As anyone who follows my articles here on Gadling knows by now, I don’t travel to relax poolside at a resort or sip a fancy drink with coconut oil. I travel because this world is a fascinating place.
While everyone has their own travel philosophy and reasons for wanting to get away, I know that for many travelers, one of the greatest joys of travel is experiencing other cultures and peeking into corners of the world, which are far removed from our own. This could range from immersing yourself in a culture with a different religion, cuisine, or something as simple as driving on the other side of the road.
More often than not, however, one of the largest indicators that we “aren’t in Kansas anymore” is traveling to a place with a language that is different from our own. With linguists estimating there are over 7,000 languages spread across the globe, there is little to no chance of any traveler ever having the opportunity to properly experience them all. Furthermore, as Gadling blogger Kraig Becker points out, there are still uncontacted tribes in parts of the Amazon where we don’t even know what language they speak yet.
Though situations like these are encouraging, the sad reality is that the majority of indigenous languages is critically endangered and will most likely not survive the next generation. According to the United Nations and UNESCO, not only does an indigenous language go extinct every two weeks, but up to 90% of the world’s languages are likely to disappear in the next century if current trends continue.
While the Economist reports that recent advances in technology may actually be able to aid in the rescue and rebirth of languages, the fact of the matter remains that thousands of global languages are dying at a terrifying rate.
So, in a nod to the fascinating beauty of global tongues, here is a rundown of eight languages that you’ve probably never heard of, and are lucky if you ever hear.
More than just a single language, Sámi forms an entire family of languages, which are spoken in the northern reaches of Scandinavia and northwestern Russia. While neighboring groups of Sámi speaking peoples may be able to understand the sub-family spoken next door, Sámi speakers separated by hundreds of miles are considered to be mutually unintelligible. That being said, nearly all Sámi speakers are fluent in their native tongue as well as the national tongue of their home country, i.e., Norwegian. Once referred to as Lapp, the name is now considered to carry derogatory connotations.
As can be expected from a language rooted in northern Scandinavia, the Sámi language reputedly has over 300 words for snow. Though there is a movement to rejuvenate the language amongst the Sámi youth, some of the Sámi dialects such as Southern Sámi are feared to be on the verge of extinction.
Where it’s spoken: South Africa
Approximate number of speakers: 7.9 million
Ok, I’ll admit it. If you’ve traveled to South Africa then you’ve probably heard of this language. You’ve probably even heard it spoken. As one of the major languages of South Africa, Xhosa has been spoken by such recognized dignitaries as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Nevertheless, what makes Xhosa such a fascinating language is the inclusion of pronounced clicks, which seem to emerge effortlessly from the mouths of those who are speaking. Even though Xhosa speakers appear to be in the midst of rapid-fire dialogue, they simultaneously are able to create a sound birthed somewhere between the throat and the tongue, which is impossible to get tired of witnessing.
Where it’s spoken: Papua New Guinea
Approximate number of speakers: 130,000
With over 800 languages, Papua New Guinea is officially regarded as being the mostlinguistically diverse country found anywhere in the world. Out of the 800-plus languages in the country, Melba is a tongue that is spoken in the western highlands and centered around the town of Mount Hagen. One of the most widely spoken languages in the tribal highlands, less than 100 years have passed since the Melpa and their fellow highland people first came into contact with Western outsiders.
Plus they have an unbelievable YouTube video that makes me want to buy Jams pants.
Where it’s spoken: Russia (Siberia)
Approximate number of speakers: 600
An isolate language which, like the Basque language in Spain, is unrelated to any neighboring language, the Ket are such an obscure and unfathomably isolated group of former hunter-gatherers that many Russian people don’t even know they exist.
Located in south-central Siberia, just north of the border with Mongolia, Ket has begun being taught at the lower grade levels in the handful of villages that still host native Ket populations. With the Russian language infiltrating all forms of daily life, however, many fear that the Ket language is on a clear-cut path for extinction.
Where it’s spoken: Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Approximate number of speakers: 70
Yes, I’ve included this here for no other reason than its wildly sophomoric name. All joking aside, however, the Anus language is spoken by the Anus people, indigenous residents of an island off the coast of Irian Jaya, Indonesia. As classless linguists like myself will point out, the Anus language is not to be confused with the Anal language spoken by the Anal people of India. A language with roughly 14,000 native speakers, Anal is spoken in portions of Indiaand Myanmar.
Where it’s spoken: Japan
Approximate number of speakers: 950
If you, like me, thought that only Japanese was spoken in Japan, then allow me to introduce you to Yoronjima, a tiny island in the Ryukyu island chain in the waters of southern Japan. A subtropical island that looks more akin to Fiji than Japan, Yoronjima is a haven for vacationing Japanese who flock to the island to scuba dive the turquoise waters and bake on the white sand beaches. Although mainstream Japanese is the de facto language of commerce on Yoronjima, about 950 of the island’s 6,000 residents still speak the native tongue of Yoron while privately gathered or while in the home.
Where it’s spoken: Canary Islands, Spain
Approximate number of speakers: 22,000
Spoken on the rugged and mountainous island of La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands, Silbo Gomero is officially known as the world’s only language consisting entirely of whistling. Derived as a means of communicating across the island’s steep and precipitous ravines, Silbo Gomero uses whistles meant to mimic the sounds of four vowels and four consonants, which, when used in conjunction, are able to create a vocabulary of over 4,000 intelligible words. Though linguists debate over the exact root of the language, some theorize that it may derive from the Berber languages found in nearby Morocco.
Able to be understood at a distance of up to two miles, the advent of mobile phones has created a sharp drop off in the necessity of Silbo Gomero. Nevertheless, in an effort to retain the island’s culture, Silbo Gomero is now taught in state run schools at the elementary level in an effort is foster its use amongst the island’s youth.
Where it’s spoken: Peru
Approximate Number of Speakers: 1
Amadeo Garcia is the last person in the world who speaks Taushiro. A native tribesman of the Peruvian Amazon who also speaks Spanish, Amadeo realizes that as soon as he dies, the language will forever too die with him. As of this writing, Amadeo is 57 years old.
Imagine being able to speak a language that no one else on Earth understands. At first I’m sure there would be some novelty, but after time that novelty would simply turn to loneliness. While the above video is entirely in Spanish, it explains that Amadeo speaks Taushiro only to himself. Around his village, a remote town where he lives in a one-room, wooden shack, Amadeo speaks Spanish with his fellow villagers. In the jungles, however, when paddling his dugout canoe or hunting for birds with his traditional blow dart gun, he will occasionally break into song or speak to himself in Taushiro.
A sad reality to be sure, Amadeo personifies the plight of indigenous peoples and native languages in every corner of the world. From Native Americans in North America to ethnic minorities of the high Tibetan plateau, how many more people like Amadeo are out there, mumbling to themselves in the jungle in a language the world will never hear again?
by Kyle Ellison May 18th 2012