From part one of a three part series:

1. Many languages have never been written down.

Chances are you learned your “ABCs” at a young age, but you probably didn’t know that hundreds of languages around the world don’t even have an alphabet. Yep, you read that right! At least 10 percent of the world’s languages are unwritten. We call these “oral languages,” because they live in people’s mouths but not on paper.

Even though oral languages have never been written down, they’re rich in history, culture and stories that have been passed down for hundreds — and even thousands — of years. Since people don’t have books and the Internet, they tell a lot of stories instead and get really good at remembering stuff. In fact, when we help create a written alphabet so we can translate the Bible into oral languages for the first time, we’re amazed at how quickly people memorize whole books!

One challenge in oral cultures is accuracy. Like the “telephone game,” details can get confused as people pass stories down from one generation to the next. This is one reason why many oral cultures are excited to have their languages written down. It doesn’t mean they’ll quit telling stories or memorizing information, but it does mean the information won’t ever get lost or be forgotten.

Making an alphabet for an oral language can be tricky. Some use special tongue or throat sounds that are different from other languages, so we have to find a writing system that makes sense and isn’t too hard to read. But it’s worth it in the long run because written languages help people pass information down for years to come, whether people memorize it or not!

2. In some languages, a single word can have several meanings.

In English, words mean different things depending on how they’re used. For instance, if someone says to you “cool pants,” they’re probably digging your fashion choice, not accusing your trousers of being emotionally detached or actually cold in temperature.

But in some other languages, the meaning of a word can also be totally different based on the inflection — basically the way the sound goes up or down. These are called tonal languages, and over half the world’s languages work this way!

The Mazateco language in Southern Mexico is a perfect example. The tone in your voice when you say “si te” can make it mean “he spins a top,” “she pats tortillas,” “he will spin a top,” “she will pat tortillas,” “I spin a top,” “I will pat tortillas,” “we will spin a top” or “we will pat tortillas.”

Whew! That’s a lot of variations to keep track of, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. Let’s listen to the different forms of “si te,”here.

To read part two, click here.