WTF Fun Fact 13566 – Can You Forget a Language?

Can you forget a language? Can your brain really unlearn it?

If you took a high school Spanish or French class in which you spent the period reciting verbs and learning to ask for directions to the nearest beach, you may have no problem believing that it’s possible to forget an entire language.

But when it comes to our mother tongue, can it truly fade from our minds?

Can You Really “Forget” Your Native Language?

“Language attrition” is the phenomenon in which language proficiency slowly erodes from our brains over time. Professor Monika S. Schmid, a linguistic expert from the University of York, studies this, noting that an individual may experience bouts of hesitation, mix up expressions, or entirely forget specific terms sometimes.

While aging adults may find that certain words or phrases become elusive, they’re unlikely to completely lose grip on a language they once mastered. On the contrary, youngsters might experience a profound shift.

Kids can learn languages more rapidly than adults. But they can also lose it entirely if they aren’t continuously exposed to the language. For instance, a young Russian girl adopted by an American family demonstrated a rapid decline in her Russian vocabulary as she embraced English words.

The Brain’s Role in Language Retention

A lot revolves around the brain’s architecture. Interestingly, birds and their songs, especially those from the biological order Passeriformes, offer us a clue about retaining language.

These creatures are equipped with a dual-circuit system in their brains, first learning their song and then reproducing it later. A similar framework seems to exist in humans, particularly during early developmental stages.

In essence, by early adolescence, our first language gets imprinted in our brains. While we may overlook certain terms or expressions, the core structure remains intact. This also underscores why many struggle to shed their native accent, even after mastering multiple languages.

But most importantly, it suggests that we can’t entirely unlearn a language.

Avoiding Language Attrition

Contrary to what many might believe, staying connected with speakers of one’s native language isn’t always the antidote to attrition. An intriguing observation among Cuban immigrants in Miami highlighted this. Even while in a predominantly Spanish-speaking environment, they experienced a dilution in their native linguistic structures, largely due to their interaction with diverse Spanish dialects.

But that’s not a loss of language – it’s an evolution. And it’s pivotal to recognize that language change isn’t necessarily negative.

So, Can You Forget a Language?

Witnessing one’s primary language slip away can stir deep emotions, especially when one’s linguistic roots are linked to personal history and identity.

But here’s the silver lining: research continually reinforces the notion that our foundational language remains with us. While accents, dialects, and specific terms may evolve, the foundational structure remains.

So, while languages might fade, shift, or transform, they’re never truly forgotten.

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Source: “Can You Unlearn A Language?” — IFL Science

WTF Fun Fact 13556 – New Indo-European Language

Archaeologists may have discovered a new Indo-European language related to Hittite.

In the heart of north-central Turkey lies Boğazköy-Hattusha. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a testament to the advanced urban architecture and artistry of the bygone Hittite Empire. These remnants of history not only provide a glimpse into an ancient civilization but its linguistic gems.

A Surprising Discovery

The Late Bronze Age, spanning from 1650 to 1200 BCE, saw the rise of the Hittite Empire as a dominant force in Anatolia. Beyond their prowess in warfare, the Hittites had a keen inclination towards documentation. From chronicling their monumental battles to codifying laws, they left no stone unturned. The medium? Clay tablets.

To date, researchers have discovered over 30,000 of these in Boğazköy-Hattusha, with most inscribed in the Hittite language.

A New Indo-European Language Related to Hittite

Among the vast array of Hittite tablets, researchers stumbled upon an anomaly: tablets inscribed in an unknown language.

Preliminary investigations suggest this language belonged to the people of Kalašma, near the north-western fringe of the Hittite heartland. The language’s nuances hint at similarities with Luwian, another tongue from the Hittite era.

Initial studies of the tablets indicate that they might detail ancient cultic rituals specific to Kalašma. Professor Daniel Schwemer from Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg emphasizes the Hittites’ unique interest in foreign languages, especially when associated with rituals.

The mystery language, while distinct, showcases clear ties to the Indo-European family of languages.

This linguistic family spans across vast territories, enveloping languages like Hindi, Persian, Russian, and English. In Europe, apart from the unique Basque spoken in the Basque Country, most languages trace their origins back to the Indo-European lineage.

Ongoing Investigations

While the discovery of this new language has piqued the interest of linguists worldwide, much remains to be understood. Researchers are working tirelessly to decode the Kalasmaic text, which remains largely elusive.

The excavation in Boğazköy-Hattusha, spearheaded by the German Archaeological Institute, has garnered support from various organizations including the Thyssen Foundation, the GRH Foundation, the Volkswagen Foundation, and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This collaborative effort brings together experts from different universities to interpret the vast wealth of information these tablets offer.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “A New Language Has Been Unearthed From Ancient Ruins In Turkey” — IFL Science

WTF Fun Fact 13486 – Mamihlapinatapai, the Most Succinct Word

Certain words defy easy translation since they embody ideas or emotions so complex – one such word is “mamihlapinatapai.”

This word hails from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago split between Chile and Argentina. The term was recognized in the 1994 Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most “succinct word.” (Unfortunately, today, their tribe has dwindled to fewer than 2,000 members, with most speaking Spanish instead of their native tongue.)

Mamihlapinatapai, the Untranslatable Emotion

Mamihlapinatapai is defined as “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin.”

The word’s complexity and its lack of a direct translation into English or other major languages have earned it a spot among the world’s favorite “untranslatables.”

It wasn’t until the late 2000s that the term mamihlapinatapai started appearing all over the internet. People were fascinated. Artists found inspiration in the term, incorporating it into their songs, exhibitions, and books.

More Than Just Romance

Of course, just as internet fame changes a person, it can change a word. While mamihlapinatapai often evokes romantic notions, its application now extends to other areas. For example, in gaming theory, it refers to the volunteer’s dilemma, where an individual player might have to make a sacrifice for the collective benefit.

Despite the global recognition of mamihlapinatapai, the Yaghan language is teetering on the brink of extinction. It has no linguistic relatives. The last guardian of this language is Cristina Calderon, the only fluent living speaker of Yaghan!

Despite the impending threat to the Yaghan language, there’s hope. Calderon has been teaching her granddaughter some Yaghan, and they have published books to preserve Yaghan culture and history. This effort to pass on the language and culture to the next generation is a critical step in preserving this endangered language.

Internet Fame: A Blessing or a Curse?

While the global recognition of mamihlapinatapai has introduced the world to the Yaghan language and culture, it has also brought unwanted media attention to the Yaghan community. The fame of a single word, however, does not ensure the survival of the language.

The story of mamihlapinatapai is a testament to language’s ability to capture the subtleties of human experience. It serves as a stark reminder of the loss we face as languages dwindle and disappear, taking with them unique cultural perspectives and understanding.

The tale of this word reminds us that each language offers its unique prism through which we can view and understand the world.

Wondering how to pronounce this complex word? Check out this video (but you’ll probably need to listen a few times to catch it):

 WTF fun facts

Source: “How the Internet Changed the Meaning of ‘Mamihlapinatapai’” — Atlas Obscura

WTF Fun Fact 12949 – 200 Invented Languages

Writers and linguists have created over 200 entirely new languages over the millennia for use in literature, films, games, comic books, television shows, etc.

According to (cited below), here is a list:


  • Adunaic from J. R. R. Tolkien’s works
  • Aklo, Tsath-yo, and R’lyehian are ancient and obscure languages in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and others. Aklo is considered by some writers to be the written language of the Serpent People
  • Amtorian, spoken in some cultures on the planet Venus in Pirates of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs and several sequels. Judged by critic Fredrik Ekman to have “a highly inventive morphology but a far less interesting syntax.”
  • Ancient Language in the Inheritance Trilogy by Christopher Paolini (although this is considered to be a cipher of English by many)
  • Angley, Unglish and Ingliss – three languages spoken respectively at Western Europe, North America and the Pacific in the 29th Century world of Poul Anderson’s “Orion Shall Rise”. All derived from present-day English, the three are mutually unintelligible, following 800 years of separate development after a 21st century nuclear war and the extensive absorption of words and grammatical forms from French in the first case, Russian, Chinese and Mongolian in the second, and Polynesian in the third.
  • Anglic, the dominant languague of the declining Galactic empire depicted in Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry series, is descended from present-day English but so changed that only professional historians or linguists can understand English texts.
  • Anglo-French, in the alternate history world of the Lord Darcy stories by Randall Garrett – where England and France were permanently united into a single kingdom by Richard the Lionheart and their languages consequently merged.
  • asa’pili (“world language”), in bolo’bolo, by Swiss author P.M..
  • Atreides battle, in Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Babel-17, in Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
  • Baronh, language of Abh in Seikai no Monsho (Crest of the Stars) and others, by Morioka Hiroyuki
  • Black Speech – language of Mordor in The Lord of the Rings
  • Bokonon – language of the Bokononism religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”
  • Chakobsa, a language used in the Dune novels by Frank Herbert
  • Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini appears to be written in a constructed language which is presumably the language of the alien civilization the book describes
  • Common The language spoken in a wide variety of fantasy fiction, particularly Dungeons and Dragons.
  • D’Haran The ancient, dead language of pre-Great War New World (D’Hara, Midlands, and Westland) in Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series.
  • Drac, language of the alien species in Barry B. Longyear’s Enemy Mine and The Enemy Papers
  • Kad’k, the language of the Dwarfs in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
  • Earthsea books (by Ursula K. Le Guin)
  • Language of the Making – the basis of all magic, spoken by Dragons as their native tongue and learned with considerable effort by human mages
  • Hardic – linguistically descended from the above
  • Osskilian, and Kargish – a different family of languages, distantly related
  • Elemeno, language of two sisters in Caucasia by Danzy Senna.
  • Fremen, language of the native people of Arrakis, in Dune and other novels by Frank Herbert
  • Galactic Standard Speech in Asimov’ “Foundation series”. Inhabitants of the planet Fomalhaut speak “an extreme dialect” of it.
  • Galacticspeak from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • Gobbledygook, the language of goblins, in the Harry Potter series. Noted speakers include Albus Dumbledore and Barty Crouch.
  • Glide, created by Diana Reed Slattery, used by the Death Dancers of The Maze Game
  • Groilish, spoken by giants in Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson.
  • High Speech of Gilead from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (series)
  • Ilythiiri, the language of drow elves in Forgotten Realms setting. [2]
  • Kesh, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Always Coming Home
  • Krakish, in Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky
  • Láadan (ldn), in Suzette Haden Elgin’s science fiction novel Native Tongue and sequels
  • Lapine, in Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • Lilliputian from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Further samples of the language are provided in T. H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose. In Gulliver’s Travels, other fictional languages, spoken in other places Gulliver visits, are also presented, e.g. Brobdingnagian, Laputan, Balbinarbian and Houyhnhnm languages.
  • Mando’a, created by Karen Traviss, used by the Mandalorians in the Star Wars Republic Commando novels Hard Contact and Triple Zero
  • Mangani in the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Marain, in The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks
  • The languages of Middle-earth (most notably Sindarin (sjn), Quenya (qya) and Khuzdul) by J. R. R. Tolkien, partly published in The Lord of the Rings, and posthumously discussed in The History of Middle-earth and other publications.
  • Molvanian from Molvania, A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry
  • Nadsat slang, in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Newspeak, in Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (fictional constructed language)
  • The “Nautilus Language”, spoken on board Jules Verne’s famous fictional submarine, in token of crew members having completely renounced their former homelands and backgrounds. Every morning, after scanning the horizon with his binoculars, Nemo’s second-in-command says: “Nautron respoc lorni virch”. The meaning of these words is never clarified, but their construction seems to indicate that the “Nautilus Language” (its actual name is not given) is based on European languages.
  • Old Solar, in Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
  • The Old Tongue from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series
  • Paluldonian in a Tarzan novel, Tarzan the Terrible, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Used by the inhabitants of the realm of Pal-ul-don in Africa, separated from the outside world by impenetrable marshes.
  • Parseltongue, the language of snakes, in the Harry Potter series. The ability of humans to speak it is considered a magic ability.
  • Pennsylvanisch, from Michael Flynn’s The Forest of Time
  • Pravic and Iotic, in The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Ptydepe, from Václav Havel’s play The Memorandum
  • Quintaglio from Robert J. Sawyer’s Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy
  • Quenya from J. R. R. Tolkien’s works.
  • Qwghlmian from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle
  • Rihannsu, spoken by the Rihannsu (Romulans) in the Star Trek novels of Diane Duane
  • Spocanian, in Rolandt Tweehuysen’s fictional country Spocania
  • Stark (short for Star Common), a common interstellar English-based language from Orson Scott Card’s Ender series
  • Starsza Mowa from Andrzej Sapkowski’s Hexer saga
  • Troll language from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld
  • Utopian language, appearing in a poem by Petrus Gilles accompanying Thomas More’s Utopia
  • Whitmanite, spoken by members of a radical Anarchist-Pacifist cult of the same name in Robert Heinlein’ The Puppet Masters. “Allucquere” is a female given name in Whitmanite.
  • Zaum, poetic tongue elaborated by Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksei Kruchonykh, and other Russian Futurists as a “transrational” and “most universal” language “of songs, incantations, and curses”.

Comic books

  • Bordurian in some of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, mostly in The Calculus Affair
  • Interlac, the universal language spoken in the 30th century in the Legion of Super Heroes comics
  • Kryptonese, or Kryptonian, the language of Superman’s home planet of Krypton
  • Syldavian, in some of Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin, mostly in King Ottokar’s Sceptre
  • Movies and television
  • Two kinds of alien language, termed “Alienese” and “Beta Crypt 3” appear quite frequently in background sight gags in Futurama.
  • Ancient in the Stargate universe (i.e. Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis) is the language of the Ancients, the builders of the Stargates; it is similar in pronunciation to Medieval Latin. The Athosians say prayers in Ancient.
  • Atlantean created by Marc Okrand for the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire
  • Cityspeak, a “mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German,” plus Hungarian and French, spoken on the street of overcrowded and multi-lingual Los Angeles of 2019 in Blade Runner. Similarly, used in many cyberpunk genre role playing games.
  • The Divine Language is a language invented by director Luc Besson and actress Milla Jovovich for the 1997 movie The Fifth Element.
  • Enchanta, in the Encantadia and Etheria television series in the Philippines, created by the head writer Suzette Doctolero
  • Gelfling, spoken in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic The Dark Crystal
  • Goa’uld, the galactic lingua franca from Stargate SG-1, supposedly influenced Ancient Egyptian
  • Huttese, language of both alien species and people in some of George Lucas’s Star Wars films
  • Irken, in Invader Zim, by Jhonen Vasquez, et al.
  • Klingon (tlh), in the Star Trek movie and television series, created by Marc Okrand
  • Krakozhian from The Terminal
  • Ku, a fictional African language in the movie The Interpreter (2005)
  • Linguacode, a universal language code sometimes used by the United Federation of Planets in the Star Trek television series.
  • Marklar, spoken by the people of Marklar in a South Park episode.
  • Minbari from Babylon 5, three related languages used together, corresponding to the areas of expertise of the three societal castes.
  • Nadsat, the fictional language spoken by Alex and his friends in Clockwork Orange
  • Nellish, a personal language from the main character of Nell
  • Paku from Land of the Lost
  • PortuGreek, the trade language featured in Waterworld
  • The pseudo-Spanish/Greek/Arabic language of Republica, as used in the fictional Chanel 9 program within the British comedy sketch show the The Fast Show
  • Quenya (qya) and Sindarin (sjn), the two Elven languages, spoken in the Lord of the Rings movies.
  • Slovetzian, the fictional Slavic language of Slovetzia in the movie The Beautician and the Beast
  • The Star Wars series features several fictional languages.
  • Tenctonese from the Alien Nation movie and television series, created by Van Ling and Kenneth Johnson
  • Unas in Stargate SG-1, supposedly the first hosts of the Goa’uld
  • Ulam, language spoken by the prehistoric humans in Anthony Burgess’ movie Quest for Fire, created by melting roots of European languages.
  • Vampire language used in the movie Blade.
  • Vulcan language from Star Trek
  • Unnamed languages
  • In the Janissaries series of science-fiction novels by Jerry Pournelle, the human natives of the planet Tran speak a language apparently derived from Mycenaean. A form of Latin is also spoken in an empire resembling ancient Rome’s, but only by scholars.
  • Riddley Walker, a 1980 novel by Russell Hoban, set in a post-apocalyptic future, is written entirely in a “devolved” form of English.
  • Writer/director Luc Besson invented a Divine Language for Milla Jovovich’s character “Leeloo” to speak in the film The Fifth Element.
  • Music
  • Gulevache: fictional Romance Language of the kingdom of Gulevandia on the bilingual opera Cardoso en Gulevandia by the comedy group Les Luthiers
  • Kobaian, the language used by 70’s French rock group Magma.
  • Vonlenska, sometimes known as “Hopelandic”, the language sung by Jón Þór Birgisson of the Icelandic band “Sigur Rós” on many of their songs.
  • Loxian, featured on the Enya album Amarantine.
  • Unnamed language by Yves Barbieux, used in his song “Sanomi” and performed by the Belgian group Urban Trad in the Eurovision Song contest in 2003.
  • Mohelmot, a forbidden language used by The Residents on the album The Big Bubble: Part Four of the Mole Trilogy.
  • Unnamed language by Emmanuelle Orange, used in her song Pialoushka and performed by Montreal band Eden106.
  • Unnamed language featured in the chorus of 2NU’s 1991 track This is Ponderous.
  • Unnamed language featured in the soundtrack to the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “List of constructed languages” —

WTF Fun Fact 12644 – The Parrot Who Saved a Dead Language

German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt embarked on a 5-year exploration of North and South America in 1799. His trip was successful, and when he returned home in 1804, he had an extensive collection of plant and animal specimens

Humboldt also took voluminous notes, including some interesting jottings from a trip through Venezuela in 1800 where he spent some time chatting with a local parrot.

According to Mental Floss:

According to legend, during his exploration of the Orinoco River, Humboldt met and stayed with a local indigenous Carib tribe near the isolated village of Maypures. The tribe, so the story goes, had a number of tame parrots kept in cages around the village, many of which had been taught to speak—although one, Humboldt noted, sounded noticeably different from the rest. When he asked the locals why this parrot sounded so unusual, he was told that it had belonged to a neighboring tribe, who had been the Caribs’ enemies.”

In other words, the parrot was speaking a different language than the rest. And sadly, the parrot was the only speaker left. The rest of the tribe had been wiped out, and not a single native speaker remained. Just the parrot. It was the last vestige of their linguistic culture.

Being the keen observer and recorder, Humboldt wrote down what the parrot sounded like, transcribing the sounds phonetically and coming out with about 40 words from the parrot’s (and the lost tribe’s) vocabulary.

We’ll never know how accurate the language is, but the notebook holds the last of what we have.

Interestingly, in 1997, an artist taught two more parrots to speak the language based on Humboldt’s notebook.

Some think the parrot’s story is mere legend, but Humboldt recounted his trip down the Orinoco river in his Equinoctial Regions of America in great detail and accurately described the Atures tribe that the parrot spoke the language of. – WTF fun facts

Source: “The Parrot That Kept A Language Alive” — Mental Floss