History and Information on Languages and Linguistics Part 2

About information and history of the languages of the world, linguistics info such as definition of phoneme, weird and unusual languages that use whistles or clicks, word meanings.


In the Tower of Babel: Human Languages

The basic unit of sound into which languages are broken down is called a phoneme. The number of phonemes in human speech ranges from 11 to 67. English has between 35 and 46 phonemes, Hawaiian has 13, and Italian 26. The Japanese monkey uses 26 phonemes, various dolphins use from 7 to 19, the pig has 23, the fox 36, cows have 8, and chickens cluck in 20 different ways.

One of the most unusual sounds in human language may be found in the dialect of the South African Khoi-Khoin tribe. The language consists of harsh, staccato clicks, clacks, and kissing sounds, and is unique in that it is spoken by breathing in rather than out. These noises made by the tongue (similar to the way we say "tsk-tsk") are called the click-clack language. It sounded so much like stammering and clucking to Dutch ears that the 1st Boers in South Africa called the Khoi-Khoin "Hottentots," which word derives from the Dutch expression hateran en tateren, meaning to stammer and stutter.

An equally unusual means of communication is the whistle language of Kuskoy or Bird Village in Turkey. No one knows how the whistle language evolved, although it might have begun as a warning signal for Black Sea smugglers or others engaged in illegal activity. Bird Village, about 80 mi. southwest of Trabzon, takes its name from the birdlike whistling that the villagers often use in place of words. Voices don't carry far in the mountainous region, but the shrill whistles can be heard for miles, the high-pitched sounds carrying news of births and deaths, love affairs, and all the latest gossip. The whistling serves as a kind of house-to-house telegraph system. In order to get the power to "transmit," the whistler curls his tongue around his teeth so that the air is forced through his lips. No pucker is made, as in most whistling. To amplify the sound, the palm is cupped around the mouth and the whistling "words" come out with a great blast. It's said that the language is so powerful and complex that lovers can even romance each other with tender whistles from as far away as 5 mi. A similar whistling language is "spoken" by villagers in the Canary Islands, though a Kuskoyite wouldn't be understood if he whistled to someone there.

Then, of course, there are the so-called secret languages that range from Cockney rhyming slang, underworld jargon, and carny talk to the Pig Latin of schoolboys that can be traced back to the early 17th century. One of the most interesting is the female secret language developed by the women of Arawak, an island in the Lesser Antilles. This language was invented when fierce South American Caribs invaded the island before the time of Columbus, butchering and eating all the relatively peaceful Arawak male inhabitants and claiming their women. In retaliation, the women devised a separate female language based on Arawak, refusing to speak Carib and maintaining silence in the presence of all males, a revenge that was practiced for generations afterward.

Often a language has words that have different meanings in different countries. There are about 200 such words and expressions in English. In England what Americans call a cracker is a biscuit, french fries are chips, and the hood of a car is a bonnet. A misunderstanding frequently arises when an Englishman says to an American woman, "I'll knock you up," which simply means, "I'll give you a call."

Another case of confusion occasionally occurs when Iberians try to explain in English that they have a cold. Their word for that condition is constipado.

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