Whistles, clicks and a language for women

Sharing a list of fun facts about languages with a load of professional linguists is obviously a tricky business... Chances are you know much more than we do in this field – you’re the experts after all. But we’ve been on a serious fact-finding mission and have settled on seven we’re rather pleased with. We’re hoping that you won’t have heard them all before. Even if you have, you’ll hopefully still agree with us that these facts are fun!

illustration Languages

1. Crunching the numbers

According to Ethnologue, there were 7151 living languages in the world as of 2022. This exact number doesn’t really reflect reality, though. First of all, the distinction between a language and a dialect isn’t always clear. Where do we draw the line between one language with a number of dialects and one language family with a number of related languages? Koro is a good example here as a language that wasn’t discovered until 2008 and is only spoken in several villages in the Himalayas in the Northeast of India. It has always been treated as a dialect of Aka, the language spoken by the tribe of the same name. But the latest linguistic research has revealed that Koro is fundamentally different enough to be classed as a language in its own right from now on. That’s one more language in the world than before!

The second point here is that about 40% of all languages are at risk of dying out. And Koro is one of them. There are various reasons behind languages being endangered. In some cases, minority languages are pushed out by a more dominant language that is favoured by the state. Sometimes, younger generations simply stop wanting to learn a traditional language. Ayapaneco – one of 68 indigenous languages spoken in Mexico – is at real risk of dying out. At the start of the last decade, only two people were recorded as fluent speakers of Ayapaneco – and the two of them don’t get on well enough to talk to each other

2. Speaking in isolation

Basque is unique in Europe as a language isolate. This means it isn’t part of any language family and it isn’t related to any other known language. The first written records date back to after the Romans invaded Iberia in the 2nd century BC, when the Basques adopted the Latin alphabet. But they were never conquered by the Romans – or the Moors or Franks. If the Basque Country were in Brittany instead of the Pyrenees, you could easily think they were the historical inspiration for Asterix and Obelix.

3. Communicating with whistles and clicks

Inhabitants of La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands, can communicate across large stretches of mountainous terrain in the whistled language Silbo Gomero. The rise of traditional media and communication technology may have once posed a threat to this way of whistling, but the requirement for pupils at schools on the island of La Gomera to study the language for six years was introduced in 1992.

Khoekhoe, meanwhile, is a thriving language that is just as widely used as it always has been. The national language of Namibia is also spoken in Botswana and South Africa. With 20 different clicks in its repertoire, the African language is absolutely fascinating to listen to if you aren’t familiar with it already. Here’s a basic introduction to Khoekhoe (also known as Nama).

4. Understanding it all

Does language influence the way we think and perceive the world around us? Is it right that we can’t conceive of certain things because our language doesn’t have a word for them? In linguistics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis suggests that the semantic structure and vocabulary of our native language shapes our way of thinking. This could pose some serious problems for the theory of translation since the implication is that people who are native speakers of one language would simply not be able to understand certain concepts originally expressed in another language. As far as we know, there has been no proof that these kinds of ‘blind spots’ in comprehension caused by language do in fact exist. If anything like this did ever come up, we’re sure that our freelancers would take it all in their stride. 😉

5. Speaking for two

It’s a common phenomenon for twins to develop their own private language. This happens when they are still unable to pronounce their native language correctly – a phase that every child goes through. A child’s frustration at not always being understood by adults during this stage of their development is a natural incentive for them to learn how to speak the language correctly. As twins go through the language development phase together, however, they always have someone else who can understand their version of their native language. Over time, this evolves into a secret language. At this point, the fact that adults can’t understand them is an exciting bonus rather than an annoyance.

6. Making it up

Did you know there are around 200 constructed languages on top of all the natural ones? They may have been created to maintain secrecy or to keep communications clear and concise. And some languages have just been made up for fun! That includes fictional languages created for novels, TV series or films. The most obvious examples have to be Klingon from Star Trek and Quenya and Sindarin from J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Another constructed language you might not have heard of is Láadan, which is the invention of American linguist Suzette Haden Elgin. It appears in her Native Tongue science fiction trilogy (1984-94), which she used to test out a range of linguistic hypotheses. Taking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as the starting point, she suggested that the languages that already exist - and Indo-European languages in particular - reflect the worldview of men and are not ideal for expressing the thoughts and feelings of women. She also tested her hypothesis that "language is our best and most powerful resource for bringing about social change". This theory is highly topical since it would seem we are seeing it in action with the whole issue of gender in language. Wondering what Suzette Haden Elgin discovered? She said herself that she found mostly anecdotal information relating to her hypotheses.

7. Are there really 50 different Inuit words for snow? 

Franz Boas was the first person to share this fun fact with the world back in the 1880s. The anthropologist later claimed that the Inuits actually had hundreds of different words for snow, including one for snow that gently drifts down, one for snow that’s perfect for dog sledding and so on and so on. Over the years, however, linguists came to the conclusion that the claims about the extent of the snow vocabulary used in the Arctic was indeed fake news. And that makes sense. After all, why would you need so many words for the same thing?

Well... In 2013, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington decided to get to the bottom of it once and for all. He studied the words used in 10 different Inuit and Yupik dialects and found that Boas had been right all along. There are indeed 50 different words for snow – or words that have something to do with snow or are used to describe it at least. And it turned out that there are even more words associated with ice. Around 70 of them! But it’s not actually that unusual after all. A study conducted by the University of Glasgow revealed that people in Scotland use 421 different words to describe their winter weather. And if you believe Norwegian linguist Ole Henrik Magga, the Sámi have 1000 different words for reindeer. That can’t be right, can it? 1000?! Oh deer, oh deer – we don’t want to end up falling for a fake fact...

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading these fun facts about language. Do you have another fun fact about language you think we might find interesting? Email us at freelance@apostrophgroup.ch.

Achieving goals together

  • A reliable partner

    It’s very easy to process jobs in our portal myFREELANCE and you can look forward to punctual, monthly payments.
  • Your link to Apostroph

    With Apostroph, you will have personal contact with our project management employees. They will answer your questions and help you process your orders.
  • The Apostroph community

    A lively exchange, exciting and entertaining contributions in the Language Lounge and continuing education opportunities are what make our community what it is.