The concept of unspoken languages may sound like an oxymoron at first. When we think of language, it’s generally associated with verbal communication. This excludes the communities where conversation takes a different form, however. Members of some of these unspoken language communities can be found mostly in rural and remote locations. Yet there are also many common unspoken languages, like American Sign Language, that can be found spread across the world.
All unspoken languages share one major thing in common though: they’re hard to learn on the fly. Let’s say you’re traveling to a different country where you don’t speak the language. It would likely be easier to pick up on how to say hello or good morning for a spoken language because most of them share similar phonetic properties. Alternatively, if you were in an area that was inhabited predominantly by unspoken language speakers, it would most likely be more difficult to understand bits and pieces in the same way you could with a spoken language.
All this doesn’t mean these communities of the unspoken aren’t out there thriving, however. Well, we’ve already covered the most spoken languages in the world, so let’s learn about the most unspoken ones.
You may be familiar with American Sign Language or British Sign Language, but there are dozens if not hundreds of sign languages that reflect the diversity of people who use them. For those new to the concept of sign language, it’s a system of communication articulated through visual gestures and signs and is commonly used by deaf people.
The Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language
In the Negev Desert in Israel, three generations of the Bedouin community have gained the hereditary trait of deafness. Over 150 members of the tribe are deaf, instilling a necessity for a new form of communication: sign language.
Monastic sign languages
In the 10th century in Europe, Christian monks developed a collection of signs and gestures to communicate in strictly silent parts of the monastery.
You may be acquainted with it for carrying a tune, but for some, whistling is a form of communication. Also known as Bird Languages, whistled languages originate in remote forest and mountainous regions, where a method for communicating over long distances is necessary.
Originating from the Spanish word gilbar, meaning “to whistle,” the Silbo language is spoken predominantly in the Canary Islands of Spain. Their whistles can travel from up to 3.2 kilometers and are actually taught in schools on the island of La Gomera.
Turkish Bird Language
Coming from the mountainous village of Kuşköy in Northern Turkey, the bird language is spoken mostly by older shepherds. Unfortunately, the language is no longer passed down to younger generations and is at risk of extinction.
Considered one of the most endangered and rarest languages, it’s spoken in Antia on the island of Evia in Greece. Most of their speakers are shepherds and farmers, and infact their whistles can travel up to 4 kilometers! However, many Sfyria speakers have aged and lost their teeth, making them unable to whistle, and the language’s population has shrunk to only six speakers.
Clicking should probably be considered a part of spoken language, for the sake of this category of language, we’re going to discuss it here! Click languages are defined by their click consonants and actually possess some of the same consonants that English does like “ch” and “ng.”
Originating in South Africa from the Khoe-Khoe group, this distinct language type has been adopted by Bantu language groups such as Xhosa and Zulu. The Khoisan language family includes 27 languages.
The only other place outside of Africa with a click language is in Northern Queensland Australia. Spoken by the Aboriginal Lardil and Yangkaal peoples, Damin is a ceremonial language that is used when boys are initiated into manhood.
While it doesn’t travel as far as whistling, humming is used in a few communities to communicate.
Deriving from deep in the forests of the Amazon, humming is used to communicate while hunting by the Pirahã people in Brazil.
Talking Drums Language
Similar to whistling, the sound of drums can carry for longer distances. While some communities use drums for ceremonial purposes, others use it as a method of communication with one another. “Talking” Drums come from West Africa, where the drum beats mimic speech patterns of languages, however this communication is not considered an actual language. While they can convey some ideas, they are not nearly as complex as a spoken or signed language. In East and Central Africa, the drumbeats likewise change to imitate specific languages and patterns.
The name of the talking drums for the Kale people of the Congo. They’re used for fast communication over long distances. Their process of communication includes a repeated drum pattern that is passed through drummers until the message is received by the intended recipient.
Spoken languages are all around us, but it’s important that we stop and recognize the unspoken ones as well. Many of the unspoken languages discussed here are contained to small communities or at risk of extinction, and while their individuality will last forever, it’s important to acknowledge and commemorate their existence.