The world is full of diverse and fascinating languages and dialects, each with its own history, culture, and features. And although we here at Managed Language like to think we know everything there is to know about…well, language, we know that’s not true! Every day there’s another fascinating fact or figure about local dialects. So we thought, why not share some of the more surprising ones?!
Silbo Gomero is a whistled language used by the inhabitants of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. The exact history is a little hazy, but it’s widely accepted that it was being used long before the Spanish settlement in the 16th century, by the Guanches, the indigenous peoples of the Island. It is said that this whistled language can travel to a distance of 3.2K due to the landscape of steep ravines and deep valleys. Far more effective than shouting, and easily more efficient than travelling to “talk”, this was used right up until the early 20th century, having been adapted to Spanish when they settled there.
Its usage began to decline as more and more whistlers had to move away to larger islands for jobs, so by the 1950s and 60s, there were few speakers left to pass it down to the younger generations. But this is not a story of loss — due to the concerted revitalisation efforts on both a community and governmental level, it has been taught in schools since 1999. And, in 2009, UNESCO declared it a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Pirahã, spoken by the indigenous group of the same name living in the Amazon rainforest, is an amazing language. It’s seen as one of the simplest, and most restrictive, languages in the world because it has only 8 consonants, 3 vowels, no numbers, no colours, no recursion, and no abstract concepts.
Instead of numbers, they use comparative terms such as “bigger” or “smaller.” To them, two fish are “bigger” than one fish, just as one large fish is “bigger” than a minnow. They also don’t have words for colour! Like with numbers, the Pirahã think of colours in relative terms. So, something can be “darker” or “like blood.”
Lastly, the Pirahã language also lacks phatic communication, which is a fancy word for small talk, like “how are you?” or “thank you”. Instead of expressing thanks, they tend to reciprocate the kindness at a later date. Perhaps the most important fact, though, is that most speakers of Pirahã are monolingual, so can only speak this language — meaning, it’s not going anywhere any time soon!
Another language with a tiny alphabet is Rotokas — spoken by about 4,000 people on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. With just 12 letters (6 vowels and 6 consonants), it is the smallest alphabet in the world, and only has 9 possible syllables! In fact, the nasal ‘n’ is only ever heard when the inhabitants of the island are mimicking foreigners.
It has a very simple phonology too, with only 9 possible syllables. But perhaps what is most interesting is that speakers don’t use tone or stress to distinguish words or phrases. For example, an English speaker would use their tone to express incredulity or surprise, while Rotokas speakers use the same tone for everything. Despite this, it’s said to be one of the easiest languages to learn!
In direct contrast to Rotokas, the Taa language system has the largest number of phonemes (ie. distinct sounds) in the world! With over 100 consonants and over 40 vowels, it’s one of the most complex languages discovered. And, if we’re being specific (which we always are when it comes to language!), it should be considered a ‘dialect continuum’, rather than a language, as there are a range of variations depending on where it is being spoken.
Primarily spoken in Botswana, but also found in Nambia, it is used by roughly 4,000 people. It’s famous, however, for its extensive use of click sounds — in fact, one study found that 82% of the base vocabulary begins with a click!
The Sentinelese is spoken by an isolated tribe on North Sentinel Island, a part of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s actually one of the most mysterious languages in the world, as the tribe has very little contact with outsiders, and resists any attempts to communicate. To make things even trickier, the population of the said island is around 200~ but again, we’re not entirely certain due to their lack of interest in socialising with the outside world.
We think the language is related to other Adamanese languages, but it isn’t mutually intelligible with any of them. There are so few friendly interactions with the inhabitants of this island that we know virtually nothing about this language. So, unfortunately, this is all the info we have about this language — but that’s still cool, right?!
These are just some examples of the most interesting and unusual languages in the world. There are many more that we could explore, like as Klingon (yes, it’s an accepted language!), Esperanto, Elfdalian or Nushu. Each has its own story and charm and deserves to be appreciated and preserved.