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Extraordinary Language Features

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

Dear FCI,


I’m sure you all know by now that I’m a fan of the strange and unique; I like things that are different from the norm—offbeat destinations, unconventional cultural practices, etc. Today, I want to talk about unique features of languages.


Now, if you think about it, languages in general are rather peculiar—they are created (and sometimes we aren’t sure exactly how) and they evolve over time. Languages live and die through speakers; they are entities among us, if you really think about it.


Languages tend to have similar characteristics to them—from the way they are structured, to their grammatical properties, and linguistic components. But today, I want to tell you about languages that hold titles such as “world’s weirdest languages” and those that have characteristics that stand out from others.


Papua New Guinea is perhaps the most linguistically diverse country in the world, with over 800 different languages spoken (that’s twice the amount of total language spoken on the European continent). One language that sticks out from the rest is Rotokas.

It’s alleged that Rotokas is one of the easiest languages to learn due to the size of its alphabet—it only contains 12 letters: A, E, G, I, K, O, P, R, S, T, U, and V. In addition, the language only has 11 phonemes, or perceptually distinct units of sound that distinguish one word from another—two of the letters in this alphabet sound exactly the same.




We are all familiar with verb conjugations: I’m walking, I walked, I will be walking, etc. There are quite a few different verb conjugations in English, but this language spoken in Russia has considerably more. Archi is spoken by roughly 900 speakers in a few villages outlining the Risor river in Dagestan, and what makes this language stand out is a verb can have up to 1.5 million different conjugations!



Mixtecan languages vary based on region, and are primarily spoken in the Oaxaca, Puebla, and Guerrero states of Mexico, in addition to parts of California. This language is spoken by 6,000 people mainly in the state of Oaxaca and what sets this variant apart from the rest is the inability to create yes or no questions. For example, rather than saying “Are you here?” the phrase in Chalcatongo Mixtec would be something like “You are here.”



When I was learning Spanish, it was difficult for me to conceptualize gender associated with words. Tuyuca takes this concept even further—In this language there are more than 100 genders for words! In addition to that, it is considered an agglutinating language, which means that many morphemes collect to make rather long words, which are essentially equivalent to entire sentences.

Therefore, several words in this language may equate to an entire paragraph! And to top it off, the language also incorporates word endings that signify whether or not you fully understand the topic that is currently being discussed.

 


I talked about whistled languages in another letter, but a letter about unique features of languages wouldn’t be complete without its inclusion. Silbo Gomero, or el Silbo, is a language specific to La Gomero island of the Spanish Canary Islands. It’s spoken strictly using whistled speech due to the geographical structure of the island. The sound of whistles carry further than normal speech so residents can speak to each other from far away distances.


Unfortunately, the language is dying due to the use of technology making the use of whistled speech obsolete, but there have been efforts to revitalize the language given its uniqueness and outside interest.


 



Aymara is spoken in the Andes in South America, and what makes this language stand out is the conception of time. Aymara speakers refer to the future as behind them, and the past as in front of them, contrary to the concept present in many other languages.


It’s said they do this because they believe the future is unknown, so it’s not visible in front of them—therefore it’s behind them. And the past has already happened, so it’s apparent and right in front of them.





Pirahã is a language spoken in the Amazon in Brazil, and there are several aspects that make this language anomalous. To start off, the language doesn’t incorporate numbers or colors. Rather than specifying a number, speakers would say something along the lines of “few” or “many” and rather than having specific colors for things, they would refer to it as “light” or “dark.” Another element of this language that brought considerable controversy is its lack of recursion, which is a linguistic property where you can add phrases into phrases.


For example, consider the phrase: Mary went to the beach. In English, we can include phrases to further describe the sentence, like:


Mary, who loved to go swimming, went to the beach.

Mary, my neighbor, went to the beach.

Mary went to the beach, as that is her happy place.


And so on and so forth.


It was believed that all languages had recursion and this property was part of the universal grammar of languages. However, this language does not appear to have this property at all which kind of questions our understanding of linguistics overall.



Australia is home to several aboriginal languages, and this language dates back thousands of years. It’s the first aboriginal language that was written down, and its where the term “kangaroo” comes from, the original term being “gangurru.” One of the unique elements regarding this language is their concept of direction.


There are no words for left, right, front, back, etc., but rather the cardinal directions are used—North, South, East, and West. Therefore every speaker must always know what direction they are facing at all times.




 

Am I the only one that’s enamored right now? Consider for a moment having over a million verb conjugations, not having any numbers, or having to always know which way is North. As you can see, languages not only affect how we speak, but how we conceptualize things like time, it affects how we see the world and think about life in general.


Not to mention that this list only brushes upon a few unique languages, there are many more out there that stand out. And if you think about it, each language is different in their own way. Each contain their own distinct characteristics—its no wonder why learning different languages may be difficult, especially if they aren’t of the same genealogy.


I’d like to leave you with one thought: You know that feeling when you’re stuck inside for a while and then you finally go outside and feel the breeze brush upon your skin? It invigorates you, reminds you that it exists even though you can’t see it. Consider language to be like the wind—invigorating, inspiring, and there when we need it to remind us of how glorious it truly is.


That's all for now,





Sources


Joe Scott. (2019, March 14). 5 Of The Weirdest Languages In The World | Random Thursday [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gybTMf_Xa10


OptiLingo. (2022). 10 weird languages that exist in the world today. OptiLingo. https://www.optilingo.com/blog/general/10-weird-languages-exist-today/


Parajka, D., & Parajka, D. (2022). 10 strangest languages in the world. Lexika. https://www.lexika-translations.com/blog/10-strangest-languages-in-the-world/


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Guest
Feb 05

Ugh--Language is LIFE! <3

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