Most consonants, fewest vowels

Ubykh, an extinct language spoken on the shores of the Black Sea, has more consonants and fewer vowels than almost any other language.

Mount Akhun
Юлия Драченко, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the middle of the 19th century CE, the Russian Empire (under Alexander II) began a systematic ethnic cleansing of the inhabitants of Circassia, an area on the northern shore of the Black Sea. Many local inhabitants were killed, and most of the rest went into exile in the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere. What was then Circassia is now the Russian resort city Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics were held.

The loss of your homeland often signals the loss of your language, and indeed the last fluent speaker of the Circassian language Ubykh – a chap in Turkey named Tevfik Esenç – died in 1992. Before he passed on, Esenç worked with a couple of French linguists to record his lost language for posterity. It’s a good thing he did, because Ubykh is one of the more unusual languages in the world.

First, Ubykh has just two vowels. (There’s some debate about whether there are more, but most linguists hold that it has just the two.) To an English ear it sounds like there are many more – the vowels’ pronunciation changes depending on the sounds immediately around them – but the meaning of a word is not changed by those shifts in pronunciation. Some other time I’ll explain that distinction further by exploring the linguistic concepts of phonemes, allophones, and minimal pairs. For now, suffice it to say that in Ubykh only two vowels carry meaning.

In contrast to this paucity of vowels, Ubykh has a lot of consonants. Eighty-four, in fact, including common stalwarts like /p/ and /g/, trills, twenty different sounds made with the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of your throat), a class of sound called ejectives that we don’t have in English, and a delightfully obscure sound called an unvoiced labialized pharyngealized back dorsal uvular ejective stop – /qˤʷʼ/. This is what it sounds like:

Ubykh has the most consonants of any language (except, possibly, for some of the click languages) and also the fewest vowels.

[Correction: an earlier version of this post gave the number of consonants at 76. It’s even larger than I thought!]

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