10 Languages With Uniquely Bizarre Quirks
As anyone who’s ever tried can tell you, learning a language is hard. Even something like Spanish involves memorizing so many weird rules about verb endings that it can take the best part of a year to get even semi-fluent. And that’s an easy one. Move away from languages with Latin roots, and you’ll uncover grammar rules that tip the scales of crazy.
10Tuyuca Requires You To Explain Everything
When native English speakers first teach their kids to speak, they make sure things are super easy. That’s why babies’ books are filled with really basic sentences like “the boy played with the ball.” If our kids can grasp these short, simple sentences, we can eventually move them on to more important stuff. Not so for speakers of Tuyuca. From the very start, even the simplest sentences require you to explain everything.
Tuyuca is a language spoken by less than 1,000 people in Brazil, and it doesn’t allow you to simply state something. Instead, you are obliged to include references to how you know it. So instead of saying “the boy played with the ball,” you have to say something like “the boy played with the ball and I know this because I saw him.” According to The Economist, the closest thing they have for hypothetical situations is “the boy played with the ball, I assume,” which has a very different emphasis from its English equivalent.
And it’s not only explanations that make Tuyuca difficult to learn—according to some counts, it has up to 140 genders, including one purely for objects that resemble bark peeling off a tree.
9Chalcatongo Mixtec Makes Questions Impossible
Have you ever thought about how easy it is to ask a question in English? You have now. Almost all of you reading that sentence mentally included an upward lilt at the end, and plenty probably noticed the position of the auxiliary verb. But if we were speaking out loud in Chalcatongo Mixtec, you’d be feeling pretty baffled. Chalcatongo Mixtec has nothing to indicate whether we’re asking questions or making statements.
Spoken by a few thousand people around the Oaxaca region in Mexico, Chalcatongo Mixtec has been studied enough to have warranted the publishing of at least one grammar book. In all of this research, no one has ever found any evidence for yes/no questions in the language. Questions themselves exist, but it’s up to you to spot them, because the guy asking sure won’t help you. There is nothing in the way of intonation, sentence particles, or varying tone to let you know whether you’re expected to reply or not. The only thing you have to go on is context.
8Australia’s Aboriginal Languages Are Like Jazz Gone Mad
Thanks to their near-total isolation for tens of thousands of years, Australia’s Aboriginal languages are a unique bunch. Although not quite as crazy as some click-based tongues, they still sound mighty odd to English speakers. They also contain a peculiar linguistic quirk utterly alien to our Germanic and Latin roots. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, most Aboriginal languages have absolutely no fixed word order.
In practice, this means a conversation can jump and flow and warp just like a particularly intense jazz solo, with words appearing at the slightest whim. So instead of saying “this freewheeling language is pretty awesome,” you could say “language freewheeling is awesome pretty this,” or “pretty language freewheeling is this awesome,” or any of a bazillion different combinations. And people will still know exactly what you mean.
Now, to stick with our analogy for a moment, we should point out that rules do exist. Just as jazz requires an underlying structure which you can improvise around, Aboriginal languages require you to add suffixes that clue people in on how to decode your statements. But once you master those, you can say things in any order you want.
7Thai Has A Special Form You Only Use With The King
It’s hard to say with any objectivity how popular Thailand’s king really is. On the one hand, people often speak of him with deep affection. On the other, he’s been on the receiving end of 10 coup attempts and the law forbids anyone to speak ill of him. Yet there’s no ambiguity about his position as far as language is concerned, because Thai has a special form which you only use when discussing or talking to the king.
Known as rachasap, the “royal vocabulary” has been around now for over 700 years. In that whole time, it’s barely changed. Using a combination of old Khmer words and prefixes attached to ordinary Thai, it is both very similar to and noticeably different from other forms of the language. Although plenty of people living in Thailand can easily understand rachasap, it’s apparently very tricky to speak perfectly, something not helped by the lack of opportunities most Thais get to practice (how often do you get to pass time with a king?). Yet it still gets used regularly on news programs and during announcements about what the old despot is up to. We’ve even found a link to the basics, if you want to practice.
6Berik Is Obsessed With Time
One of the great things about English is how ambiguous it can be. When someone asks where we’ve been, we can just say, “I was at Joe’s,” without having to add “until closing time, at which point I was sick in the street.” But not all languages have so many gray areas. For speakers of Berik in New Guinea, it’s often obligatory to state exactly when something happened.
Because time phrases are encoded into the ending of Berik verbs, it’s frequently impossible to state something without giving this vital information. So while in English we can say, “I went for a drink,” Berik speakers would have to specifically say, “I went for a drink in the middle of the day.” It doesn’t just stop with time, either. Where objects are involved, Berik verbs are further modified to indicate the size of them, so you can have a single short word which means “I gave six objects to a girl by moonlight.”
As a final piece of confusion, some verbs also require you to indicate place. This means that anyone you’re talking to will automatically know not only when and where the action you’re describing took place, but also how big any objects involved were. With such a specific language, any ambiguities involved go out the window.
5ABSL Breaks All Known Rules
Although English contains just over one million words, the number of sounds we use is pretty limited. The phonemic chart contains just 44 noises that make up the absolute entirety of English communication. Imagine a bunch of Lego blocks: Put three together one way and you’ll make a word like “pass.” Put them together another way and you’ll make “asp.” This method of building words from simple repeating sounds is how every single language on Earth functions . . . with the exception of Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL).
A new language spoken only by a handful of people in Israel’s Negev Desert (where a crazy number of children are deaf from birth), ABSL contains zero repeating signs. If you’re struggling to see why that’s impressive, imagine if every single word in this article had its own, completely unique sound to represent it. There’d be no repetition of sounds, and even the ubiquitous schwa would disappear. Since English speakers use the schwa in everything from “the” to “for” to “weather,” it’d be a major deal. That’s ABSL: Every single noun, verb, and adjective has its own unique sign that doesn’t borrow even the smallest part of another.
What’s really amazing is that even other sign languages use the Lego-block method for building longer words and phrases. Some have theorized that ABSL is simply too new to have reached this point and will conform to the standard model when its speakers run out of signs. For now, though, it remains utterly unique.
4Time Doesn’t Exist In Piraha
Spoken only by a single tribe in Brazil, Piraha is unique in many, many ways. We’ve told you before about their lack of words for colors and numbers, but the weirdest part is that the Piraha language doesn’t have any concept of time.
This means that it’s physically impossible for speakers to construct a sentence referring to the past or the future. While we might say something like “I promise I’ll do some work once I’ve finished reading this listicle,” the Piraha would only be able to say, “I finish listicle, I do work.” There’s no way of indicating whether you worked, are working, or are going to work; all communications are trapped firmly in the present moment.
The result is a culture that has almost nothing to say about its own past or future. According to linguist Daniel Everett, who lived with the Piraha on and off for seven years, “all experience is anchored in the present.” Piraha mothers don’t tell fairy tales, Piraha men don’t boast about past achievements, and Piraha children pretty much forget their grandparents as soon as they die. Although the culture is now opening up and changing thanks to a Brazilian government education project, it’s unknown how these new attempts will affect the future of the Piraha language.
3German Sentences Are Like Running A Marathon
For a language so closely related to English, German sure causes learners a lot of problems. One problem comes from the use of compound words. In German, it’s totally possible to say:
That’s a single, 63-letter word which means “the law concerning the delegation of duties for the supervision of cattle marking and the labeling of beef.” But even these marathon compound phrases have nothing on German sentences, which not only go on forever but also leave you in a state of suspense until the very end.
Thanks to a quirk of sentence structure, German verbs appear at the end of sentences. So instead of saying “I played soccer at my dad’s house on Tuesday,” you’d say something like “at my dad’s house on Tuesday, soccer I played.” While this isn’t a problem in shorter sentences, it makes one heck of a difference in longer ones, and some German sentences go on seemingly forever. This means you have to patiently sit through all the details of when, where, how, why, and to whom something happened before finally discovering what this “something” was.
As an additional headache, the negative also comes at the end of the sentence, so you can endure two minutes of a complicated story only to find out that none of it really happened. The closest English equivalent would be listening to someone tell a long and complex tale, only for them to suddenly shout “not!” when they’d finished.
2Burushaski Is Incredibly Noise Sensitive
A northern Pakistani language spoken by approximately 90,000 people, Burushaski is completely unique. To date, linguists have yet to find another language with any genetic similarities to it, a claim that’s doubly impressive when you realize that even some of the weirder languages on this list are part of larger language families. It also has several features utterly alien to our English way of speaking, most prominent of which may be its sensitivity to noise.
In English, we tend to indicate volume through the use of intensifiers and description. We might say “the door opened softly” or “the door creaked open,” or even just “he heard the door open.” For Burushaski speakers, this isn’t an option. Instead, the word itself changes depending on how loud or how quiet the action is.
To use our door example, Burushaski has three separate words for a door opening: one you use when it opens very softly, one you use when it opens softly (but not very softly), and one you use when it opens loudly. This often makes meanings very precise, especially if you’re talking about something involving lots of noise.
1Klingon Is Completely Insane
Probably the most famous fictional language in the world, Klingon has had three dictionaries, a translation of Hamlet, and an opera published in it. Created by linguist Marc Okrand for Star Trek III in the mid-1980s, it draws on dozens of real languages, including (but not limited to) Japanese, Turkish, Mohawk, Hindi, Arabic, and Yiddish. It’s also one of the most difficult languages on Earth to learn, because the grammar is utterly insane.
In many modern Romance languages, the endings of verbs can change to indicate number. For example, Spanish verbs will change slightly depending on whether you want to say “I” did something or “we” did something. Most languages that use this method have maybe six or seven different ways of conjugating the verb. Klingon has 29.
Since Klingon verbs require you to indicate the identity and number of both the subject and the object, speaking a coherent sentence quickly becomes a linguistic nightmare. To make matters worse, there are an additional 36 verb suffixes that indicate stuff like causation, possession, and how accurate the speaker judges his statement to be.
Because it’s so insanely complicated, it’s estimated that only 20–30 people on Earth can speak Klingon with any degree of fluency, no matter how often you might see it quoted on Stark Trek message boards.