One of the most common mistakes made about languages is that Finnish is similar to its neighbouring languages Swedish, Danish and Norwegian. It’s not. While there are cultural overlaps between the four Scandinavian countries, the linguistic overlaps are limited to just three of them. Finnish is an entirely unrelated language, coming from the Uralic language family, rather than the Indo-European family. It is immensely complicated, with 14 different cases for different grammatical situations, and far harder for English speakers to learn than the North Germanic languages like Swedish. It also sounds significantly different to the European languages and has no close relations, although it has some similarities with Estonian and Hungarian.
This is another artificial language, spoken by entirely fictional beings -the Klingons from “Star Trek”. But there’s nothing unusual about alien races speaking their own language, is there? Every sci-fi show has a few lines of incomprehensible alien-ese. But what makes Klingon different is that it’s a fully developed language, with its own grammar and phonetical systems. It was developed for “Star Trek III: Search for Spock” by a linguist called Marc Okrand and has a few unusual features – such as having different words for plural forms rather than an affix (e.g. “jengva” means “plate”, but “plates” is “ngop”). It also has its own writing system, but the Klingon dictionary uses Latin script so that even beginners can learn it. Of course, it’s only hard-core geeks that actually speak Klingon but it’s still an interesting linguistic phenomenon in its own right.
3. Ayapa Zoque
This is another sadly endangered language but what makes it interesting is the relationship between the last two speakers of it. They are both elderly men, living in Mexico, but they refuse to speak to each other so while the language is still retained in their heads, it isn’t actually being used anywhere in the world. There is an effort to preserve the language before it dies out, spearheaded by Daniel Suslak of Indiana University, but the two men refuse to have a conversation in front of him, even for academic purposes. No-one is really sure why Manuel Segovia (above) and Isidro Velasquez dislike each other so much but it seems that they are prepared to let the language die rather than make friends. So, despite Suslak’s best efforts, no written version of Ayapa Zoque exists.
This is another project from the Wycliffe Bible Translators, specifically by former missionary Daniel Everett (above). He lived with the Pirahã people of Brazil for 7 years and described some of the language after leaving. His descriptions both puzzled and infuriated the linguistic community and caused a row between two of the leading brains in Linguistics, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. The Pirahã language just seemed to be lacking many of the elements previously thought to be essential for language – they had no words for number or color and only three pronouns. But the lack of subordinate clause (e.g. “When I’ve caught the fish, we will eat it”) was the one that upset Chomsky, as it undermined his theory of Universal Grammar and fits more with Pinker’s theories that language is gained by learning. Apparently, they are still arguing about it now. Meanwhile, Everett never mastered the language or managed to teach the native people Portuguese and later left the ministry.
And for the number one position…a language that is only spoken by one person in the world, according to SIL.That person is Amadeo Garcia (above) and although he lives in a native community of 20, he is the only Taushiro speaker.
It’s another South American language, from Peru and has no close relations with any language, although it has been tentatively grouped with Candoshi, and Omurano, two other “language isolates” from the Amazonian region, although they are not particularly similar. It’s been studied by western linguists so may still be preserved for posterity. The counting system only seems to go from one (“washikanto”) to ten, with speakers using their fingers and toes for numbers above ten. A nearly extinct language but hopefully one that will still be documented after the last speaker has died.