According to the Ethnologue database, there are 7,139 living languages in the world today, but over half of the world’s population speak only 23 of them. Here are a few more language facts to pique your interest and stimulate your brain.
1. ghost words
It wouldn’t be an editor’s blog if I didn’t kick off with something that demonstrates the importance of editors. A ghost word is a word that has been published in a dictionary even though it doesn’t exist. This rarely happens, but when it does, it’s usually because of some kind of typographical misinterpretation or linguistic confusion. One of the most infamous of these is the word dord, which was defined as a noun meaning density in multiple editions of Webster’s New International Dictionary between 1934 and 1947. The lovely people at Merriam Webster have been good enough to explain how this happened: read more here.
In fact, dord is a real word, although its meaning has nothing to do with physics, except in the broadest sense. It’s a type of ancient bronze horn native to Ireland.
2. most linguistically diverse country
That would be Papua New Guinea, where there are close to 850 different languages spoken. The most widely spoken is Tok Pisin, a creole based on a mixture of indigenous languages, German and English.
3. largest alphabet
The language with the largest alphabet is Khmer, which uses 74 letters! Khmer is spoken mainly in Cambodia, where it has around 16 million speakers, and also in Thailand and Vietnam, where it has official minority language status. Its writing system is descended from the Brahmi script of ancient India via Pallava script. The earliest recorded Khmer writing was an inscription found at Angkor Borei in Takev Province, dated 611 CE.
[Edited to add: Dr Rupert Thompson of Selwyn College, Cambridge, writes to remind me that Khmer script is, strictly speaking, an abugida and not an alphabet. I gratefully accept the correction.]
4. whistle languages
Alas, I would be appalling at these, because I can’t whistle at all, but they do exist. Often, they’re based on tonal languages and imitate the tones of those languages – but not always. Whistle languages have emerged in many places worldwide including Mexico, Turkey, France, South America and parts of southern and eastern Africa.
One of the most widely studied of the whistle languages is Silbo, which is native to the island of La Gomera in the Canaries. It’s based on the local dialect of Spanish and researchers estimate that fluent speakers can use it to express over 4,000 words. You can listen to some of this incredible language here.
5. language as navigation training
In the Australian Paman language Kuuk Thaayorre, spoken by around 250 people in Queensland, there are no words for relative placement such as behind, to the right of or in front of. Instead, the language uses 16 words denoting absolute directions to express these ideas. So, for example, a question such as Where is John? might be answered something like John is to the north of the dog.
Intriguingly, researchers have found that native speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre all have a superb sense of direction. This makes sense since they need to know which way north is at all times just to speak their language.
6. most phonemes
The Taa language of Botswana and Namibia has a grand total of 58 consonants, 31 vowels and four tones. It’s one of the famous click languages. Linguists have estimated that up to 82% of basic vocabulary words begin with one of the many clicks available to Taa speakers. The word Taa itself means human being.
7. this is unusual; is this unusual?
When it comes to forming questions out of statements, the English language is an outlier in terms of world languages. The majority of languages tack some kind of particle on to the end of a statement to turn it into a question. For example, the question particle 吗 (ma) placed at the end of any statement in Mandarin performs this function. If you’ve learned how to say hello and how are you? in Mandarin, then you’ve come across this before. 你好吗? (nĭ hăo ma?) is just 你好 (nĭ hăo lit. you good, meaning hello) with the question particle added on at the end (you good?).
By the way, unless you’re seriously asking after someone’s health, you might not use this very much as a greeting. Instead, you might say 你吃了吗? (nĭ chī le ma? lit. have you eaten?), which is more of a general expression of goodwill than a genuine enquiry into the status of someone’s stomach contents.
But back to the point. Of the 954 languages coded for this aspect in the World Atlas of Language Structures, 584 of them use question particles. Would you be surprised to learn that only about 1.4% of the total form questions by switching the word order around the way English does? English is weird, apparently. Which leads me on to…
8. weirdest language
When researchers from Idibon, a natural language processing company, conducted an analysis to determine how weird languages were in terms of their dissimilarity to other languages, the winner was Chalcatongo Mixtec, a Mexican language. It doesn’t distinguish between statements and questions at all, not even by spoken intonation.
Amusingly to some perhaps, German scraped into the top ten in tenth place. So if you ever struggled with German word order at school, you can be reassured that you were grappling with the tenth weirdest language in the world – you just didn’t know it at the time.