8 Fascinating Characteristics of Different Languages
There are around 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world.
About 500 of these are seriously endangered; a language dies out, on average, every two weeks. At the same time, new languages are born – Nicaraguan Sign Language, for instance, can be traced back to its origins in 1977, where the first school for deaf children was opened. They developed a primitive sign language to communicate with one another, and over the years, this evolved into a fully developed language with its own grammar and syntax.
With all of these languages, and the constant changes they experience, it’s unsurprising that some languages have features that are – at least to English speakers – quite strange. In this article, we look at eight different languages from all around the world, and what it is that makes them unusual.
1. Taa has 83 click consonants
Taa, also known as !Xóõ, is a language spoken by about 5,000 people in Botswana and Namibia, who are mostly members of the ǃXoon ethnic group. If you’re wondering why ǃXoon and !Xóõ have an exclamation mark at the start, it’s because that’s the best we can manage in a Latin alphabet to incorporate the click consonant at the start of the words.
Xhosa is probably the best known language with click consonants (here’s a YouTube video explaining how to pronounce the ‘x’ click at the start of the word ‘Xhosa’) but with only 18 click consonants, Xhosa has significantly fewer than the 83 different types of click recorded in Taa. Because of all of these varieties of clicks, Taa has the greatest number of consonants of any language in the world; Juǀʼhoan, a dialect of the !Kung language, has the second-highest number of clicks with 48. However, these counts are necessarily approximations, as there are debates about what constitutes a distinct type of click and what doesn’t.
With 5,000 speakers (only about half of those native speakers), you might think that this language would be endangered, but in fact it’s relatively healthy; about a third of the world’s languages survive with less than a thousand speakers. But despite its relatively small number of speakers, the area where Taa is spoken spreads over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, and it consists of several distinct dialects.
2. It might be possible to speak in Pirahã through whistling
It’s hard to know what is and isn’t true of Pirahã. It’s a language spoken by the Pirahã people, who are hunter-gatherers living on the banks of the Maici River in Brazil. There are fewer than 500 Pirahã speakers, they are culturally and geographically isolated, and almost exclusively monolingual except for a handful of Portuguese words required for trade. It’s been stated that their language doesn’t have numbers or colours, and that the lack of numbers also means they are unable to count or do any kind of arithmetic beyond gauging whether one group of objects is smaller or larger than another. The evidence for this comes from only a very small handful of linguists and anthropologists who have interacted with the Pirahã – so it should be taken with a pinch of salt.
But the most interesting claim made about Pirahã is that because the language is based primarily on stress, tone and rhythm, with only a very small number of vowels and consonants, its meaning can be conveyed not only by speech but also through music. On a practical level, this means that hunters in the jungle who are too far apart to shout to each other can instead whistle, and have their meaning be understood as clearly as if it were speech. Varieties of whistled languages can be found all over the world, but the claims made for Pirahã imply a greater ability to convey meaning than in most other whistled languages.
3. Hebrew is normally written without vowels
The history of Hebrew is fascinating in its own right. It dates from the 10th century BC, but died out as a spoken language between 200 and 400 AD (which, as languages go, isn’t a bad lifespan). It survived only as the language of Jewish religious texts, and Aramaic was used instead by most of the Jewish population.
And that might have been that, but for the religious and cultural movement of the late nineteenth century that later evolved into Zionism, which revived and updated Hebrew so that it could be used as an everyday spoken language. It’s now spoken by around 9 million people worldwide, and is a first language for about half of those. No dead language has ever been revived so successfully; for comparison, a strong contender for the second most successful revival of a language extinct in common usage is that of Cornish, which counts its speakers in the thousands.
The revival of Hebrew was controversial (some Jewish people felt that it was blasphemous to consider using a religious language for everyday speech), so it’s unsurprising that one of the more notable features of Classical Hebrew wasn’t updated: the fact that it’s written without vowels. Historically, people simply knew how words were to be pronounced without the need for vowels (think about how you know how to pronounce ‘ppl’ or, indeed, ‘txt-spk’), but to make things easier, dots and dashes are now sometimes added to written Hebrew to indicate vowel pronunciation.
4. Warlpiri can have words in any order
Warlpiri is a language of indigenous Australians, spoken by about 3,000 people, which represents about half the population of the Warlpiri people. Even in the context of this list, that might not seem like a lot, but that’s more than most aboriginal languages in Australia. It also has its own highly developed sign language, which is used in a variety of settings, both where it’s necessary to be silent (for instance, in hunting) or to speak while conveying respect through silence. It can also be used in conjunction with the spoken language.
Most languages depend on word order to convey meaning, at least to a certain extent. For instance, in English, word order is very important; that could have been phrased as “word order is very important in English, for instance” but not as “English order very word important for is in instance.” Other languages, such as Latin, allow much more flexibility, but there are nonetheless certain ordering of words that, while comprehensible, would sound incorrect or at the very least, strange. In Warlpiri, this isn’t the case; it’s a rare example of a free word order language, where the order words are placed in depends on what the speaker believes deserves the greatest emphasis, or that makes logical sense depending on the flow of the conversation.
5. Hungarian has at least 18 cases (depending on how you count them)
English speakers tend not to worry about the existence of cases until they learn to speak German or Latin; changing “she” to “her” depending on what’s happening in the sentence is seldom something that a native English speaker will get wrong (with the notable exception of “who” and “whom”). So it might come as a surprise to English speakers that their language has four cases. That is, that there are four ways in which a word can change depending on how it’s used in a sentence; whether it’s the subject, direct object or indirect object in that sentence, or whether it’s possessive.
Hungarian is often colloquially said to be one of the hardest languages in the world to learn (although this, of course, varies considerably depending on your first language), and one of the reasons for this is the vast number of cases that it has – between 18 and 35, depending on how you approach the question. The 17 that make up the difference are cases that apply only to prepositions. But for those of us used to languages with only four cases, and those in evidence only very rarely, it’s unsurprising that even 18 cases would be daunting. And that’s before getting on to the 14 different vowels and the copious use of idioms.
6. It’s possible to have a proper conversation in KIingon
The most successful constructed language is probably Esperanto, with its total of two million speakers, including around a thousand native speakers. But one of the most famous, if less successful, constructed languages must be Klingon: the language spoken by the Klingons in the Star Trek franchise. It was originally devised by James Doohan (who played Scotty) in terms of its general sound and a few morsels of vocabulary, but it was linguistic Marc Okrand who was hired by Paramount to create a fully-fledged Klingon language. And dedicated Star Trek fans (“Trekkies”) have gone on to learn it, just as fans of JRR Tolkien’s word learned his constructed language of Quenya (an Elvish language).
Klingon has maybe two dozen fluent speakers, and one of them, d’Armond Speers, a member of the Klingon Language Institute (“here to promote and support this unique and exciting language”), decided to take his passion for the language a step further: by raising his son speaking it. He spoke to his son exclusively in Klingon until his fifth birthday, though his son ultimately didn’t enjoy the experiment and now no longer speaks any Klingon. At the time, Klingon lacked a lot of basic vocabulary (having words for “spaceship” but not “table”, for instance) but Speers contributed considerably to the expansion of the language so that ordinary conversation became increasingly possible.
7. Tamil is among the oldest languages in continuous use in the world
Trying to determine the oldest languages still in use in the world is a trickier question to answer than you might think. Most languages have ancient roots, but it would be absurd to claim that English is five thousand years old or more simply because of its roots in Proto-Indo-European. When a language evolves to the extent that it has become a new language is tricky to define. You can look at when a language ceases to be intelligible; speakers of Modern English can’t understand Old English, but speakers of Icelandic can understand Old Norse, so perhaps the latter two are the same language while the former two aren’t. But then, two English speakers picked at random from the streets of Glasgow and Lagos might not be able to understand one another either, but they would still be speaking the same language.
However you define it, Tamil has a strong claim to be one of the oldest languages in continuous popular use in the world. It has a literary tradition that dates back to 300 BC, and some inscriptions have been found that go back to 500 BC. It has around 70 million native speakers today, and is recognised as a classical language of India. Compare this with Latin, which has inscriptions dating back to 700 BC, but which only has a few hundred fluent speakers worldwide.
8. American Sign Language uses eyebrow positioning for questions
If you’re still feeling amazed that there are languages that work through whistling, consider how much more amazing it is that there are languages that don’t involve any sound at all; we’re just too used to the idea of sign language to consider how exciting this is. Sign languages aren’t just echoes of the spoken language in the country where they’re used; while speakers of American and British English can understand one another, users of American and British Sign Language can’t – the two languages only have about 30% of their signs in common. Confusingly, the sign for “deaf person” in ASL is the same as the sign for “hearing person” in BSL.
One feature of sign language is that it isn’t just about what the user does with their hands; facial expressions also convey meaning. In ASL, eyebrow positioning is important for questions; eyebrows should be raised for yes/no questions and for rhetorical questions, and lowered for any other questions (for instance, questions that ask “why?” or “when?”). So presumably users of ASL are less likely to confuse a rhetorical question for one that expects an answer than speakers of American English. And if you get the sign for the words right, but your eyebrows are wrong, that’s the sign language equivalent of having a strange accent.
Image credits: motswana baobab; waterfall; hebrew inscription; yoda; budapest; klingon mask; man in sri lankan market; group signing; printing.