In the game of reducing languages to superlatives — like easiest, hardest, most fascinating — you’re almost always going to wind up accounting for a lot of subjectivity. Certain languages are hard to learn, but only if you’re a native speaker of X language. And some languages may certainly seem strange and quirky, but that’s mostly just relative to the language you speak. The “weirdest language” is only weird to a certain subset of the world. To the native speakers of that language, it’s just, well, language as usual.
From the perspective of a native English speaker, for instance, any language that doesn’t use the Latin alphabet will automatically seem more foreign. To a native speaker of a tonal language, like Mandarin, non-tonal languages may seem flat and perplexing.
Certain languages are more objectively weird than others because they’re kind of rare and unusual.
For instance, a small handful of remote populations that are scattered across the world’s mountainous regions have developed whistled languages in order to communicate over long distances. As it turns out, you don’t even really need “words” as they’re commonly understood.
But if there’s anyone who’s come close to definitively narrowing down the world’s weirdest language, it’s computational linguist Tyler Schnoebelen and his team. Though the 239 languages they considered are a pretty small sample size in a world teeming with roughly 7,000 of them, they managed to systematically compare the languages using data in the World Atlas of Language Structures to figure out which languages stood out the most from others. The team looked at the features and characteristics of the languages — things like the grammar, word order, number of vowels and sounds — and used that to measure which languages have the most linguistically strange elements.
By trying to isolate the most atypical language — not necessarily the weirdest language, which inherently involves a bit of a value judgment — the linguists were able to come up with a relatively impartial answer.
Chalcatongo Mixtec! This language, spoken by 6,000 people in Oaxaca, Mexico, ranked first in the weirdest language shortlist.
Chalcatongo Mixtec, also known as San Miguel el Grande Mixtec, is a verb-initial tonal language. Verb-initial means its sentences begin with verbs, which is something it only has in common with 8.7 percent of languages, including Welsh and Hawaiian. Subject-initial languages are the most common, with roughly three-quarters of languages, and object-initial is the most rare, with only about than 1 percent of languages starting sentences with objects. And Chalcatongo Mixtec is tonal, meaning that intoning the same sound in a different way can change the word-meaning entirely, independent of its pronunciation.
It belongs to the Mixtec cluster of more than 50 related dialects spoken in the La Mixteca region of Mexico, spoken in total by roughly 500,000 people. The dialects are generally mutually intelligible among neighboring communities. Though speakers currently use the Latin alphabet, Mixtec languages once had a logographic writing system (featuring characters, like Mandarin).
This language is also rather unusual because it’s the only one that doesn’t have any structures, change of word order, or intonation in place in order to distinguish a yes-or-no question from a statement. In other words, there’s no way to really tell whether someone is saying something to you or asking it to you as a question that would require a yes-or-no answer.
Though hardly a contender for the top spot, English came in at 33rd, which is pretty up there in terms of weirdness. And this probably isn’t at all surprising to anyone who’s ever tried to learn it as a second language, either. English spelling is maddeningly difficult to master because it contains multitudes: Germanic roots, together with Latin, Norse and Norman influences all shaped the language in its early years. And over time, the language shifted and morphed in ways that weren’t totally consistent across the board, and it only continued to absorb more loanwords from other languages.
English also has an above-average amount of phonemes, or distinct sounds you can produce. The average number is roughly between 25 and 30, and English has 44.
English also has 11 vowel sounds (that you must then only spell using some combination of five vowel letters!), which is way more than the average five or six sounds. And in case you thought there wasn’t anything weird about its consonants, English also contains sounds that show up in fewer than 10 percent of the languages surveyed (like the “th” in “bathe”).
Additionally, it’s actually really weird that English changes the word order of sentences to make them into questions. Fewer than 2 percent of languages surveyed by WALS do this too.
But a good deal of languages are weirder than English, including the Siberian tongue Nenets, which ranked at number two, and the Native American language Choctaw, which ranked third. Mesa Grande Diegueño, Kutenai, Zoque, Paumarí, Trumai, Pitjantjatjara, Lavukaleve, Harar Oromo, Iraqw, Kongo, Mumuye, Ju|’hoan, Khoekhoe, Eastern Armenian, Abkhaz, Ladakhi, Mandarin, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech, and Spanish all made the top 25 list, too (and not in that order).