Fun facts about world languages

Fun facts about world languages

Fun facts

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The longest alphabet? The most common English letter? And what is a dord?

Languages are a fascinating thing — fun, playful, and highly complex. In today’s world, it’s challenging to get by without the use of language, be it on social media, at work, or while traveling. Here is our pick of fun language facts that you may have never heard of. 

1. Papua New Guinea has the most languages in use

A large proportion of Papua New Guinea’s population live in the mountainous interior of the countryA large proportion of Papua New Guinea’s population lives in the mountainous interior of the country — Shutterstock

There are about 7,000 languages spoken today, out of which about 840 are spoken in only one country — Papua New Guinea. The runner-up is Indonesia with over 700 languages, and Nigeria is the third with over 530 languages in use.

2. The word “dord” was accidentally added to the English dictionary

The word dord was a mistake in what is now known as the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This ghost word was accidentally added to the dictionary in 1934 and defined as a synonym for density used in physics and chemistry:

dord (dôrd), n. Physics & Chem. Density.

It came into existence after a misinterpretation of the editor-in-chief’s slip that read “D or d, cont./density”, whose first part was mistaken for a single word. The editors of the dictionary noticed the ghost word in 1939 but it wasn’t until 1947 that it was completely removed.

3. There are around 300 sign languages in the world

Did you know that American Sign Language is a child of Old French Sign Language?Did you know that American Sign Language is a child of Old French Sign Language? — Shutterstock

Today there are around 300 sign languages used worldwide. Their development is complex and several have family-like lineages. Besides the large number of regional sign languages which have been made, for example in Sri Lanka each school teaches a specific version of their own sign language, the main sign languages used widely today can be divided into four main trees: BANZSL (from Old British Sign Language), Danish, French, and Swedish.

Did you know that American Sign Language is a child of Old French Sign Language? Now you do.

What do deaf people who meet in international settings such as the Deaflympics sign when they want to communicate? International sign language of course! Also referred to as Gesunto or International Sign Pidgin, this sign language with about 1,500 gestures has been developed and used since the 1970s. 

4. Khmer has the longest alphabet of them all

Khmer’s alphabet has 74 lettersKhmer’s alphabet has 74 letters — Shutterstock

Khmer, Cambodia’s official and national language, has 74 letters making it the longest alphabet globally. 

On the other hand, Rotokas has the shortest alphabet with its 12 letters A E G I K O P R S T U V. The language is spoken by about 4,000 people on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.

5. The word “synonym” doesn’t have a synonym

It just doesn’t.

6. Chinese has the most native speakers

There are over 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese and its variationsThere are over 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese and its variations — Shutterstock

English might be the most widely spoken language if we count both native and non-native speakers, however, when it comes to only the native speakers, Chinese would top it. According to Ethnologue, there are over 1.3 billion speakers of Chinese and its variations today. 

Spanish follows Chinese with almost half a billion speakers. English comes up as third on the list, with just under 400 million speakers worldwide (another one billion speak it as a second language).

7. E is the most common letter in English

Z is the least used letter in EnglishZ is the least used letter in English — Shutterstock

At 13 percent based on an analysis of texts, the letter E is the most used letter in the English language. Actually, it is one of the most commonly used letters in a number of languages, including many European ones. The letter T is second with 9.1 percent, and A is third with 8.2 percent.

Looking at the letters in dictionaries, E would be the most common first letter as well, with a frequency of 11 percent. It’s followed by S, I, and A with 8.7 percent, 8.6 percent, and 7.8 percent, respectively.

On the other hand, the letters J, Q, X, and Z are at the very bottom of the frequency spectrum, with Z being used only 0.074 percent of the time.

When it comes to the first letters in texts, T begins most words, followed by O and I. If we analyze the letter frequency of words listed in dictionaries, S would be the most common starting letter, followed by P, C, and A.

8. Japanese is the fastest language in the world 

The Japanese speak the fastestThe Japanese speak the fastest — Shutterstock

Language speed is measured in syllables spoken per second or minute. The fastest language identified in a survey puts Japanese in first place with their motor-mouth speakers who pump out syllables at a blistering rate of 7.84 per second. Try saying “methyldihydromorphine” ten times in ten seconds to imagine how fast that is! 

On the other end of the scale, Mandarin and German are two of the slowest spoken languages, clocking in at a leisurely 5.18 and 5.97 syllables per second, respectively.

9. The language with the most words is…

…in a way impossible to say. English is likely among the top ones when it comes to the number of words due to historical influences from other languages, such as Dutch, Latin, and French, and also because it’s a widely used international language.

However, if we count the number of words in a dictionary, Korean is suddenly the language with the most words — over 1,1 million to be more precise. It’s followed by Portuguese with some 820,000 words and Finnish with roughly 800,000 words. English resides in seventh place with about 520,000 words.

10. Shakespeare created 1,700 new words

Shakespeare invented words like kissing and managerShakespeare invented words, such as kissing and manager — Shutterstock

The literary genius of Shakespeare is well-known but did you know that the Bard introduced over 1,700 words in English? 

He probably came up with many of the new words himself, either by word combinations, making verbs out of nouns, using suffixes and prefixes, and other linguistic techniques. We can’t list all of them here but here are a few that are credited to him: gossip, kissing, manager, skim milk, and undress.

11. The Pope tweets in 9 languages

The Pope lives in the VaticanThe Pope lives in the Vatican — Shutterstock

The current leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, knows a number of languages. He also tweets in a number of languages, including Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Latin, French, German, and Arabic.

12. What is the record number of languages spoken by one person?

The world record belongs to the Liberian-born Lebanese polyglot Ziad Youssef Fazah who claims to speak 59 languages. He even made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for some time. However, it’s unclear to what extent he can actually speak the languages.

The languages he communicates in include Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cantonese, Cypriot, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Dzongkha / Bhutanese, English, Fijian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kyrgyz, Lao, Malagasy, Malay, Maltese, Mandarin, Mongolian, Nepali, Norwegian, Pashto, Papiamento, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Samoan, Serbo-Croatian, Shanghainese, Singlish, Sinhala, Spanish, Standard Tibetan, Swahili, Swedish, Tajik, Thai, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese.

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