Original source : http://www.smashinglists.com/
Posted : February 2014
Author : Kate
There are thousands of languages in the world – the exact number is unknown, but estimates are between 6,000 and 7,000. They range from those spoken by billions (like English and Spanish) to those spoken by just a handful. It’s almost impossible to pick just a few as particularly interesting, as all languages are interesting in their own way. But try we must, so here are our personal picks for the Top 10 Most Interesting Languages.
Spoken by 720,000 people, Basque is neither rare nor endangered, but it is unusual. It’s spoken in the Pyrenees between
France and Spain, but is not related to either
French or Spanish or in fact any of the other languages spoken around that
area. it’s believed to have derived from a group of languages that pre-date the
Indo-European family of languages and were spoken in prehistoric times. So
Basque is the closest that modern ears get to hearing what Neanderthals sounded
like! It’s a highly inflected language, with verbs being modified to fit not
only the subject of a sentence but also the object (e.g. in “I feed the dog”,
the verb would be modified to fit with both “I” and “the dog”). This results in
highly complicated grammar and sentences that are more inflection than content!
For instance, in the sentence “Zuek egunkariak erosten di-zki-da-zue”, (“you
buy the newspapers for me”) there are 6 different grammatical markers “-ek”,
“-ak”, “di”, “zki”, “da”, “zue”. An interesting subject for linguists but a
nightmare for anyone trying to learn it!
Another European language that is very distinct from its neighbors. Spoken in Northeastern Italy, it has some similarities to Italian, but uses a number of special characters that appear in French but not Italian – for instance, phrases like “Piruç gno dolç inculurît” (“my sweet colored pear”) look more French than Italian,whereas others like “Telefone la polizìe” (“telephone the police!”) are very similar to Italian. But then some words look almost Slavic, with their special characters (for example: “viağ” for journey). Friulian is spoken by 300,000 people, but most speak Italian as well. It is related to Ladin (not to be confused with Latin) and a few different languages in the Rhaeto-Romance group, like the Swiss Romansh language. It is not endangered, thanks to a surge of interest in the language during the 20th century but it is relatively unusual.
Also known as Birale, this is a language spoken by only around 10 people on the west bank of the
There is no written form, but SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics), who are
part of Wycliffe Bible Translators, have made a study of the language, so as to
preserve it for future generations. The current speakers are all elderly and
the language is likely to become extinct in the near future, although many of
the speakers also speak Oromo, which was used to communicate between SIL and
the Ongota speakers. So it’s likely that when the speakers die, or
Weito River (Phonetic spelling), the language is likely to
too. It’s also been studied by Italian linguist Graziano Savà (pictured above),
who went to live with the native speakers and try and learn their language.
In some ways, this is the linguistic opposite to languages like Ongota. Rather than an organically-derived language which is now dying out, Esperanto is an artifical language which never quite took off. Still, it is estimated that there are between 100,000 and 2,000,000 speakers of Esperanto now, although a very small proportion of those speak it as a native language. Created by L.L.Zamenhof in 1887, it was designed to be a universal language and one that took elements from all the existing European languages. The vocabulary largely comes from Romance languages like French (e.g. “Saluton” for “Hello” is similar to the French “Salut”), although the pronunication is more Slavic in nature. It was adopted by the artifical nation of
which stood on a platform in the Adriatic Sea,
but has never really caught on as an official language anywhere else.
Another language which is linguistically isolated from the surrounding languages, Breton is spoken by the people of Brittany,
France, but is
one of the Celtic languages like Welsh and Cornish rather than a Romance
language like French. Breton was classed as “severely endangered” at the turn
of the century, after the number of speakers has dropped to just 20% of the
number in 1950. However, since then it has been taught in schools and the
number of children speaking it has gradually increased. However, it is likely that
there are no native speakers left, and all Breton speakers use French as their
first language. It is also not an official language of France, despite
pressure on the government to make it one. It’s a difficult language to learn
ins some ways, sharing things like consonant mutations with its cousin Welsh.
Still, it seems to be surviving for now!
One of the most common mistakes made about languages is that Finnish is similar to its neighbouring languages Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. It’s not. While there are cultural overlaps between the four Scandinavian countries, the linguistic overlaps are limited to just three of them. Finnish is an entirely unrelated language, coming from the Uralic language family, rather than the Indo-European family. It is immensely complicated, with 14 different cases for different grammatical situations, and far harder for English speakers to learn than the North Germanic languages like Swedish. It also sounds significantly different to the European languages and has no close relations, although it has some similarities with Estonian and Hungarian.
This is another artificial language, spoken by entirely fictional beings -the Klingons from “Star Trek”. But there’s nothing unusual about alien races speaking their own language, is there? Every sci-fi show has a few lines of incomprehensible alien-ese. But what makes Klingon different is that it’s a fully developed language, with its own grammar and phonetical systems. It was developed for “Star Trek III: Search for Spock” by a linguist called Marc Okrand and has a few unusual features – such as having different words for plural forms rather than an affix (e.g. “jengva” means “plate”, but “plates” is “ngop”). It also has its own writing system, but the Klingon dictionary uses Latin script so that even beginners can learn it. Of course, it’s only hard-core geeks that actually speak Klingon but it’s still an interesting linguistic phenomenon in its own right.
3. Ayapa Zoque
This is another sadly endangered language but what makes it interesting is the relationship between the last two speakers of it. They are both elderly men, living in
but they refuse to speak to each other so while the language is still retained
in their heads, it isn’t actually being used anywhere in the world. There is an
effort to preserve the language before it dies out, spearheaded by Daniel
Suslak of Indiana University, but the two men refuse to have a
conversation in front of him, even for academic purposes. No-one is really sure
why Manuel Segovia (above) and Isidro Velasquez dislike each other so much but
it seems that they are prepared to let the language die rather than make
friends. So, despite Suslak’s best efforts, no written version of Ayapa Zoque
This is another project from the Wycliffe Bible Translators, specifically by former missionary Daniel Everett (above). He lived with the Pirahã people of
for 7 years and described some of the language after leaving. His descriptions
both puzzled and infuriated the linguistic community and caused a row between
two of the leading brains in Linguistics, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. The
Pirahã language just seemed to be lacking many of the elements previously
thought to be essential for language – they had no words for number or
color and only three pronouns. But the lack of subordinate clause (e.g. “When
I’ve caught the fish, we will eat it”) was the one that upset Chomsky, as it
undermined his theory of Universal Grammar and fits more with Pinker’s theories
that language is gained by learning. Apparently, they are still arguing
about it now. Meanwhile, Everett
never mastered the language or managed to teach the native people Portuguese
and later left the ministry.
And for the number one position…a language that is only spoken by one person in the world, according to SIL.That person is Amadeo Garcia (above) and although he lives in a native community of 20, he is the only Taushiro speaker. It’s another South American language, from
Peru and has no
close relations with any language, although it has been tentatively grouped
with Candoshi, and Omurano, two other “language isolates” from the Amazonian
region, although they are not particularly similar. It’s been studied
by western linguists so may still be preserved for posterity. The
counting system only seems to go from one (“washikanto”) to ten, with speakers
using their fingers and toes for numbers above ten. A nearly extinct language
but hopefully one that will still be documented after the last speaker has