Monday, September 23, 2013

Extremes

Let's keep tonight's update brief and light-hearted. 

Deep in the jungles of South America is the now-famous language of Pirahã. The Pirahã people and their language has been championed this last decade by Daniel Everett. The language is famous as having the smallest inventory of sounds in the world, just 11 phonemes, tying Rotokas of Papua New Guinea. 

Leisure in eleven sounds or less: Daniel Everett and a Pirahã man enjoying a dip.
Image credit: The New Yorker. 
On the other end of the extreme is !Kung, spoken in the deserts of Namibia, with a whopping 141 phonemes. No wonder the language gets an exclamation point in its name! (Actually, the exclamation point stands for a click phoneme resembling a cork being pulled from a bottle). For comparative purposes, English dialects range from 38 to 44 phonemes, which is above average but by no means extraordinary. 

Labor in one hundred and forty-one sounds: 18,000 people speak !Kung today but their way of life
is endangered due to pollution of their water sources.
Image credit: Documentary Educational Resources.

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