There are roughly about 7000 languages spoken in the world today, however despite the technological advances of the post industrialist era that we live in, linguists don’t have a clear notion of how many languages are out there. The most extensive catalog of the world’s languages is that of Ethnologue (published by SIL International), whose detailed classified list contains 7,102 known living languages to date. Most of the people know by now that most widely spoken languages are Chinese, Spanish and English (in that order) but what are some of the least known ones? You’ve come to the right place to find out!
Unrelated to any other extant tongue, and based on just eight consonants and three vowels, Pirahã is one of the last remaining languages of its kind. Pirahã is the indigenous language of the isolated Pirahã people of Amazonas, Brazil. The Pirahã live along the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon. They are unique among Amazonian peoples in remaining monolingual and consider all other languages laughably inferior to their own.
Although being described as “simple” it possesses such a complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths that its speakers can dispense with their vowels and consonants altogether and sing, hum, or whistle conversations. It has no words for expressing numbers or colors. Well, that may not be completely true since it does have two words for “light” and “dark” and two words for “small quantity” – hói and “larger quantity” – hoí (note the different accents). The language has no grammatical distinction between singular and plural and no expressions for past or future. Pirahã language has one of the simplest known kinship system of any human culture. A single word, baíxi, is used for both mother and father (like English “parent” although Pirahã has no gendered alternative), and they appear not to keep track of relationships any more distant than biological siblings.
One of the few outsiders who learned the language is Daniel Everett, a former missionary turned linguist, who spent more than 30 years learning the language while living with the community together with his family during the years. Eventually Everett lost his faith thanks to the encounter with Pirahã and that, in turn, caused his marriage to collapse and finally he separated with his wife Keren Graham after 35 years of marriage. Keren, also a linguist, learned the Pirahã language.
Daniel Everett caused and continues to cause quite a bit of controversy in the linguistic community by trying to prove that the Chomskian Universalist theory of grammar is false by an example of Piranhã language. Whether or not it is true is still a matter of great debate.
To have a clue how it sounds take a look in the video below
Pawnee language, spoken among few remaining members of Pawnee Native Americans now located in North Central Oklahoma, was once spoken by thousands of Pawnees, native to what is today territory of Nebraska. It is a polysynthetic language, a language in which words are sometimes created that have a very, very specific meaning, to the point of creating a sentence out of a single word. The Pawnee alphabet consists only of nine consonants and eight vowels, however they have multiple words that consist of 30 or more syllables.
As fewer and fewer young people speak Pawnee, the number of speakers of the language is rapidly declining. In 1997, the Pawnee Language Program was established to create language instruction materials to insure the survival of the Pawnee language – materials that provide instruction for future generations of Pawnee children and adults who are interested in their cultural heritage and are committed to maintaining their language.
Rotokas is a language spoken by small community found in Papua New Guinea. It is believed to have only Their alphabet consists of only 12 letters since there is no tonal variation between the 11 phonemes that represent the letters. According to Allen and Hurd (1963), there are three identified dialects: Central Rotokas (“Rotokas Proper”), Aita Rotokas, and Pipipaia; with a further dialect spoken in Atsilima. The letters are A E G I K O P R S T U V T and S both represent the phoneme /t/, written with S before an I and in the name ‘Rotokas’, and with T elsewhere. The V is sometimes written B.
In the following clip you can hear how Rotokas sounds like by listening to a folktale about a sacred taro and the origins of the redness of the Talisa tree leaves.
On the opposite side of the spectrum lies a language called !Xóõ. It is a Khoisan language notable for its large number of phonemes, perhaps the largest in the world. It has at least 58 consonants, 31 vowels, and four tones – high, mid, low, and mid-falling (Traill 1985, 1994 on East ǃXoon), or at least 87 consonants, 20 vowels, and two tones (DoBeS 2008 on West ǃXoon).
Most speakers live in Botswana, but a few hundred live in Namibia.
The language is also called “Taa ǂaan” meaning “language of human being”.
Sentinelese is a language spoken by Sentinelese people who inhabit the tiny island of North Sentinel that is part of the Andaman group of islands in the Bay of Bengal.
Their population is estimated to range from 50 to 400 individuals. Why such a wide range and only an estimate? Because few outsiders have made contact with the people of the North Sentinel. The Sentinelese reject any contact with other people, and are among the last people to remain virtually untouched by modern civilization. They are extremely violent to any foreigner trying to land on their island. Only in 2006 two fishermen were killed by Sentinelese when their boat drifted near the island. The only peaceful contact was made by Anthropological Survey of India in 1991 but the visits to the island completely ceased in 1997. The Indian government declared the entire Island, which is approximately the size of Manhattan, and its surrounding waters extending three miles from the island, to be an exclusion zone as the indigenous people have no immunity to infectious diseases.
A devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit the Bay of Bengal and the surrounding areas caused thousands of casualties however the indigenous population suffered few casualties because they escaped to higher ground unlike many of the tourists that came to take pictures and watch receding water – a sign of an approaching tsunami.
It’s believed that Sentinelese is probably similar to the other Andamanese languages simply because they’re geographically close to each other, however that is yet to be confirmed.