An overview of a few of the most interesting languages currently in existence.
If you’re a language translation professional or simply a linguistic enthusiast, then you understand me when I say that language is fascinating and beautiful. The end result of billions of people working in concert for thousands of years, language is a combination of thought, description, and commerce that paints a picture of the world we live in an how we interact with that world. In each and every language that has ever existed there is the story of the culture and people who created it over the course of their history, and as a language changes and evolves so do the people who speak it, and vice versa.
This complex and amazing process has had a lot of unexpected results. I love digging up interesting stories about languages that surprise and challenge our conceptions of the world – and if you’re reading this I can only assume you do as well. Here are three of the most interesting language stories I’ve come across recently, which I hope you find as intriguing as I do.
The language of Ayapaneco was once a fairly vibrant minor language spoken in a secluded area of Mexico. However, in the 20th Century Mexico embarked on an aggressive policy of teaching Spanish in schools, and one of the unexpected results was a sharp decline in people speaking Ayapaneco, with the end result being that today only a very, very small number of people in the world speak it. In fact, there is a rumour that only two people still speak the language fluently – though this story is often called false. The rumour also often has the last two native speakers refusing to speak to each other due to a falling out, adding a tragic if slightly unbelievable aspect to this story. Still, if there are more than two fluent speakers out there, there aren’t many, and so Ayapaneco is a language we can literally watch die.
In the Namibia and Botswana regions of Africa there live about 3,000 people who speak a language called Taa, which is fascinating because it’s a “clicking” language that contains more than 120 consonant sounds – as well as 31 vowels and four tones. This makes Taa not only one of the most difficult to master in the entire world, it also means it has perhaps the largest number of phonemes in the world as well. For simple comparison, the English we are reading and writing in here has only about 24 consonant sounds to work with.
Now, if you think a language with so many consonant sounds can be a challenge to a casual speaker and translation services professional alike, let’s consider Archi, a language spoken by a small ethnic group within Russia that has potentially 1.5 million verb endings. You read that correctly: Every verb root in the Archi language has so many irregular options that mathematically, you can wind up with 1.5 million versions of the verb expressing slightly different concepts.