12 Interesting Facts About Languages

Caitlin Nicholson

12 Interesting Facts About Languages

Language is a complex and fascinating aspect of our lives that scientists believe to have evolved out of a series of grunts and hand gestures. From those primitive beginnings, languages have been born and have died, with complex systems of understanding built on basic foundations. Here are some of the most interesting language facts from around the world.

1. There are 2,700 languages with over 7,000 individual dialects spoken around the world today. The most widely spoken languages are Chinese, Spanish, English, and Hindi, in that order. Chinese, the most spoken language around the world, has over 50,000 characters. But you only need to know 2,000 of those characters to be able to read the newspaper.

2. Every two weeks, another language dies. Or, perhaps, a dialect. There are over 231 completely extinct languages and 2,400 of the world’s languages are considered to be in danger of dying out.

3. The Bible is the most widely translated book available in 2,454 different languages. Pinnochio is a close second. But the world’s most translated author is Agatha Christie.

4. The language with the largest alphabet in the world belongs to the Cambodian language Khmer and is 74 characters long. The shortest alphabet is 12 characters long, and belongs to Rotokas. The language with the most words, however, is English, boasting over 250,000 words.

5. Over 300 languages are spoken in the United States, but South Africa holds the record for the country with the most official languages (11). Of the population of the United States, 21% of citizens five years and older speak another language at home. Of that 21 percent, 62% speak Spanish. And of those Spanish speakers, 56% speak English “very well.”

6. The oldest known languages include Sanskrit, Sumerian, Hebrew, and Basque. But, the only reason we really know this is because there is a written record of those languages. The answer to the question, “What is the oldest language?” can never truly be answered, as it doesn’t take spoken languages with oral traditions into consideration.

7. Language is thought to have originated circa 100,00 BC. The question of how old language is is still being debated, but most linguists agree that it began around the time when modern humans (homo sapiens) evolved in Africa with modern skull shapes and modern vocal chords. With the proper tools in place — skull size, brain, and voice box — it should have meant the development of language. Some anthropologists even speculate that language could have developed prior to the physiological development of modern brains and larynges, but 100,000 BC is a good starting point from which to begin.

8. Language developed to strengthen social ties amongst our ancestors. A study of macaque monkeys supports the idea that languages may have evolved to replace grooming as a better way of forging interpersonal bonds. But another theory is that our ancestors began to develop language by imitating natural sounds, like bird calls and animal noises. And another theory is that human communication may have started with the emanation of involuntary sounds: distress sounds from pain or surprise, or wails of sadness, or cheers of joy or triumph.

9. Learning a second language can make you smarter. A number of scientists agree that becoming polyglot can boost your brainpower. Other studies also suggest that speaking more than one language can help to slow down the aging process of the mind.

10. Languages are constantly influencing each other. For example, the English language is, in itself, 30% French, as it has adopted words through lexical borrowings. This is particularly true when we think about ballet, as almost all of the words that describe that style of dance are in French.

11. There are over 200 artificial languages that have been invented for books, television, and movies, including 13 distinct languages in the Tolkien universe. But “fake” languages date back centuries when languages were invented for the purposes of philosophical debate.

12. Despite that, onomatopoeias are not shared across languages. Rice Krispies in the United States go ‘snap, crackle, and pop.’ But in Germany, they go ‘Knisper! Knasper! Knusper!’ In France, they go ‘Cric! Crac! Croc!’ and in Spain, they go ‘Cris! Cras! Cros!’

Bees don’t buzz in Afrikaans, they go ‘zoem-zoem’. And while cats say “meow” in America, they say “meo-meo” in Vietnam, “nau” in Estonia, and “ngjau” in Malay.

Cows are sacred in India, but they don’t say “moo” in Bengali, they say “hamba”.

Thai owls say “hook hook” instead of “hoot”, and Albanian pigs don’t say “oink”, they say “hunk hunk.”

Bonus! Because this blog is written in English, here are some interesting facts about the English language, in particular.

The most common letter, and vowel, in the English language is the letter it starts with: E. But the most common consonant in English is R, followed by T. More English words begin with the letter S than any other letter. The English word “alphabet” is made up of two Greek words, which are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha and beta. The longest word without a true vowel in it is “rhythm”.

Do you know any other interesting language facts?

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