Language is an essential part of our being. We use language not only to communicate with one another but also to relate, understand, and bond with each other. Language can be both spoken and non-verbal. However, there are other kinds of communication created either out of necessity or desperation that led people to create languages that require no speaking. They use alternate methods like clicking, whistling, or even drumming to have full-fledged conversations with their friends.
Here is a list of 11 such rare languages that you should find interesting to read about.
1. The Piraha language is unique to the tribe by the same name in the Amazon. Built on just eight consonants, three vowels, and a complex range of tones, it allows natives to drop words entirely and just hum, sing, or whistle the whole conversation.
The Piraha are primarily hunter-gatherers in the Amazon Rainforest. They speak Piraha which is an indigenous language of the isolated tribe. They are basically monolingual. Today, it is the only surviving dialect of the Mura language. The language can be whistled, hum, or sung which is very useful as a tool to communicate in the wild.
Some things that set this language apart are it has no relative clauses or grammatical recursion. It has the simplest sound system known to man. Piraha is made up of eight consonants and three vowels and has one of the fewest phonemes of any languages in the world. It has no separate words to describe colors. Also, they do not recognize cardinal numbers (1,2,3) or ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd). In fact, they have no words in the language to describe numbers either. They instead relate numbers to quantity like “large” and “small.” However, its complex array of tones, stresses, and syllable lengths allows its users to completely let go of words and simply hum, whistle, or sing their sentences to communicate with one another. (source)
2. Solresol (Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, and Ti) is a musical language constructed in 1827. It uses one to five notes to create words. Each note is represented by a symbol. It has the smallest alphabet count, 7-12 letters. A language code has been requested in July 2017.
François Sudre constructed a whole new musical language in 1987. It enabled the formation of whole sentences using just the notes Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, and Ti. Words are developed using one to five syllables or notes. Each of these is one of only seven basic phonemes which are accented or lengthened. The phonemes can be represented in the form of musical notes, seven colors of the rainbow, defined symbols, or even hand gestures. Hence, a sentence can be sung, painted, or signaled using the colors or through gestures.
Each “note” of Solresol is represented as a symbol, for example, “Do” is a Circle, “Re” is a vertical line, “Mi” is a half-circle facing downwards and “La” is a half-circle facing right. “Fa” is a diagonal line from left-top to right-bottom, “Sol” is a horizontal line, and “Ti” is a diagonal line from left-bottom to right-top. It has the shortest of all Latin alphabets, 7-12 of them, and capitals are essential to denote the correct meaning of the words. Also, each syllable or note has a meaning. For example, Sol has the meaning of being related to arts or science.
There are great efforts to keep the Solresol language alive by a few enthusiasts around the world. Also, an ISO 639-3 language code has been requested as of 28 July 2017. (source)
3. Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) is a newly developed, village-specific sign language in Israel where 4% of the population is deaf. Since they cannot hear spoken language and are not exposed to standard sign language, ABSL is unique unto itself.
The Al-Sayyid Bedouin tribe in the Negev Desert of southern Israel have a high ratio of deaf people—4% of its population. The deaf had never heard Arabic or Hebrew, and neither have they been exposed to any other sign languages. So, the tribe constructed their own sign language called “Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language” (ABSL) which is understood by both the deaf and the hearing people. By doing this, the tribe has succeeded in integrating the deaf into normal life.
The sentence formation in ABSL is subject—object—verb order which is different from that of spoken Hebrew or Arabic. This shows that there is little influence of spoken languages on developing this sign language. The sign language is developed on grammatical lines. and its grammar has gone through much improvement over the years. However, the language does not contain agreeing verbs indicating that it has much scope to develop. It is a brand new, uninfluenced language and intrigues researchers as the language expand. (1,2)
4. A language called “Talking Drum” emerged from using an hourglass-shaped drum in West Africa. Its controlled pitch mimics the tone and prosody of human speech. Detailed messages can be relayed from one village to another swiftly.
An hourglass-shaped drum is one of the oldest instruments used in West African tribes. The “talking drum” is also used as a mode of communication where a skilled player can play whole phrases. They sound like humans humming. The pitch of the drum is regulated to mimic the tone and sound of human speech, but it lacks the qualities of vowels or consonants.
This does not hinder them to send detailed messages across villages faster using talking drums. However, the tones differentiate the messages. As an example. low tones refer to males and high tones to females. It is an effective mode of communication as the drummers communicate through phrases and pauses which can travel more than four or five miles. It is usually used to inform nearby villages of any attacks or dangers. (source)
5. Sfyria is a whistle language which originated 25,000 years ago in the mountainous villages of Greece. It is one of the rarest and most endangered languages. Complex and long sentences can be communicated using whistling which sounds like birdsong.
With only 6 people left in the world who can speak sfyria, this whistle language is on a quick descent. In the mountainous village of Antia in Greece, is an astonishing ancient language called “sfyria.” It has been spoken for two millennia and is a language of their own. Whistle language is used mainly by the shepherds and farmers to hold complex and complete conversations across a long distance. It resembles the sound of birds. and a visitor can easily be deceived.
Sfyria is a whistled version of spoken Greek that uses tones and frequencies as letters and syllables. The mountains and ravines create the right acoustics for this whistled language to be effective. It allows the sound waves to travel up to four kilometers across open valleys.
Many elderly whistlers have died or lost their teeth, and the younger ones have moved out of Antia taking the tradition with them. As per the UNESCO Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger, no other language in the world has fewer speakers than sfyria, (source)
6. Nicaraguan Sign Language was unintentionally created by deaf school children. They integrated their local home sign language and gestures to communicate that few could comprehend. This new language has intrigued many researchers.
Deaf people in Nicaragua were kept isolated and hence formulated their own, home sign language and gestures to communicate with others. In 1977, a center for special education established a program to teach the deaf in schools. The teachers in the language program used spoken Spanish, lipreading, and use of simple fingerspelling to teach the adolescents the universal sign language. However, most of them found it hard to understand Spanish as they did not grow up learning it. Hence, there was a huge disconnect between the teachers and these children.
But the playgrounds, streets, and the buses were where a new language came alive. To communicate with each other, they used gestures and home sign language that most were familiar with. A Creole-like language was created accidentally. It was understood and spoken by all these students, but not the teachers. This “first-stage” pidgin has been called “Lenguaje de Signos Nicaragüense” (LSN) which is still used by some who attend this schools. It is of great interest to linguists who are currently researching this language at length. (source)
7. The right glottal stops, tones, and stress patterns make Chinantec whistled speech a perfect mode of communication. It can convey tenses and includes seven tones. One can literarily whistle everything they want to say.
The small village in Oaxaca, Mexico is struggling to keep its tradition of the whistle language alive. Chinantec whistled speech is a form of communication where the village people would whistle whatever they would actually want to say in the spoken language.
It sounds like a bird chirping. Using the correct glottal stops, tones, and appropriate stress patterns, these people have created a language of their own. People across the canyons use the Chinantec whistled speech to make plans, negotiate, and chat with one another without ever uttering a single word.
The whistled language is more mature as it can portray past and future tenses and is comprised of seven tones which can travel a distance up to one kilometer. With the advancements in technology like a walkie-talkie and cell phones the use of this whistled language has been reduced. However, the linguistic researchers have archived the multimedia recordings and transcribed Chinantec whistled language to preserve it in case of its extinction someday. (source)
8. Damin is a nasal clicking language used by the aboriginal men of Lardil in Australia. It is the only click language outside of Africa using lexical words that are organized into semantic fields. It is used during the men’s initiation ceremony.
A ceremonial language register used by the indigenous men of the Leerdil Tribe in Australia. It is an initiation language used by the people during ceremonies to mark manhood. Damin is the only click language outside of Africa. It is restricted and has only 150 words having roots in the original language of Lardil or Yangkaal. Some of the men used Damin in their daily conversations to gossip or while foraging.
Damin has a small vocabulary with only 250 words. However, the last such ceremony was conducted in 1950, and today it’s almost extinct. However, some efforts are being taken to revive the ceremonial activities, and one can hope it will also lead to the language’s revival. (1,2)
9. Silbo Gomero is a whistled language register of Spanish to communicate across valleys by the inhabitants of La Gomera. Used as a mode of public communication, it can exchange messages over a distance of up to five kilometers.
Silbo Gomero is a mixture of Spanish from speech and whistling. This mode of communication is used to spread messages across the deep ravines and narrow valleys. Hence, it is most commonly used for making public announcements like events’ invitations or public information. Its usage declined in the 1950’s due to the development in telecommunication, people moving out to find better jobs, and not passing down the heritage. Many revival techniques like including it in the school curriculum and additional high-level training too were made available.
Silbo Gomero is known to have about two to four vowels and about four to ten consonants. Silbo replaces each vowel or consonant with a whistling sound. It is an extremely evolved language where whistles are distinguished according to pitch and continuity. It continues to preserve the articulation of ordinary speech using pitch variation enabling easy construct and the understanding of long sentences. In 2009, it was honored as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. (source)
10. Khoisan language is a unique group of African languages that use click consonants as phonemes. Characters like “ǃ” and “ǂ” are used to denote the click. They were used extensively by the African hunters.
Joseph Greenburg, an American linguist, classified a group of African languages as “Khoisan” languages. They do not belong to other African language families and are known for their use of click consonants for phonetics. The clicks are depicted by characters such as “ǃ” and “ǂ.” The clicks are versatile as consonants, and Khoisan is also known as the language to have the greatest numbers of consonants in the world.
Most of the languages are endangered, and several are dying or extinct. Most have no written record. However, a few Khoisan languages are still spoken in Namibia and Tanzania which aid in preserving its lineage. (source)
11. Kata Kolok is a village sign language used in two villages in Bali. It is unconnected to spoken Balinese and lacks similarity to the oral language influence. Signers make extensive use of cardinal directions and real-world locations like a farm or waves.
Also known as “Benkala Sign Language” and “Balinese Sign Language,” Kata Kolok is a village sign language used by two villages in Bali, Indonesia. These sign languages differ from others as signers use extensive cardinal directions and real-world locations for signing the words. Also, they do not use a figurative time-line to indicate time references. In fact, it is the only known sign language that largely uses its own culture as an absolute frame of reference.
Kata Kolok features in all aspect of the village life such as politics, education, and religious settings. Both the deaf and hearing community in these villages believes in a deaf god that they worship. “Kolok” in Balinese actually means “deaf or mute.” That’s how it derived its name. The signs imitate the movements of daily activities and are very natural.
They use set movements to describe the meaning of a word. For example, to explain the meaning of water, they will sign the movement of a wave. The signs are developed by the deaf people in the village and then universally agreed upon by the rest of the villagers making it a unique language. (1,2)