The mix of vowels, the lack of them, sounds and rhythms make up strange languages. Which are the weirdest languages in the world?
The mix of vowels, the lack of them, sounds and rhythms make up strange languages.
What makes languages weird? Which are the weirdest languages in the world?
For Rolf Theul, a linguistics professor at the University of Oslo, the weirdest language in the world is without a doubt Pirahã. For others though, English meets eye to eye with no one, since it seems to contain more atypical features than over 80% of the other languages, even if it doesn’t sound weird.
Here is a walk of a few crazy languages you could encounter.
The problem with too many and too little
Did you know Slovak has 14 vowels?
a, á , ä, e, é, i, í, y, ý, o, ó, ô, u, ú.
And using the wrong vowels can completely change the meaning of the word. And even though the “y” and “í” sound the same as “ý”, differentiating them in written language is imperative.
For example, if somebody comments “pekný”, it means good-looking in singular masculine. But if the comment is “pekní” then it’s a compliment to everyone in the picture.
What is the standard for vowels though?
Most written languages use one of three systems:
-Letters for syllables (usually a consonant + a vowel)
-Letters for all phonemes (i.e., for both consonants and vowels)
-Letters for just consonant phonemes and not for the vowels (or most of the vowels).
Hebrew and Arabic, for example, have consonant sounds and no letters for vowel sounds or only some of the vowel sounds. According to the “Vowels” entry in Wikipedia, “nearly all languages have at least three phonemic vowels, usually /i/, /a/, /u/. Very few languages have fewer, though some Arrernte, Circassian, and Ndu languages have been argued to have just two, /ə/ and /a/.”
How do you pronounce words with no vowels? The Masoretes added points under the consonants to tell you how to pronounce them. So in this sense, 14 vowels are weirder than none.
Manchu: crazy vowel sounds
Yet, classical Manchu has one of the weirdest vowel inventories encountered.
Because even if there are absurdly large or small vowel sets, they are in general fairly ‘balanced’.
The Turkish vowel chart, on the other hand, is a watch-the-world-burn endeavor. Turkish vowel phonemes are defined by more or less height, backness, and roundness. And all the possible combinations of those three variables. And one step further, you have Manchu.
Manchu Vowels have four different vowel heights on their 6 vowels. It has one front vowel, two central vowels, and 3 back vowels, all differentiated only by height.
Piraha: an expert’s pick
“The weirdest language in the world is without a doubt Pirahã,” says Rolf Theil.
This linguistics professor from the University of Oslo picked his favorite among thousands. There are drum languages in Africa. A whistling language is found on the Canary Islands. Both help sound travel more easily across their environment and reach out to others amidst the jungle. But he chose the language of the Pirahãs, native from the Amazon jungle of Brazil and darlings of language researchers.
Like Chinese, Pirahã is a tonal language. The difference between friend and enemy is that the melody differs, so watch your tone. But aside from that, the way they conjugate, express, and reflect the world is radically different from what we know.
It has few words for relatives. They are satisfied with stating who is older, who is a peer, and who are children. That is all. Differentiating between women and men, since they are specific regarding consonants. And since it’s such a melodic language, different social groups can express themselves so distinctly that they have different consonants.
Another crazy fact is that the Pirahã people live in the here and now. So you can forget about conjugating verbs in the future or past tense. Nor do they have singular or plural nouns. They might be talking about one man or many men, the context tells which.
Finally, Pirahã is one of, if not the only, language in the world that lacks a recursive structure. The phrase “John thinks Mery is mad because Paul left again” would be impossible. One would have to say “Paul left. Mery got mad. John thinks that.”
Chances are, you won’t need to learn the weirdest languages around. But if you need a hand with your vowels, contact our language experts at Stillman.