyone who tries to get in contact with them.
For this reason, no one has been able to study the language of these reclusive islanders – no one even knows how large their tribe is. So, let’s dwell on the theories for now. Sentinelese is believed to be similar to other Andamanese language, simply because they are geographically close to each other. But then again, we just don’t have an idea about it.
Tuyuca is a language spoken by about a thousand people around Brazil and Colombia. It is considered one of the hardest languages in the world for a number of reasons. It is known for using agglutination, which means it uses a ton of morphemes (the smallest meaningful linguistic unit in a language) that form together into a single word to express ideas. For example, the sentence “I do not know how to write” would be just hóabãsiriga in the agglutinating Turkish language. The same goes for Tuyuca.
Tuyuca verbs are also hard to master because they require a sense of how the speaker knows something. For example, verbs that end with “-wi” mean “I know because I saw it,” while verbs ending with “-hiyi” mean “I assume.”
9) Guugu Yimithirr
Guugu Yimithirr is an aboriginal language spoken mainly in the northernmost part of the state of Queensland, Australia. It is where the word “kangaroo” is originated (thanks!). What makes this language unusual is its way of telling directions. Instead of the egocentric directions such as “left” and “right,” or “backward” and “forward,” Guugu Yimithirr uses cardinal directions – north, south, east, and west.
10) Chlacatongo Mixtec
Chalcatonogo Mixtec is spoken by about 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico. It stands out on its own when it comes to weirdness. It’s probably the only language in the world that does not have a method for demonstrating “yes” or “no” questions. For example, the question “Are you fine?” and the statement “You are fine” would be the same phrase in Chalcatonogo Mixtec.
Pitjantjatjara is an aboriginal language spoken by about 3,125 Pitjantjatjara people who live in Central Australia. It is taught in several Aboriginal schools. Its unique writing system is what sets this language apart from the others – it uses colons (:) to indicate long vowels, while the underline (_) highlights the different pronunciations of consonants.