Europe has close to 100. The United States, over 300. Africa, nearly 2000.
We’re talking about spoken languages.
From the indigenous to the transposed, the spoken word—or spoken sound, we’ll get to that later on—is vast. It’s fluid. Languages take on a life of their own. They’re born, they change and sometimes they die.
People move all over the world for new experiences and opportunities. Yet, despite this yearning for the something different, people tend to hold their native tongue close to the heart. Why? It’s simple. Our native language represents a large part of our cultural, national and personal identities.
It’s only natural that we want to preserve it for the next generation and generations to come. Just think, it’s believed that New York City, a major diversity hub, is home to over 800 languages. That’s nearly twice the amount of the entire United States. Not everyone has heard of many of these languages, but it goes to show the power of preservation. No matter where we are in the world, we want to keep our language alive.
Unfortunately, that’s not always possible.
Despite the world’s rich linguistic panoply, there are hundreds of languages that are endangered and extinct, in large part due to globalization—which, while okay in many other instances, doesn’t do any favors for endangered languages—but also war, genocide and the imposition of national languages. Assimilation is another big contributor. Sometimes the desire to simply fit in causes people to forgo their native language and adopt the one that’s more commonly spoken in their region of the world.
There’s actually one tiny concession that globalization makes for the world of linguistics. It opens the door to opportunity. As the world gets smaller and smaller, our individual worlds actually get bigger. We’re now able to seek out information and answers and make discoveries. Who knows how many languages the world has lost over the course of human existence? At least now, we have the opportunity to try to preserve those that are on their way out. Of course, many will still be lost, but now we have the ability to identify them, acknowledge that they once existed and possibly learn new things in the process.
The obscure, the unknown and the untouched all amount to excitement, possibility, creativity and beyond. Let’s expand our minds. Let’s take a peek into the hidden corners of our planet. You never know what you might find.
A Whole New World: 10 Obscure Languages from Around the Globe
Region: South Africa
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 8 million
Of its 11 official languages, Xhosa, part of the Bantu family, is one of the most commonly spoken in South Africa. It was also the native language of Nelson Mandela! With 8 million speakers, it may seem like Xhosa is thriving, and technically speaking, it is. However, in a linguistic sense, 8 million is a small number. To put it into perspective, Mandarin has over 900 million—that’s almost one billion—native speakers. So by comparison, 8 million is blip on the language radar.
The language itself is uniquely characterized by clicks and tonal variations to differentiate the meaning of words. A single word could have several meanings just based on tone. The clicks, however, are by far the most interesting part of this language. They’re represented by the letters c, x and q. There are three different kinds of clicks: dental for c (tut-tut sound), alveolar for q (cork popping sound) and lateral for x (teeth sucking sound). And to make things harder, each of these clicks have several variations.
Here, try to say ugqirha (doctor) using the appropriate click. Or try even saying Xhosa properly. Not so easy is it? Many non-native speakers find this language quite difficult to master so don’t feel bad.
In any case, if you want to hear a sample of the fascinating sounds of Xhosa, click here.
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 3 million
This is an Eastern Slavic language with a close relation to Russian and Ukrainian. To some extent the languages are mutually intelligible. Still in the millions, there’s a fair amount of speakers in the world. However, 3 million is less than half of the population of London, so the language is really spoken on quite a small scale.
Russian colonization is the main cause. Many Belarusians speak fluent Russian, although the reverse isn’t true. In fact, Russian is so common in Belarus that an overwhelming majority of Belarusians choose to speak Russian in their day-to-day lives as opposed to Belarusian.
The language itself has got 6 vowels, up to 48 consonants and up to 54 phonemes (English has 44). It’s written in the Cyrillic alphabet (also used by other Slavic languages such as Russian and Serbian), but it’s also been written with Latin, Arabic and Hebrew script. There are also two main dialects which can be found in the northeast and the southwest. Until the early 1900s, there was really no standardized grammar. Then, finally, amidst of some political unrest, Cyrillic became the only alphabet used for official writing.
Despite its turbulent past, Belarusian still perseveres. In recent years, there has been an increase in public support to make the language a larger part of the cultural identity. Let’s hope that support continues to grow.
In the meantime, please enjoy this Belarusian rap.
Region: La Gomera, Canary Islands
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 22,000
Who needs consonants, nouns, verbs and letters? The people of La Gomera Island certainly don’t. On this lovely island off the coast of Spain, the inhabitants have transformed the Spanish language so that it can be communicated through whistles. That’s right, this is a whistle language.
The people of this tiny patch of land speak Spanish—Canarian Spanish, that is—but they take great pride in Silbo Gomero. Once on the verge of extinction, there was a revival in the late 90s, and teaching it in schools on the island has been required since 1999. It was even added to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009.
The language is communicated over large valleys and ravines in this mountainous region. This is because words get jumbled and distorted over long distances. Just recall a time when someone has tried to shout to you from far away. Our first response is typically “Huh?!” or “What?!” and the other person has to repeat themselves several times for the message to come across. Whistling, however, can transmit with perfect clarity for up to three miles (five kilometers).
Silbo Gomero replaces the five vowels in Spanish with two tones where i is the highest pitch and o is the lowest pitch, and the other vowels fall in the middle. The consonants, however, are represented by dropping from high to low pitch, low to high pitch, breaks, steadiness and volume. For the untrained ear, all of this just sounds like a lovely melody, but for the people in La Gomera the sounds are as distinct as the letters and words on this page.
Want to get a sense of how it works? Click the link above, and then check out this fun little video.
Region: Bougainville, Papua New Guinea
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 4,000
This is considered to be one of the simplest of the known languages, trailing only behind Pirahã (see below). The language has a mere 12 letters and 11 phonemes (t and s are the same sound). Vowels have a long and short counterpart, but there are no real tonal distinctions in their speech. It has three dialects which are: Central Rotokas, Aita Rotokas and Pipipaia.
One unique bit about this language is that it doesn’t use nasal tones. Actually, it does, but only when speakers are making fun of foreigners who attempt to speak Rotokas. How about that? If you’re unsure of when we use nasal tones in our own speech, refer to the letter n. It’s very nasal. It’s probably most apparent when you have a cold, but say n right now and hold it. You should feel a vibration right in the bridge of your nose. This particular form of speech is so second nature to us that we don’t even notice it, and apparently, we incorporate it into a language that doesn’t even use it.
Now, just for fun, try saying n without the nasal component. I suggest you go in a room and close the door, because it gets really weird really fast.
When you’re done with that, here’s taste of some real life Rotokas.
Region: United States and Canada
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: less than 1000
Here’s where the numbers start to reach a critical low. This is “classified” as an impossible language.
Michif is the language of the Metis people who are descendants of European fur traders, and located in certain regions of Canada and small pockets of North Dakota. It’s a combination of Cree, an Algonquian language, and French, and it’s believed to have been created out of a desire for a cultural identity. Although Michif is a product of both Cree and French, most Michif speakers aren’t fluent in either language.
Conceptually, Michif is quite simple. It combines French nouns and Cree verbs. Linguistic scholars tear their hair out over this. According to these scholars, it’s impossible that these two very different languages, one being a Romance language, and the other being a polysynthetic language could possibly work together. Sure, opposites attract, but this goes beyond an odd couple scenario. Cree is to French as apples are to…fax machines. The language breaks all the laws of linguistics and doesn’t fall into any real classification. There are even linguists who won’t acknowledge that the language exists.
But it does.
Let’s take a look at the phrase “those men.” In French you say ces hommes-là. In Cree you say neekik nâpêwak. In Michif, a combination of the two, you say neekik lii zom. While it may look like gibberish, the last two words (lii zom) when said out loud should be quite recognizable to even a novice French speaker. So really, it does work, and it’s quite cool and interesting. If you speak French (and even if you don’t), give it a shot, say it out loud.
Also, to the linguistic scholars out there who still don’t believe: Rules were meant to be broken, and we conquer the impossible every day. Try to not trouble yourself too much over this. Humans are just badass. What can we say? It’s the world we live in, and it’s pretty awesome.
Anyway, how about it Francophiles? Can you pick out any familiar words?
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 970
This is a Northeast Caucasian language spoken throughout seven small villages of Archib in Dagestan, Russia. This is one of the most complex languages on the list. Until recently, there was no written form of Archi, but once again Cyrillic characters have come to save the day.
The Archi language certainly likes to keep things interesting. The alphabet consists of 26 vowel phonemes and a modest 74 to 82 consonants. Also, rather than two noun classes like in many of the languages that we’re familiar with, masculine and feminine, Archi has four. It has 150 phonemes, and if you think that’s a lot, it’s believed that a single verb can have over 1.5 million forms. Somehow that stereotype that English is one of the hardest languages to learn seems to be quickly falling by the wayside. Archi will leave you sprinting to the nearest Mandarin course for a taste of something simpler.
Region: Northeast India
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 800
Koro was “discovered” by linguists in recent years during the mid-2000s. It brought the number of known global languages to 6,909. Koro is in the Tibeto-Burman language family, which consists of 400 other languages, 150 of which are spoken in India. Koro, however, appears to be unto a world of its own, as it’s only very distantly related to its linguistic contemporaries. Researchers have found that Koro is as distinct from its neighboring languages as Greek is from Vietnamese.
The main difference between Koro and its related languages is that it’s comprised of different sounds. For example, in the neighboring language Aka, the word for “pig” is vo, and in Koro it’s lele. Researchers believe that the language may have come from a group of people who were enslaved in the region. For these people, Koro isn’t just communication, but it’s strongly linked to the valley in which this small village is situated. It encompasses everything known about the region and the secrets of their own survival. If this language were to become extinct, the world wouldn’t just be losing a language, but a race of people would be losing a major part of their heritage.
You can get a sample of what researchers discovered about Koro in this video from National Geographic.
Region: Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 380
We’re now deep in the Amazon.
Pirahã is the only surviving dialect of the Mura languages. Although it has so few speakers, there’s actually no immediate threat to its extinction. The Pirahã community is largely monolingual, so there’s no concern that the language will be phased out like many of the others in the region that were replaced by Portuguese. The Pirahã have had limited interaction with the outside world except for the extensive research by Dr. Daniel Everett.
With only 10-12 phonemes, which consists of 7 consonants and 3 vowels, it’s considered the simplest language in the world. For the women in the community, it’s even simpler. They use one less consonant than the men. What’s most interesting about this language is that it’s largely conceptual. There are no fixed words for numbers and colors. The words hói and hoí, when said in different tones, roughly mean “small quantity” and “large quantity.” With no fixed terms for colors rather than saying that something is “green,” they may say something along the lines of “It looks like grass.”
The Pirahã language focuses on the present. As a culture, the people don’t concern themselves with the past. If they don’t see something, then it doesn’t exist. For example, if a bird was on a tree and then flew away to another tree, the Pirahã would say that the bird is xibipio (gone out of existence). Although the language is technically “simple,” the culture and psychology are so deeply connected that it takes something like the extensive research of Dr. Everett to really get a grasp of this unique language and culture.
Region: Tabasco, Mexico
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: 2
This centuries-old language is nearly extinct. It was once a minority language spoken regularly throughout the region, but began to die out on account of the passage of time, modernization, and the widespread use of Spanish. Ayapaneco survived wars and natural disasters and now it’s down to its last legs. There are only two people who actually speak it.
What’s interesting is that for many years, the last two speakers, Manuel Segovia and Isidro Velazquez, would not speak to each other. Whether there was a falling out or it was just due to the limitations of old age, no one is really sure. However, for quite some time, with the two men refusing to speak Ayapaneco, it was like the language had actually died. Luckily, within the last two years, Manuel and Isidro called for a revival and decided that they would teach the language to anyone who wanted to learn. Now there’s a strong movement in the region to keep the language alive.
We’ll be rooting for your survival, Ayapaneco. For now, you can watch how the pros do it.
Region: North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal
Approximate Number of Native Speakers: Unknown
There’s one thing that makes Sentinelese stand out from all of the other languages on this list. No one has ever heard it.
That is, no one apart from the native speakers themselves.
The small North Sentinel Island, just a touch larger than the island of Manhattan, houses an isolated tribe of people who aren’t too keen on foreign relations. Basically, if you get too close they’ll shoot an arrow through you. Anthropologist Trilokinath Pandit is the only person to have made contact with the Sentinelese without having been severely wounded or killed.
The only information on this language, obtained from very scant observations, is that the Sentinelese greet each other in a two-toned system; but even this little bit of intelligence isn’t reliable. Since no one has been able to study them extensively, these sounds could have been misinterpreted as greetings. It’s thought that the language may have some similarities to the surrounding Andamanese tribes, but no one can be sure. All we know is that this is an unyielding bunch—they managed to survive the 2004 tsunami—who don’t want anything to do with outsiders.
If you’re really keen on hearing what are sure to be the mellifluous musings of the Sentinelese people, maybe you can make history. We’d love some more data for this post. You’ll have to try, with an emphasis on try, to sneak onto the island by way or raft or canoe. They’ve been known to shoot at helicopters, planes and boats. If you manage to make it onto the island unscathed, you won’t have to go searching. They’ll find you. See if they’d be up for a chat. Let us know what comes of it. Good luck.
Don’t go anywhere just yet. There’s one more language, albeit an unconventional one, that deserves a spot on this list of the obscure.
Region of the World: Anywhere that there are hardcore “Star Trek” fans
Approximate Number of Fluent Speakers: 30
Now, let us “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Okay, well, maybe some have gone there, but Klingon doesn’t typically end up on these kinds of lists. That may be because of the small issue that it isn’t technically a real language. Klingon was created for the “Star Trek” series, spoken by the aliens from the planet Kronos. It was turned into a full on language by linguist Mark Okrand.
With only 3,000 words, it’s difficult to have any meaningful conversations in Klingon, especially since many of the words are centered on things like intergalactic wars, spacecrafts and other such things we generally don’t discuss most days of the week. Speakers have to be very creative when trying to express themselves. For example, something as simple as “how are you?” becomes bIpIv’a (are you healthy?), and “cheers” becomes ‘IwlIj jachjaj (may your blood scream). Apparently, there are about 30 people in the world who don’t mind the trouble. There was even a man who tried to raise his son on the language.
Though “Star Trek” is clamoring to remain relevant as Marvel dominates the nerdiverse—not to mention the “Star Wars” saga—Klingon is perhaps in less danger of extinction than Xhosa despite being short 7,999,970 fluent speakers. There are thousands who can just “get by” in Klingon and even more who know a word or two here and there. Trekkies of the world are both faithful and vigilant. As long as “Star Trek” conventions continue to grace major cities, Klingon is sure to continue touching fans of generations past, present and future. And the Klingon Language Institute will see to it. So will Duolingo. Yup, you read that correctly. The popular language learning website plans to launch a beta Klingon course this coming December.
We know you’re all holding your breath in anticipation.
While you anxiously await the big day, here are some words of wisdom from America’s favorite genius.
Our journey around the globe has come to an end. Hopefully, it has inspired you to learn something different and new. Maybe you can even challenge yourself to actually learn one of these tough languages, at least the ones that are accessible.
You’ll certainly be the center of happy hour if you suddenly drop some fluent Rotokas on your colleagues; just be sure to apply the unapologetic wisdom of comedian Kevin Hart, and “say it with your chest.”
Live long and prosper, friends.
And One More Thing…
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