Language isolate

Language isolate

A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or "genetic") relationship with other living languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common to any other language. They are in effect language families consisting of a single language. Commonly cited examples include Basque, Ainu, Burushaski, and Korean, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with another language (see Dene-Caucasian, Karasuk, and Altaic, for example).

With context, a language isolate may be understood to be "relatively" isolated. For instance, Albanian, Armenian, and Greek are commonly called 'Indo-European isolates'. While part of the Indo-European family, they do not belong to any established branch (like the Romance, Indo-Iranian, Slavic or Germanic branches), but instead form independent branches of their own. However, without such a disambiguating context, "isolate" is understood to be in the absolute sense.

Some languages have become isolates in historical times, after all their known relatives went extinct. The Pirahã language of Brazil is one such example, the last surviving member of the Mura family. Others, like Basque, have been isolates for as long as their existence has been documented. The opposite also occurs: languages once seen as isolates may be reclassified as small families. This happened with Japanese when it was recognized that certain Japanese "dialects", such as Okinawan, were languages in their own right, and the Japonic family was formulated.

Language isolates may be seen as a special case of unclassified languages, languages that remain unclassified even after extensive efforts. If eventually such efforts do prove fruitful, a language previously considered an isolate may no longer be considered one; this has happened with the Yanyuwa language of northern Australia, which has recently been placed in the Pama-Nyungan family. Since linguists do not always agree on whether a genetic relationship has been demonstrated, it is often disputed whether a language constitutes a true isolate or not.

"Genetic" or "genealogical" relationships

The term "genetic relationship" is meant in the genealogical sense of historical linguistics, which groups most languages spoken in the world today into a relatively small number of families, according to reconstructed descent from common ancestral languages. For example, English is related to other Indo-European languages and Mandarin is related to many other Sino-Tibetan languages. By this criterion, each language isolate constitutes a family of its own, which explains the exceptional interest that these languages have received from linguists.

Looking for relationships

It is possible, though speculative, that all languages spoken in the world today are related by descent from a single ancestral tongue. The established language families would then be only the upper branches of the genealogical tree of all languages, or, equally, lower progeny of a parent tongue. For this reason, language isolates have been the object of numerous studies seeking to uncover their genealogy. For instance, Basque has been compared with every living and extinct Eurasian language family known, from Sumerian to South Caucasian, without conclusive results.

There are some situations in which a language with no ancestor might arise. For example, if deaf parents were to raise a group of hearing children who have no contact with others until adulthood, they might develop a verbal language among themselves and keep using it later, teaching it to their children, and so on. Eventually, it could develop into the full-fledged language of a population. This happened in the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, where deaf children with no language were placed together and developed a new language. With oral languages, this is not very likely to occur at any one time but, over the tens of thousands of years of human pre-history, the likelihood of this occurring at least a few times increases. There are also creole languages and constructed languages such as Esperanto which do not descend directly from a single ancestor but have become the language of a population; however, they do take elements from existing languages.

Extinct isolates

Caution is required when speaking of extinct languages as isolates. Despite its great age, Sumerian is known well enough to be able to recognize modern relatives, if they existed. However, many extinct languages are very poorly attested, and the fact that they cannot be linked to other languages may be a reflection of our poor knowledge of them. Etruscan, for example, is sometimes claimed to be Indo-European; although most historical linguists believe this is unlikely, it is not yet possible to demonstrate it one way or the other. Similar situations pertain to many extinct isolates of America, such as Beothuk and Cayuse. A language thought to be an isolate may turn out to be relatable to other languages once enough material is recovered, but material is unlikely to be recovered if a language was not written.

ign language isolates

Whereas most linguistsWho|date=September 2008 expect that spoken isolates like Basque are related to other languages, but at a time depth we cannot reconstruct, a large number of sign languages have arisen independently, without any ancestral language, and thus are true language isolates. The most famous of these is Nicaraguan Sign Language, but this is simply a well documentedFact|date=September 2008 case of what has happened in schools for the deaf in many countries. In Tanzania, for example, there are seven schools for the deaf, and seven sign languages, none with any known connection to anything else on the planet. ["Tanzanian Sign Language (TSL) Dictionary." H.R.T. Muzale, University of Dar es Salaam, 2003] The disregard shown to such languages, which students may be punished for using and which the schools may deny even exist, means it is not feasible to try to list sign language isolates the way oral language isolates are listed in the tables below.

Sign languages have also developed outside schools, in communities with high incidences of deafness. Such languages include Kata Kolok in Bali, Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana, Urubú Sign Language in Brazil, several Mayan sign languages, and half a dozen sign languages of the hill tribes in Thailand, such as Ban Khor Sign Language. These and more are all presumed isolates or small local families.Fact|date=September 2008

List of oral language isolates by continent

Below is a list of known language isolates, arranged by continent, along with notes on possible relations to other languages or language families.

:In the Status column, "vibrant" means that a language is in full use by the community and being acquired as a first language by children. "Moribund" means that a language is still spoken, but only by older people; it is not being acquired by children, and without efforts to revive it will become extinct when current speakers die. "Extinct" means a language is no longer spoken. The terms "living" and "endangered" are defined by the classification of "Language Types" in ISO 639-3; "vibrant" is equivalent to "living" or sometimes "endangered" in ISO, depending on efforts to preserve the language, and "moribund" is "endangered" in ISO.


Data for several African languages is not sufficient for classification. In addition, a few of the languages within Nilo-Saharan may turn out to be isolates upon further investigation.



External links

* [ Orphans with no Families: Languages missing genetic relationships]
* [ Ethnologue's list of language isolates]


* Campbell, Lyle. (1997). "American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America". New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
* Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). "Languages". Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
* Goddard, Ives. (1999). "Native languages and language families of North America" (rev. and enlarged ed. with additions and corrections). [Map] . Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press (Smithsonian Institute). (Updated version of the map in Goddard 1996). ISBN 0-8032-9271-6.
* Grimes, Barbara F. (Ed.). (2000). "Ethnologue: Languages of the world", (14th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-106-9. (Online edition:
* Mithun, Marianne. (1999). "The languages of Native North America". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
* Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978-present). "Handbook of North American Indians" (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).

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