A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or "genetic") relationship with other languages, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language. Language isolates are in effect language families consisting of a single language. Commonly cited examples include Ainu, Basque, Korean and Sumerian, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with other languages.
Some sources use the term "language isolate" to indicate a branch of a larger family with only one surviving daughter. 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. Similarly, within the Romance languages, Sardinian is a relative isolate. However, without a qualifier, isolate is understood to be in the absolute sense of having no demonstrable genetic relationship to any other known language.
Some languages once seen as isolates may be reclassified as small families. This happened with Japanese (now included in the Japonic family along with Ryukyuan languages such as Okinawan) and Georgian (now the most dominant or standard of the Kartvelian languages). The Etruscan language of Italy has long been considered an isolate, but some have proposed that it is related to the so-called Tyrsenian languages, an extinct family of closely related ancient languages proposed by Helmut Rix (1998), which includes the Raetic language of the Alps and the Lemnian language of the Aegean Sea. The Japonic and Kartvelian families are widely accepted by linguists, but since the ancient family that includes Etruscan has not yet received a similar level of acceptance, Etruscan is still included in the list of language isolates.
Language isolates may be seen as a special case of unclassified languages that remain unclassified even after extensive efforts. If such efforts eventually do prove fruitful, a language previously considered an isolate may no longer be considered one, as happened with the Yanyuwa language of northern Australia, which has 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 is an 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 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 that all natural languages spoken in the world today are related by direct or indirect descent from a single ancestral tongue. The established language families would then be only the upper branches of the genealogical tree of all (or most) 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. This frequently happens with sign languages, most famously in the case of Nicaraguan Sign Language, where deaf children with no language were placed together and developed a new language. Similarly, if deaf parents were to raise a group of hearing children who have no contact with others until adulthood, they might develop an oral 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. With unsigned languages, this is not very likely to occur at any one time but, over the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory, 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.
Caution is required when speaking of extinct languages as isolates. Despite its great age, Sumerian can be safely classified as an isolate, as the language is well enough known that, if modern relatives existed, they would be recognizably related.
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 resolve the issue. Similar situations pertain to many extinct isolates of the Americas 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.
Sign language isolates
A number of sign languages have arisen independently, without any ancestral language, and thus are true language isolates. The most famous of these is the Nicaraguan Sign Language, a well documented case of what has happened in schools for the deaf in many countries. In Tanzania, for example, there are seven schools for the deaf, each with its own sign language with no known connection to any other language. Sign languages have also developed outside schools, in communities with high incidences of deafness, such as Kata Kolok in Bali, the Adamorobe Sign Language in Ghana, the Urubú Sign Language in Brazil, several Mayan sign languages, and half a dozen sign languages of the hill tribes in Thailand including the Ban Khor Sign Language.
These and more are all presumed isolates or small local families, because many deaf communities are made up of people who do not have sign language–speaking parents, and have manifestly, as shown by the language itself, not borrowed their sign language from other deaf communities during the recorded history of these languages.
List of 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 "extinct" are defined by the classification of "Language Types" in ISO 639-3; "vibrant" is equivalent to "living" or sometimes "endangered", depending on efforts to preserve the language, and "moribund" is "endangered".
Data for several African languages are not sufficient for classification. In addition, Jalaa, Shabo, Laal, Kujarge, and a few other languages within Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic-speaking areas may turn out to be isolates upon further investigation. Defaka and Ega are highly divergent languages located within Niger-Congo-speaking areas, and may also possibly be language isolates.
|Bangime||Living||Spoken in the Dogon Cliffs, Mali|
|Hadza||Vibrant, though fewer than 1,000 speakers||Once listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages.|
|Sandawe||Vibrant||Tentatively linked to the Khoe languages of southern Africa.|
|Ainu||Moribund||Formerly spoken throughout Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands and Hokkaido, now reduced to a handful of speakers in Hokkaido. May actually constitute a small language family, if the extinct varieties are classed as languages rather than dialects. Possibly related to the unattested language of the Emishi.|
|Burushaski||Vibrant||Spoken in northern Pakistan.|
|Elamite||Extinct||Spoken in the Elamite Empire. Some propose a relationship to the Dravidian languages (see Elamo-Dravidian), but this is not well-supported.|
|Hattic||Extinct||Spoken in Asia Minor before the 2nd millennium BCE. Connections to all three major indigenous language families of Caucasus have been proposed.|
|Korean||Vibrant||With over 78 million speakers, Korean has more speakers than all other language isolates combined. Connections to the Altaic languages had been proposed, but have been generally discredited by most linguists. It has also been proposed that it may be related to Japanese in the Japanese-Korean classification hypothesis, both with and without a common Altaic ancestor. Sometimes classified as a language family, forming the Koreanic family with the Jeju language.|
|Kusunda||Moribund||A nearly extinct language of western Nepal. The recent discovery of a few speakers shows that it is not demonstrably related to anything else.|
|Nihali||Endangered||Also known as Nahali. Spoken in Maharashtra state of India. Strong lexical Munda influence.|
|Nivkh||Endangered, perhaps moribund||Also known as Gilyak. A Palaeosiberian language spoken in the lower Amur River basin and on the Sakhalin Islands. Dialects sometimes considered two languages. Has been linked to Chukchi–Kamchatkan.|
|Sumerian||Extinct||Long-extinct but well-attested language of ancient Sumer.|
Australasia and Oceania
|Abinomn||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Baso, Foia.|
|Amberbaken||Endangered||Spoken on Bird's Head. Tentatively linked to the West Papuan languages.|
|Anem||Endangered||Spoken on New Britain. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Pele-Ata.|
|Busa||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Odiai.|
|Enindhilyagwa||Endangered||Spoken in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. Also known as Andilyaugwa.|
|Isirawa||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Trans–New Guinea.|
|Kakadju||Extinct||Spoken in northern Australia until 2002. Also known as Gaagudu. Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Land family.|
|Kol||Endangered||Spoken on New Britain.|
|Kuot||Endangered||Spoken on New Ireland. Also known as Panaras.|
|Laragiya||Endangered||May be extinct now. Spoken in northern Australia.|
|Massep||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. A link to the Trans–New Guinea languages is being explored.|
|Ngurmbur||Extinct||Extinct since ca. 1990. Spoken in northern Australia. Perhaps related to the Pama–Nyungan languages.|
|Pele-Ata||Endangered||Spoken on New Britain. Also known as Wasi. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Anem.|
|Pyu (New Guinean)||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Kwomtari–Baibai.|
|Sulka||Endangered||Spoken on New Britain.|
|Taiap||Endangered||Spoken by around a hundred people in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea. Also known as Gapun, formerly classified as Sepik-Ramu.|
|Tiwi||Endangered||Spoken off northern Australia.|
|Umbugarla||Extinct||Spoken in northern Australia until the late 20th century. Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Land family.|
|Yalë||Endangered||Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Nagatman.|
|Yawa||Endangered||Spoken on Yapen Island, New Guinea. Part of the Extended West Papuan proposal; sometimes considered two languages.|
|Yélî Dnye||Endangered||Spoken on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. Also known as Yele. Perhaps related to Anem and Pele-Ata.|
|Basque||Vibrant||Second most-widely spoken language isolate after Korean. Known in its own language as Euskara; no known living or extinct relatives; found in the Basque region of France and Spain. Aquitanian is commonly regarded as related to or a direct ancestor of Basque. Some linguists have claimed similarities with various languages of the Caucasus that are indicative of a relationship. Others have proposed a relation to Iberian.|
|Atakapa||Extinct||Was spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States. A connection to the Muskogean languages is sometimes proposed.|
|Chimariko||Extinct||Was spoken in California, United States.|
|Chitimacha||Extinct||Was spoken in Louisiana, United States. A connection to the Muskogean languages has traditionally been proposed.|
|Coahuilteco||Extinct||Was spoken in Texas, United States and northeastern Mexico. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Cuitlatec||Extinct||Was spoken in Guerrero, Mexico.|
|Esselen||Extinct||Poorly known. Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Haida||Moribund||Spoken in Alaska, United States and British Columbia, Canada. Some proposals to connect to Na-Dené languages, but these have fallen into disfavor.|
|Huave||Endangered||Spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico. Part of the Penutian hypothesis when extended to Mexico, but this idea has generally been abandoned.|
|Karuk||Moribund||Spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Klamath||Extinct||Was spoken in Oregon and California, United States until the early 21st century. Debate whether part of Penutian|
|Kutenai||Moribund||Spoken in Idaho and Montana, United States and British Columbia, Canada.|
|Natchez||Extinct||Was spoken in Mississippi and Louisiana, United States. Often linked to Muskogean.|
|Purépecha||Generally viable but some varieties are endangered, more than 100,000 total speakers.||Spoken by the Purépecha people in Mexico.|
|Salinan||Extinct||Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Seri||Endangered||Spoken in Sonora, Mexico. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Siuslaw||Extinct||Was spoken in Oregon, United States. Likely related to Coos, Alsea, possibly the Wintuan languages. Part of the Penutian hypothesis.|
|Takelma||Extinct||Spoken in Oregon, United States. Part of the Penutian hypothesis. A specific relationship with Kalapuyan is now rejected.|
|Timucua||Extinct||Well attested. Was spoken in Florida and Georgia, United States. A connection with the poorly known Tawasa language has been suggested, but this may be a dialect.|
|Tonkawa||Extinct||Was spoken in Texas, United States.|
|Tunica||Extinct||Was spoken in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, United States.|
|Washo||Moribund||Spoken in California and Nevada, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Yana||Extinct||Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Yuchi||Moribund||Spoken in Georgia and Oklahoma, United States. Connections to Siouan languages have been proposed.|
|Zuni||Endangered||Spoken in New Mexico, United States. Connections to Penutian languages have been proposed, but is generally considered unlikely.|
|Aikaná||Endangered||Spoken in Rondônia, Brazil. Arawakan has been suggested.|
|Andoque?||Endangered||May be extinct now. Spoken in Colombia and Peru. Possibly Witotoan.|
|Betoi||Extinct||Was spoken in Colombia. Paezan has been suggested.|
|Camsá||Living||Also known as Kamsa, Coche, Sibundoy, Kamentxa, Kamse, or Camëntsëá. Spoken in Colombia.|
|Candoshi||Living||Spoken in western South America along the Chapuli, Huitoyacu, Pastaza, and Morona river valleys.|
|Canichana||Extinct||Spoken in Bolivia. A connection with the extinct Tequiraca (Auishiri) has been proposed.|
|Cayubaba||Extinct||Was spoken in Bolivia.|
|Cofán||Living||Spoken in Colombia and Ecuador. Sometimes classified as Chibchan, but the similarities appear to be due to borrowings.|
|Huaorani (Waorani)||Endangered||Spoken in Ecuador and Peru.|
|Irantxe?||Living||Also known as Iranche or Münkü. Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.|
|Itonama||Endangered||Spoken in Bolivia. Paezan has been suggested.|
|Kunza||Extinct||Spoken in Chile in areas near Salar de Atacama. Also known as Atacameño.|
|Kanoê||Endangered||Spoken in Rondônia, Brazil. Also known as Kapishana.|
|Leco||Endangered||Thought to be extinct, recently refound in areas east of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.|
|Mapudungun||Vibrant||Spoken in Chile and Argentina. Also known as Araucano or Araucanian. Considered a family of 2 languages by Ethnologue. Variously part of Andean, macro-Panoan, or macro-Waikuruan proposals.|
|Movima||Living||Spoken in Bolivia.|
|Otí||Extinct||Was spoken in São Paulo, Brazil. Macro-Gêan has been suggested.|
|Páez||Endangered||Spoken in Colombia. Several proposed relationships in the Paezan hypothesis but nothing conclusive.|
|Tequiraca||Endangered||Spoken in Peru. Also known as Auishiri. A connection with Canichana has been proposed.|
|Trumai||Endangered||Settled on the upper Xingu River. Currently reside in the Xingu National Park in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.|
|Urarina||Endangered||Spoken in Loreto Region in Northwest Peru. Part of the Macro-Jibaro proposal.|
|Warao||Endangered||Spoken in Guyana, Surinam, and Venezuela. Sometimes linked to Paezan.|
|Yámana||Endangered||Spoken in southern Tierra del Fuego, Chile.|
|Yuracaré||Endangered||Spoken in Bolivia. Connections to Mosetenan, Pano–Tacanan, Arawakan, and Chon have been suggested.|
- Tanzanian Sign Language (TSL) Dictionary. H.R.T. Muzale, University of Dar es Salaam, 2003
- Roger Blench, Niger-Congo: an alternative view
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