There is no shortage of languages here on Earth that contain very few speakers. You could, strangely enough, say that rare languages are not uncommon. In fact, the vast number of endangered languages around the globe means that finding the least common language in the world is nearly impossible. However, this question is asked so frequently that we thought it was worth it to take a bit of a dive into the topic. Come with us as we explore the concept of the least spoken language in the world.
What is the Least Spoken Language in the World?
While there are many rare and endangered languages around the globe, such as Pashia and Rushani, finding out which is actually spoken the least is a bit trickier. The Nung language, for example, still can count its number of speakers in the thousands, but what about the Chamicuro language of the people of Peru? Chamicuro is said only to have roughly a hundred current speakers.
Now, does a bit less than a hundred speakers make Chamicuro the least common language in the world? Well, apparently not. There are supposedly dozens of languages that actually count the number of speakers under a hundred. These are languages that can verifiably go back generations (Klingon doesn’t count, and would probably rank a lot higher in speakership than most languages listed here). Some of the near-extinct languages come in at less than ten speakers.
With such small numbers, this means that multiple languages could go extinct, or double their number of speakers, within the next year. This also means that the language that is currently the “least” spoken will often shift as older languages go extinct, and people pass away.
Be that as it may, I didn’t want to leave here without giving you something of a more substantial answer. The following could all make a case to be considered the least spoken language in the world, or, in the case of our first language they were actually “extinct,” in the past.
Cappadocian is said to have a couple of thousand speakers today but has a very unique story to tell. The tale of Cappadocian demonstrates that it is not easy to determine exactly how many people may be speaking a language at a given time.
This was a language that was previously thought extinct until its ‘rediscovery’ in 2005.
Cappadocia is a region of Turkey that has contained Greek-speaking peoples for thousands of years. Though the Cappadocian Greeks had been more or less politically separated from Greece for nearly 900 years, the 20th century brought significant change. In the 1920s large populations of Greeks and Turks were exchanged between the two countries, and the Cappadocian Greeks very quickly assimilated into speaking the Modern Greek of their new home.
By 1960 it was thought that Cappadocian Greek had been all but lost. In 2005 experts “discovered” that roughly 2,800 people in Northern Greece were still able to speak the unique Greek–Turkish language of their ancestors.
Status: A few hundred speakers
Cocopá was selected as a representative of the many tribal languages of Northern America. There are dozens of languages like Blackfoot, Alabama, Pawneem, and more that have continued to be spoken among localized communities.
These tribal languages range in speakership from a few speakers to a few thousand, with the languages on the lowest often disappearing with the passing of a generation. The native language of Lushootseed is a recent example, with no fluent speakers left as of 2008.
Cocopá is doing a bit better, with a speakership estimated to be around 300-500. 300 is still smaller than most high schools, but it means Cocopá is not likely to be extinct by the time you read this article. As far as most uncommon languages go, Cocopá may have over 10x that of the smallest.
Status: Less than 20 Speakers
Indonesia is an archipelago of more than seventeen-thousand islands including Borneo, Java, and New Guinea. The province of Papua, which encompasses the western half of New Guinea and numerous islands, is extremely remote and full of unexplored jungles and rarely spoken languages.
The severely endangered language of Liki, also referred to as Moar, is an Austronesian language previously found on offshore islands in the Papua province. Currently the majority of the last 11 speakers of this language are located on Liki island. This is very few, even among rare languages.
Status: Possibly Extinct
Njerep is a language you will find often being listed as the least spoken. Njerep is one of the Bantoid languages and is currently only still spoken in Nigeria. Twenty years ago, only around five people could roughly speak the language, and only a single speaker (who would now be 80) was fluent. Another speaker of the language died in 1998, and without two fluent speakers, Njerep has been considered more or less extinct ever since.
Many Others May Soon Be Lost
Countless rarely spoken languages around the world are on the cusp of extinction. Each language lost is a tragedy, for each one demonstrates the richness of the human experience and mind.
Here are just a couple of such cases:
- Bidjara, one of the numerous languages of the natives of Australia, went more or less extinct in the 1980’s. Today efforts continue to revitalize Bidjarae and keep it alive through artwork and education.
- Ongota, a language in the Southwestern part of Ethiopia, had only 10 speakers as of 2007, and no researchers have returned to check on its status since.
- Many, many, more rare languages are in danger of being lost.
Hopefully, this piece has helped you to understand the inability to say with any certainty which language is the least spoken on any given day. At the same time, my hope is that you can also appreciate the importance of these rarely spoken languages and how many we stand to lose in the near future. If you are interested in endangered languages, it is highly recommended you visit and show your support for the Endangered Language Project.