During my language learning journeys and escapades, I have encountered special sounds, special words and special ways to express ideas and concepts. These languages are mostly unique in this regard, but I will be showing you five of the most interesting languages I have learnt so far in this journey.
Mongolian is the language spoken by some 2-3 million people in Mongolian and about the same number in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region in China. What makes it stand out is not so much about the vowel harmony or the seven case endings it uses, but more rather, it has a vertical writing system.
When Mongolia became part of the USSR, it adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, and it is the writing system I used to learn the language. The Mongolian alphabet, the Mongol Bichig, has its own letters to represent both vowels and consonants. Much like Arabic, the Mongol Bichig is written in a cursive form, with initial, medial, final and independent forms for almost every letter. Unlike Arabic however, the Mongol Bichig is written from top to down, left to right. Yes, it is the only vertical script I have ever encountered so far.
The Mongol Bichig has about half a dozen forms of writing and sure are they mesmerizing. On top of the traditional typeface commonly seen on say, some Mongolian newspapers, there are other types like folded, ‘Phags-pa, Todo, Manchu, Soyombo, and horizontal square, the only variation to be written horizontally. Overall, I would say that it is mainly the enchanting writing system that made Mongolian unique and interesting.
When people talk about click consonants, the first thing which comes to mind is the !Kung bushmen in the Kalahari desert in Botswana. These consonants are characteristic of the Khoisan language family, but click consonants have found their place in a couple other languages in South Africa, both of which are in the Bantu language family. We are talking about isiXhosa and isiZulu, but since I have not learnt isiZulu as of yet, I will be focusing on isiXhosa. It is the only Bantu language that has a click consonant in its name, that is one special title I would have to give it.
Xhosa is written in the Latin script, and the click consonants are represented by “c”, “q” and “x”. The “c” represents the dental click, the “q” represents the palatal click and the “x” represents the lateral click. These clicks can be voiced, nasalized and aspirated as well, giving combinations like “ngq”, “xh” in isiXhosa etc. Thus there are some phrases and songs to practice these click sounds, and it sounds really catchy and that is how I got hooked on to the language. Sentences like “cheba ingca” (cut the grass) and “Qhuba uye kuQoboqobo” (Drive to Keiskammahoek) provide sufficient practice to get used to these unique sounds, especially within the Bantu family
The grammar on the other hand is pretty much similar to various Bantu languages. These combine affixes to root words to make longer words that convey the meaning of phrases. For example, “Ndiyasithanda isiXhosa” means “I like [it] Xhosa”. Overall, I believe that the unique phonology of isiXhosa in the Bantu language family earns its mention here.
When one writes, how many scripts can they use at once? Most use one, but some 130 million use up to three at once. This, my readers, is Japanese, with one of the most convoluted writing systems which may frustrate learners who just started learning the language. With 107 distinct syllabic combinations, pronunciation should not pose a challenge, but what does is the writing system (on top of the grammar). It uses three scripts, one semanto-phonetic and two syllabaries, respectively called kanji, hiragana, and katakana.
The kanji is what I would be focusing on here, because syllabaries are relatively easy to learn and most learners could get used to it in a matter of days to weeks. Kanji, on the other hand, requires years. There may be 2136 characters which are most often used in daily communication, but as many as 50,000 have existed since the dawn of writing Japanese. So let us go through the problems here one at a time shall we?
Firstly, the types of pronunciation associated with the character may vary. What I mean is the distinction between onyomi, borrowed from Chinese pronunciation, and kunyomi, the Japanese pronunciation. And do not forget ateji, as well as special pronunciations specially used in names. This gives one character as many as a dozen different possible pronunciations. 今 is pronounced いま, but 今日is きょう, 昨日is きのう and 明日is あすor あした, just to list some examples.
Secondly, stroke order. Some Chinese speakers can find writing it with ease, but there are some characters where the Japanese write different from the Chinese, making it possible to distinguish a Chinese from a Japanese based on the way they write. This poses a new problem for people who do not have experience with Chinese characters and stroke order, as there is an incorrect way to write kanji.
Lastly, it may be difficult to tell when to use a kanji and when to use others. For example, one of the Japanese words for “many” is 沢山, but sometimes I find it written as たくさん. This confuses many as to when to use which writing system.
Japanese, nevertheless, is an interesting language to learn, but the difficulty of managing three writing systems at once on the same language is what stands out the most.
2. Nunavut Inuktitut
I have mentioned this unique language a number of times before, so I will keep my reasoning short for this one. It is a polysynthetic language, combining multiple prefixes, suffixes and infixes around a root word to give the meaning of what could be translated as a phrase or sentence in English. It has its own abugida, but I prefer using the Latin script for ease of learning. Spoken by the Inuit tribes in Northern Canada, I like how these people have come up with such a unique grammar which may blur the lines between what makes a word and what makes a sentence. And this is what makes this language worth mentioning in this post.
When people talk about the languages of Europe, they usually mention things like Romance languages, Germanic, and more rarely, Finno-Ugric like Finnish, Sami, Estonian and Hungarian. But nestled in the northeast of Spain lies a language so obscure, it is not related to any language in the world, let alone any language in Europe. Basque has a unique grammar unlike any in Europe, as it focuses more on an absolutive-ergative system unlike the nominative-accusative system in almost all of Europe’s languages. Many, if not, all of its root words and particles do not seem related to any language in Europe too. I have covered this language in my post about Language Isolates, so do check it out for more reasons why this earns the top spot in this list I have been yearning to do for quite a while. So this concludes my post about the most interesting language I have learnt so far.