Rare and Lost Languages of the World
According to UNESCO, up to half of the world’s 7,000 spoken languages could be extinct by the end of this century. That means one language on average could be lost every fortnight, when the remaining elderly native speakers die.
Already, many languages only live in the dusty pages of history books. As additional languages go the way of the dinosaur, specific knowledge about the natural world, animal behavior and conservation systems may be lost forever.
The good news? Thanks to modern technology and dogged conservation efforts, at least some of these threatened and endangered languages could be saved from death.
The following languages are among the most rare and unique on earth. How many will die out completely — and how many will survive for centuries yet?
Kus Dili (Bird Language)
Who speaks it: This unusual language is spoken only in the small Turkish village of Kusköy. It’s unclear exactly how many people use it, but the number is small enough that, in 2017, UNESCO deemed it a language in need of protection.
What makes it unique: Kus Dili is called “bird language” for a reason: It’s based not on words, but on very loud whistles.
For around 500 years, Turks living in the mountainous Black Sea region have been communicating across long distances by whistling; while the human voice can be heard up to 1,500 feet in normal weather, a whistle travels up to 18.5 miles. Exchanges range from a succinct “OK” to complex questions like “Can you help us harvest hazelnuts tomorrow?”
In the past, Kus Dili was heard across numerous villages, but these days it can only be heard in Kusköy. Mobile phones are replacing the need for whistling, so there’s less incentive for the young to learn it.
Still, there's hope for its survival: The Bird Language Festival has been going strong since 1997, and bird-language classes were recently added to the district primary-school curriculum and are growing in popularity.
Who speaks it: This language is spoken by fewer than 200 male healers in Bolivia, mostly in Charazani near Lake Titicaca.
What makes it unique: Not much is known about this secret language, which is exclusively used by healers during their curing rituals. Also called machaj jaya, which translates to “language of the people, the family,” it’s passed down from father to son.
Callahuaya borrows elements from several prominent indigenous Bolivian languages, but sounds most similar to Quechua. This is thought to be deliberate, as someone overhearing it would assume it was Quechua and pay it no mind.
The secrecy and mystery surrounding the origins of the language add to the awe locals feel for the healers who speak it.
Who speaks it: Esperanto is an international language spoken by up to 2 million people in 115 countries, yet it has never been recognized as an official language anywhere.
What makes it unique: The phonology, grammar and vocabulary of Esperanto are all artificially designed, unlike other languages that developed naturally over centuries. This means it tends not to change over time, and can be understood by speakers living in diverse locations.
Esperanto was constructed by Doktoro Esperanto, aka Polish linguist Dr Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof, in the late 19th century. He wanted a language that would work against nationalism and promote internationalism, the theory being that people around the world could be united by a common language with no cultural or political history.
Despite never taking off officially, world congresses on Esperanto have been held every year since 1905, save for during the two world wars.
Quenya and Sindarin
Who speaks it: Fictional characters of Middle Earth (exact number unknown).
What makes it unique: Quenya and Sindarin come from the Elvish language family invented by Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in his books “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Long before his books hit the big screen in movie form, avid readers, Tolkien aficionados, and even linguists and scholars undertook serious study of these invented languages.
This study has in turn led to spirited debate: Tolkien worked on developing the languages as a hobby years before the books were published, and he’s known to have repeatedly tinkered with Elvish's structure and content. Consequently there’s no agreement as to whether the published form is the correct one.
What is certain is that Quenya is a form of high Elvish, also referred to as Latin Elvish, while Sindarin, also called Grey Elvish, is the everyday language of the elves.
Interestingly, of all the languages on this list, these ones probably have the best bet of surviving for a long time, due to a thriving fandom around Tolkien's work.
Who speaks it: As of 2017, there were only three people left in the world who could speak N|uu fluently.
What makes it unique: N|uu is spoken by the San people, also known as Bushmen, and is believed to be the original language of South Africa.
Like the more famous Khosain language of the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, N|uu includes a series of clicking sounds in its vocabulary. There are 112 sounds and 45 distinct clicks in total.
As with many languages at risk of extinction, until recently it was passed down orally through the generations. But one of the last speakers, Katerina Esau, recently worked with linguists to produce a written record of N|uu. She now teaches new generations of San children their mother tongue.
Other influential torch-bearers of the language include the late Una Rooi, pictured here.
Who speaks it: By 2016, only two individuals self-identified as native speakers of this language.
What makes it unique: According to the Indigenous Language Institute, there were once more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the U.S. The colonization of America brought with it war, disease and laws that punished America’s first people if they spoke their own languages.
Now there are approximately 175 languages remaining, but many of those are critically endangered. Patwin, part of the Wintuan language group spoken by peoples in West Central California, is one of them.
However, in 2010, the first classes were held to teach Patwin at the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation tribal school. From preschool through high school, kids can attend Patwin classes. Some recordings can even be found on iTunes now.
The hope is that this will protect and revive the unique language culture of Patwin for future generations.
Who speaks it: By 2018, only 10 islanders living on the Japanese islands of Hokkaido, Tsishima and Kuril could speak this rare indigenous language fluently, while another 304 could understand it.
The language comes from the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan.
What makes it unique: Ainu is classed as an “isolate,” meaning it bears no relation to any other known language. It lacks tense distinction (past, present or future) and is entirely an oral language, with no written form — meaning that when the few remaining speakers die, the Ainu language risks being lost forever.
The language’s demise is, not surprisingly, rooted in colonialism: During the Meiji period from the late 19th to early 20th century, the language was banned in schools and government (Ainu cultural practices like traditional hunting and fishing were also restricted).
Thankfully, there may be hope yet. A Tsishima man has set up a school to teach the language and collect traditional stories.
Who speaks it: Votic is the language of the Vod people, an ethnic group native to Russia, and is mainly spoken in two villages in the Kingiseppski region in the northwest of the country.
It’s estimated that there are just eight native Votic speakers left.
Why it’s unique: Back in the 11th century, the Vod people inhabited the Novgorod areas near the Gulf of Finland, which comprised an independent nation.
Fast forward to the 20th century and, during communist rule in the 1930s, Votic was outlawed. In 1943, Votic-speaking villagers were deported to Finland, where they were made to perform forced labor. When they were allowed back a year later, they were banned from returning to their original homes.
Over the decades, parents insisted their children learn Russian, and so spoken Votic declined. It’s only existed in written form for 100 years and the current alphabet, using Latin characters, is just 13 years old.
Who speaks it: Jedek is spoken by about 280 Semang people in the Malaysian Peninsula, where the more common language is Jahai.
What makes it unique: While the Semang people have long been the subject of anthropology studies, the discovery of Jedek was very recent.
It wasn’t until 2018 that a group of Swedish researchers studying the Jahai language community realized some villagers were using a completely different set of words than people they lived with side-by-side. Further research led to the discovery of a unique grammar structure and sounds previous anthropologic studies had missed altogether.
Interestingly, the Jahai community is non-competitive, with very little violence, and no law courts, strict gender divisions or professions. Therefore no words exist for professions, laws or ownership.
Who speaks it: In East Kameng, a district in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, only about a thousand people know this extremely rare, and possibly soon-to-die, language.
What makes it unique: In 2008, researchers discovered that the Koro Aka tribe spoke a completely separate language from others in the area, who predominantly spoke Aka.
Intriguingly, Koro is very distinct from Aka, with the two languages sharing just 9 percent of their vocabulary. In his book “The Last Speakers,” linguist K. David Harrison wrote that comparing the languages was like comparing “English and Japanese.”
Few of those who speak this language are under age 20, so its future is uncertain.
Who speaks it: It’s estimated about 130,000 people speak Ladino, predominantly in Israel.
What makes it unique: Also known as Judeo-Spanish, Ladino is the spoken and written language of Jews of Spanish origin.
After Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism or executed, they fled to Italy, Greece, the Balkans, Turkey, Lebanon and historical Palestine. Ladino was born when they blended the languages of their homeland, religion and new country. Influences include Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and even French.
Gravestones inscribed with Ladino can still be seen in Nakkasteppe Cemetery in Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of Istanbul.
There have also been many efforts to keep the language alive; Spain has even announced a plan to debut a Ladino academy in Israel.
Who speaks it: In the districts of Elliott and Wave Hill in the Northern Territory of Australia, this indigenous language is spoken by an estimated 97 people.
What makes it unique: When the Europeans arrived to Australia in 1788, there were more than 250 indigenous Australian languages in use, with 800 dialectical varieties.
Today, there are only around a dozen indigenous languages still spoken by young people, guaranteeing their future existence. Another 100 languages, mainly used by older generations, will be lost as the elders that know them pass away.
Happily, there have been efforts to keep some of these languages, including Mudburra, alive. As of the 2006 census, just 47 people spoke it, about half the number who know the language today.
Who speaks it: Not only do very few people speak this language, but those who do are extremely isolated from another. As of 2017, there were two — yes, two — Hertevîn-speaking people still living in Turkey’s Siirt Province, where the language has its roots.
Other speakers have long since migrated to Europe and the U.S. There is also a small group of Hertevîn-speaking people in Iraq.
What makes it unique: Hertevîn is extremely old: It was first spoken by the people of Chaldea, an ancient Middle Eastern state, as early as the 6th century BC.
Yet it wasn’t formally recognized until the 20th century, many hundreds of years later. Linguist Otto Jastrow was the first person to study Hertevîn, recording Keldani Turks speaking it in 1970.