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Fun Facts: Languages of the World

"I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse." - 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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Ancient Egypt

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, and tiger. (source)

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. (source)

All the world's major alphabets developed from a single alphabet invented 3,600 years ago in the Middle East, known as the North Semitic Alphabet.

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. (source)

Mithridates VI (132-63 B.C.), King of Pontus (an area in Asia Minor along the Black Sea), mastered 25 languages in his lifetime. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Books and Literature

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. (source)

Also found in: World Countries

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. (source)

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. (source)

Also found in: Vikings

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". (source)

Beware of bottles labelled "Gift" in Germany. In German, Gift means poison. (source)

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 language. (source)

Also found in: World Countries

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)

Also found in: Calendars

The Russian word for "use" is "upotreblenie". (source)

The names of Minnesota and Winnipeg have the same meaning. Minnesota means "murky water" in Sioux, and Winnipeg means "murky water" in Cree.

Also found in: Place Names

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. (source)

English is the only language that capitalises the first person singular, "I". (source)

Also found in: English Words #2

In order to read intelligently books in their native language, Chinese pupils must be familiar with 1,000 different signs. (source)

In the Thai language, one shows politeness by using the word "slave" for "I". (source)

Also found in: Slavery

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. (source)

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. (source)

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. (source)

In some Inuit (Eskimo) languages, a noun can have over 1,000 forms. (source)

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. (source)

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. (source)

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. (source)