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 (like English and Spanish) 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 (e.g. in “I feed the dog”, the verb would be modified to fit with both “I” and “the dog”). 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”, (“you buy the newspapers for me”) 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” (“my sweet colored pear”) look more French than Italian,whereas others like “Telefone la polizìe” (“telephone the police!”) are very similar to Italian. But then some words look almost Slavic, with their special characters (for example: “viağ” for journey).
Friulian is spoken by 300,000 people, but most speak Italian as well. It is related to Ladin (not to be confused with Latin) 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 (Summer Institute of Linguistics), 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, or <ku’tip> (Phonetic spelling), the language is likely to <ku’tip> too. It’s also been studied by Italian linguist Graziano Savà (pictured above), 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 (e.g. “Saluton” for “Hello” is similar to the French “Salut”), 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!