Language The World's Strangest Languages  

Kellen Perry
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Not to sound like a stoner stereotype, but all languages are strange to people that can’t speak them, right? A study ranking the most unusual languages using strict linguistic guidelines reveals that even so-called “normal” languages such as German or English are actually pretty unusual, relatively speaking. English, in fact, ranked #33 on that list of most unusual languages - out of more than 2,500. If you’re talking about unique or rare linguistic properties, plenty of major languages are pretty strange.

That said, some of the so-called “weirdest languages in the world” are weird for other reasons besides just being unlike the others. Say what you will about German, but at least you can ask a yes/no question using it, unlike in the Chalcatongo Mixtec language. Sure, English is crazy, but at least you can reference where you are in space without knowing which way is north at all times, unlike in the Guugu Yimithirr language. Read on for more examples of some of the truly strangest languages used on planet Earth.

Chalcatongo Mixtec: Oaxaca, Mexico

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The Chalcatongo Mixtec language, spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, is statistically the weirdest language in the world, according to Stanford-trained linguist Tyler Schnoebelen. What does that mean? Victor Mair sums it up nicely on the University of Pennsylvania’s Language Log: “In this context, ‘weird’ means roughly ‘has linguistic features that are unlike those of most other languages.’”

What Schnoebelen did was analyze 2,676 world languages using the World Atlas of Language Structures, seeing which ones shared 192 different language features and which ones didn’t. Using this criteria, the Chalcatongo Mixtec language is as unusual a language as you’ll find on this planet.

What’s so weird about it? Far and away the weirdest thing about Chalcatongo Mixtec is that it has no method for demonstrating yes or no questions. The question “Is this weird?” and the statement “This is weird” are literally indistinguishable. As Monica Ann Macauley writes in A Grammar of Chalcatongo Mixtec, “There is no marking of the interrogative status [of yes/no questions] by question particle, intonation, tone, or other method.”

Schnoebelen says Chalcatongo Mixtec is the only language in the world with this trait.

Pirahã: Amazonas, Brazil

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Linguist Dr. Dan Everett claims that the Pirahã people of Amazonian Brazil have a language that lacks recursion, color terms, and number terms - and they're unique in that regard. His bold claims are not without their critics; in fact, some of his fellow linguists think he’s “a fraud, an attention-seeker or worse,” according to the New York Times.

His claims about recursion - embedding phrases within phrases - have garnered the most attention, since they fly in the face of Noam Chomsky’s claims that all languages feature recursion. His claims about the Pirahã’s lack of numbers have far more support: at least three different research teams have published papers backing that claim up.

So how can people get by without number terms or color terms (if that’s true)? In place of color terms, Everett claims, they use the equivalent of “light” and “dark.” For numbers, they keep it simple and use their version of “few” and “many” (among other terms that translate to “big,” “group,” “small,” “much,” etc.).

The Times, paraphrasing Everett, says their culture is not simple-minded, but instead emphasizes “concrete matters in the here and now” and lacks “creation myths and traditions of art making.”

Tuyuca: Amazonas, Brazil

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In 2009, The Economist called the Tuyuca language of the eastern Amazon the “hardest language” in the world for two key reasons. First of all, it’s what’s called an agglutinating language, which means that a ton of morphemes - single units of meaning - snap together into a long word to do the “work” of an entire sentence.  To use The Economist’s cheeky example: in English, we’d say “I do not know how to write.” In the agglutinating language of Turkish, for example, that would just be "hóabãsiriga."

But, as the example shows, agglutinating alone doesn’t necessarily make a language difficult or strange. Tuyuca has the added difficulty of being a so-called “evidential” language, such as the Matses language of Peru, that basically requires speakers and writers to “fact check” as they go, “like the finickiest of lawyers,” to quote a New York Times Magazine piece on the topic.

The verbs in Tuyuca require a sense of how the speaker knows something. You can’t just say “The boy played soccer,” as The Economist notes. You have to say, for example, "The boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)” (diga ape-wi) or “The boy played soccer (I assume)” (diga ape-hiyi).

!Xóõ: Botswana

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The !Xóõ or Taa language of Botswana is one of several so-called “clicking” languages spoken in southern Africa, all of which sound pretty strange to foreign ears. What sets !Xóõ apart is the “blistering array of unusual sounds” that make it one of the most complex spoken languages in the world.

Tony Traill, the leading non-Botswanan expert on !Xóõ, for example, developed a lump on his larynx trying to master the “five basic clicks and 17 accompanying ones” and the four vowel types (each with four varying tones). He later learned that adult !Xóõ-speakers all develop the same lump.