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 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. 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”, 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” look more French than Italian,whereas others like “Telefone la polizìe” are very similar to Italian. But then some words look almost Slavic, with their special characters.
Friulian is spoken by 300,000 people, but most speak Italian as well. It is related to Ladin 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 Weito River. There is no written form, but SIL, 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. It’s also been studied by Italian linguist Graziano Savà, 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, although the pronunication is more Slavic in nature. It was adopted by the artifical nation of Rose Island, 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. 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 Mexico, 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 exists.
This is another project from the Wycliffe Bible Translators, specifically by former missionary Daniel Everett. He lived with the Pirahã people of Brazil 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 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 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 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 died.