- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
Are you one of the 6,000 people in the world who speaks Chalcatongo Mixtec? Congratulations! You speak the world’s weirdest language.
That’s what Tyler Schnoebelen and the researchers at Idibon, a natural language processing company, found when they statistically compared 239 languages to see how like or unlike they were to one another. Using the World Atlas of Language Structures, Idibon coded the languages for 21 characteristics including, for example, how subjects, objects, and verbs are ordered in a sentence, or how a language makes clear that a sentence is a question.
When Schnoebelen ran the numbers, Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico, was the least like the majority of the world’s other languages. And it is pretty unusual: Schnoebelen describes it as a “verb-initial tonal language” that has no mechanism for demonstrating questions (so “You are alright.” and “Are you alright?” sound the exact same). “I have spent part of the day imagining a game show in this language,” Schnoebelen wrote in his analysis (for more on how to say everything from “I am sick” to “I bought many long ropes” in Chalcatongo Mixtec, see here). It’s probably not surprising that some of the strangest languages are some of the most obscure. The second weirdest is Nenets, spoken in Siberia, followed by Choctaw, a Native American language from the central plains.
But some of the weirdest languages are widely spoken. The seventh-strangest language, Kongo, is spoken by half a million people in Central Africa. After that comes Armenian, then German. English ranks fairly high as well, coming in 33rd. There’s also no particular region of strange languages — the top 25 weirdest (pictured with red dots in the map below) are scattered across every continent. Mandarin is one of the strangest languages, while Cantonese is one of the most “normal.” And linguistic families are also no guarantee of similarity. Schnoebelen notes that while Germanic languages are all pretty weird, Romance languages run the full breadth of the strangeness spectrum, from Spanish, which falls in the Weirdness Index’s top 25, down to Portuguese, which ranked as one of the most mundane languages.
“Personally, I think that every language has something weird about it,” Schnoebelen tells FP by email, explaining that studying the peculiarities of different languages is part of the draw of linguistics. And of course, there were certain things that couldn’t be coded in his analysis. “For example,” Schnoebelen writes, “sometimes we hear a colorful idiom in another language and it really stands out. But how would you go about coming up with a scoring system that anyone could apply consistently to hundreds of languages?”
The index takes a hard look at the objective structures of languages, and makes for a good reminder. Think Hindi sounds strange? It’s actually the most normal language of all. And we English speakers are pretty weird ourselves.
For those who are curious, here’s Idibon’s 10 weirdest languages (you can find the full ranking here)
1. Mixtec (Chalcatongo)
4. Diegueño (Mesa Grande)
5. Oromo (Harar)
9. Armenian (Eastern)