Celebrating Cultures, Promoting Integration
Compared to most of the other languages on this list, Xhosa could almost be considered mainstream with nearly 8 million speakers. It’s one of the common languages spoken in South Africa, but it bases most of its sentence structure on tonal variations. A single word could have many multiple meanings depending on the pitch and tone of how you say it. Xhosa also has unusual consonants—18 of the recognized consonants are actually clicks. The word itself, “Xhosa,” is pronounced with a click at the beginning. By this point in history, Xhosa has been understandably mixed a bit with several other languages, including English and Afrikaans, but it originated alongside Zulu and other languages that fall under the umbrella term “Bantu languages,” and there are many similarities between most of these languages.
The Pirahã language of Brazil is the last remaining of its kind; as far as we know, all the similar languages in the region have gone extinct. Also as far as we know, Pirahã is probably the simplest language in existence, with somewhere between ten and twelve phonemes (sounds). There are no words for colors, and some natives seem to be able to communicate with no words at all, translating the phonetic tone of the words into a series of hums and whistles. Actually, saying that there are no words for colors in Pirahã isn’t entirely true; they technically have two words which mean “light” and “dark.” Similarly, it’s argued that they don’t have any numbers, either. There are two words in Pirahã that are spelled hói and hoí (note the different accents). According to Daniel Everett, who has spent some time studying the Pirahã tribe, the words mean small quantity and large quantity, respectively. So whether you had 10 sticks or 100, you would use the same word (large quantity), although that could change depending on what you considered to be a lot of something.
When it comes to the click languages of Africa, there are two main families; Bantu, which includes the Xhosa language, and Khoisan, which is considered to be the forerunner of Bantu, and one of the oldest languages on the continent. And unlike Bantu, Khoisan languages seem to be falling off the map completely, mostly due to the lifestyles of Khoisan speakers. Most of the people who speak the various Khoisan languages are spread out across southern/central Africa, and many of them are in incredibly remote areas, and as such are relatively under-researched. A good example of this is the San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari desert, and different dialects exist even between different tribes in similar regions, which makes it difficult to even get a fix on what exactly constitutes the language. The question usually comes down to this: how do you know when a dialect becomes so distinct that it can be considered a separate language entirely? For example, the Xiri language has approximately 90 speakers. The Korana, somewhere between 6 and 10. These are just a few of the problems linguists have run into while trying to catalog the sweeping variations in the Khoisan languages.
The Taa language is officially one of the Khoisan languages, but even in that diverse mesh of conflicting dialects and vast tonal ranges, Taa manages to stand out on its own, and it definitely deserves its own entry. To the best of our knowledge, Taa (also known as !Xóõ, but that’s hard to type) has more spoken phonemes than any other language in the world. Some linguists put the number of consonants alone at 164, and at least 111 of those are click sounds—and that only accounts for one dialect, known as West !Xóõn. They also use four different tones—high, mid, low, and mid-falling—providing even more variation in the ways that sounds and clicks can be combined. As an interesting side note, locals refer to the language as Taa ?aan; Taa means “human being,” and ?aan means language, so it literally translates to the “language of human beings.”