Fun Facts: Languages of the World
"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to
- Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
It is believed that the need to teach the highly precise skills
of tool manufacture in early Neolithic times around 120,000 years ago
caused a similarly precise, sequential set of sounds to be used, which gave
rise to language. Anthropologists note that
Neanderthals had a pharynx too short to produce sounds of human speech,
but by around 40,000 years ago humans had evolved a suitable vocal tract.
The ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphics only for ritual purposes and
official inscriptions. For everyday use, a script known as hieratic
was used, and starting around 700 B.C., a second script
known as demotic was used. Both of these scripts were written using a
brush on papyrus.
Around half of the world's population speaks a language that is
originally derived from Indo-European, a language spoken as early
as 4,000 B.C. Scholars assume that Indo-European originated in a
temperate climate, because languages descending from it have common
words for cold, snow, and winter, but
not for tropical plants and animals like rice, palm,
The oldest known written language is Sumerian, which originated
in Mesopotamia around 3,500 B.C. It was written in cuneiform script,
and the symbols represent the sounds made by syllables.
All the world's major alphabets developed from a single alphabet
invented 3,600 years ago in the Middle East, known as the North
Starting around 900 B.C., Aramaic became the language of trade and
diplomacy everywhere between Greece and the Indus valley. Although
the Aramaeans were destroyed by the Assyrians, their language, which
had 22 consonants and was written on papyrus, was more practical than
the Assyrian cuneiform script. At the start of the fifth century
B.C., Aramaic became the official language of the Persian Empire.
Mithridates VI (132-63 B.C.), King of Pontus (an area in Asia Minor
along the Black Sea), mastered 25 languages in his lifetime.
An instrumental factor in keeping Persian the language of modern Iran
(instead of being replaced by Arabic) was the Shah-nama or
Book of Shahs, which was written in Persian.
Finished in 1010 by Abul Qasim
Mansuar, who wrote under the pen name Firdausi, it was a poem of 60,000
verses (seven times the length of Homer's Iliad), detailing
the history of the Persian kings from legendary beginnings down to
Khosru II in the seventh century. It has remained the great national
poem of the nation and its preeminent literary work.
There are currently between 4,200 and 5,600 spoken languages in the world
(it is difficult to arrive at an exact count because even linguists don't always
agree as to whether two tongues are different languages or if one is a
dialect of the other).
About 4% of them are spoken by 96% of Earth's population.
Around 175 languages in the world are spoken by less
than ten people, and nearly 500 are spoken by less than 100.
One-fourth of the world's languages are spoken by under 1,000 people.
The language most closely related to English is Frisian.
The Icelandic language is remarkably similar to Old Norse. Icelandic
schoolchildren have no difficulties reading the Eddas and the sagas, the
great epics written in Old Norse.
The language of the Khoi-Khoin tribe in South Africa consists of clicks,
clacks, and kissing sounds, and is spoken by breathing in instead of out.
When the Boers met these tribesmen, their language sounded so much like
stammering and clucking to them that they called them Hottentots,
from the Dutch hateran en tateren, "to stammer and stutter".
Beware of bottles labelled "Gift" in Germany.
In German, Gift means poison.
China has more English speakers than the United States.
In most languages, just 100 words comprise about half of all words
used in conversation.
Guyana is the only South American country with English as its official
In nearly every language around the world, the word for "mother"
begins with an m sound. Some exceptions can be found in
the Uralic language group.
Listopad means "October" in Croatian, and "November" in Czech. (source)
The Russian word for "use" is "upotreblenie".
The names of Minnesota and Winnipeg have the same meaning. Minnesota
means "murky water" in Sioux, and Winnipeg means "murky water" in Cree.
In 1855, Charles Ollier illustrated how bizarre English spelling
is by pointing out that ghoti could conceivably be
pronounced "fish", if the "gh" sound in "enough", the "o" sound in
"women", and the "ti" sound in "action" were used.
English is the only language that capitalises the first person
In order to read intelligently books in their native language, Chinese
pupils must be familiar with 1,000 different signs.
In the Thai language, one shows politeness by using the word "slave" for "I".
In Arabic, there are different words for "you" depending on the
gender of the person addressed, and verbs are classified as either
masculine or feminine.
Sequoyah, a Cherokee Indian, invented an alphabet
for the Cherokee language, the only person known to have single-handedly invented an
alphabet for a living language. It took him 12 years to invent an
86-character alphabet, more accurately described as a syllabary, since
each symbol represented a syllable. It could
be learned in a few days, and only a few months after its introduction, thousands
of Cherokee had become literate.
The basic unit of sound into which languages are broken down into
is called a phoneme. There are between 11 and 67 phonemes in human
speech. English uses between 35 and 46 phonemes. Hawaiian only uses 13.
In some Inuit (Eskimo) languages, a noun can have over 1,000 forms.
In the Inuktitut language, spoken by the Inuit (Eskimo), there
are 14 words for snow:
anuigaviniq (very hard, compressed, or frozen snow),
apijaq (snow covered by bad weather),
apigiannagaut (the first snowfall of autumn),
katakartanaq (snow with a hard crust that yields when stepped upon),
kavisilaq (snow roughened by rain or frost),
kinirtaq (damp, compact snow),
mannguq (melting snow),
masak (wet, falling snow),
matsaaq (partially-melted snow),
natiruvaaq (drifting snow),
pukak (crystalline snow that breaks down and separates like salt),
qannialaaq (light-falling snow),
qiasuqaq (snow that has thawed and refrozen with an icy surface),
and qiqumaaq (snow whose surface has frozen after a spring thaw).
Of course, the English language has many words for snow as well, such as
"snow", "slush", "powder", "flakes", and the like.
Around 1853, Pedro Carolino wanted to write a Portuguese-English phrasebook. Carolino didn't know a word of English, but he didn't let that stop him. Using a Portuguese-French phrasebook written by José da Fonseca and a French-English dictionary, he translated da Fonseca's phrasebook from French to English. The result was The New Guide of the Conversation in Portuguese and English (later published as English as She is Spoke). This very curious book lists "wolf", "snail", and "hedge hog" as species of fish, its list of "degrees of kindred" include "the gossip", "the gossip mistress", "an widow", and "the nurse", "eatings" include "some wigs", "some marchpanes" and "an amelet", and gives a familiar dialogue with a laundress as "Who lhat be too washed, too many soaped, and the shirts put through the buck. You may be sure; never I do else". Its "Idiotisms and Proverbs" section includes "He turns as a weath turcocl," "Burn the politeness," and "To craunch the marmoset". Carolino had given da Fonseca co-author credit without his permission; da Fonseca was mortified and made certain his name was deleted from future editions. The book became quite popular, although not for the reason Carolino expected.
There are only two living speakers of the Ayapaneco language,
spoken in the state of Tabasco in Mexico. The two speakers
refuse to speak to one another.