Definitions

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.

Sign language isolates

Whereas most linguists 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 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, and seven sign languages, none with any known connection to anything else on the planet. 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.

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.

Africa

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.
Language Status Comments
Hadza Vibrant, though fewer than 1000 speakers Once listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages, this is now considered unlikely.
Sandawe Vibrant Tentatively linked to the Khoe languages of southern Africa.

Asia

Language Status Comments
Ainu Moribund Spoken on Hokkaidō Island, Japan, and formerly also in southern Sakhalin, northern Honshu, and the Kuril Islands. Written in modified katakana. Historically a small closely related family of its own.
Burushaski Vibrant Spoken in northern Pakistan. Sometimes thought to be related to Yeniseian in a family called Karasuk.
Elamite Extinct Spoken in the Elamite Empire. Some conjecture a relationship to the Dravidian languages (see Elamo-Dravidian), but this is not well supported.
Hattic Extinct Spoken in Asia Minor before the 2nd millennia BCE. Connections to all three major indigenous language families of Caucasus have been proposed.
Korean Vibrant Connections to the Altaic languages have been proposed. See the Altaic hypothesis for these theories.
Kusunda Moribund A nearly extinct language of western Nepal. The recent discovery of a few speakers shows clearly that it is not closely related to anything else.
Nihali Endangered 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.
Pucikwar Moribund Spoken on the Andaman Islands. Related to other Great Andamanese languages which are now extinct. Most linguists see a connection in the Andamanese family, but some propose closer ties with West Papuan.
Shompen unknown Two or three perhaps unrelated languages, of which very little is known.
Sumerian Extinct Long-extinct but well-attested language of ancient Sumer.

Australasia and Oceania

The languages of New Guinea are poorly studied, and candidates for isolate status are likely to change when more becomes known about them.
Language Status Comments
Abinomn Endangered Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Baso, Foia.
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 Carpenteria, Australia. Also known as Andilyaugwa.
Isirawa Endangered Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Trans-New Guinea.
Kakadju Endangered Spoken in northern Australia. 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.
Minkin Extinct Was spoken in northern Australia. Perhaps a member of the Yiwaidjan or Tankic family.
Ngurmbur Endangered May be extinct now. 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 Endangered Spoken in northern Australia. 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.
Yuri Endangered Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Karkar.

Europe

Language Status Comments
Basque Vibrant Known in its own language as Euskara; no known living 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, especially because of their ergative case system, but such resemblances are superficial, as a quarter of the world's languages are ergative. Other linguists have proposed a relation to Iberian, while others point to a relationship with the Afro-Asiatic Berber language group of North Africa.
Etruscan Extinct Language of the ancient Etruscans in northwestern Italy; not well understood at present. Some have suggested Etruscan is in fact an Anatolian language or Hurro-Urartian, but better accepted is the suggestion of a Tyrrhenian family consisting of Etruscan, Lemnian, and possibly Raetic or Camunic.

North America

Language Status Comments
Adai Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States.
Atakapa Extinct Was spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States. A connection to the Muskogean languages is sometimes proposed.
Beothuk Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Newfoundland, Canada. Sometimes thought to be Algonquian.
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.
Cotoname Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Texas, United States and northeastern Mexico.
Cuitlatec Extinct Was spoken in Guerrero, Mexico.
Esselen Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Haida Endangered Spoken in Alaska, United States and British Columbia, Canada. Some proposals to connect to Na-Dené languages, but these have fallen in disfavor.
Huave Endangered Spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico. Part of the Penutian hypothesis when extended to Mexico, but this idea has generally been abandoned.
Jicaque (also known as Tol) Endangered (350 speakers) Spoken in Honduras. A connection to the Tequistlatecan languages has been proposed, but remains unexplored.
Karankawa Extinct Was spoken in Texas, United States. Proposed member of Coahuiltecan family, later under Sapir's Hokan phylum. These hypotheses are currently disfavored.
Karok Endangered Spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Kootenai Endangered 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.
P'urhépecha language (Tarascan) Generally viable but some varieties are endangered, more than 100,000 total speakers. Spoken by the P'urhépecha people in Mexico.
Quileute Endangered Spoken in Washington, United States. Last survivor of the Chimakuan family. The Mosan hypothesis is now seen as a language area.
Quinigua Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in northeastern 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 Endangered 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. Often linked to Muskogean.
Washo Endangered Spoken in California and Nevada, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Xinca Endangered Spoken in eastern Guatemala. A relationship with Lenca has been proposed.
Yana Extinct Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Yuchi Endangered 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.

South America

Language Status Comments
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 Endangered Also known as Kamsa, Coche, Sibundoy, Kamentxa, Kamse, or Camëntsëá. Spoken in Colombia.
Canichana Living 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.
Culle Extinct Was spoken in Peru. Possibly related to the extinct Cholonan languages.
Gamela Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Maranhão, Brazil.
Huamoé Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Irantxe Living Also known as Iranche or Münkü. Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Arawakan has been suggested.
Itonama Endangered Spoken in Bolivia. Paezan has been suggested.
Jotí Endangered Spoken in Venezuela. Also known as Yuwana.
Karirí Extinct Was spoken in Paraíba, Pernambuco, and Ceará, Brazil. Likely demonstration of being Macro-Gê.
Kawésqar Endangered Was spoken in the Chilean coast between Tierra del Fuego and Taitao Peninsula. There are a few speakers left in Puerto Edén, Wellington Island.
Kukurá Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
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.
Munichi Extinct Was spoken in Peru.
Nambiquaran Endangered Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Natú Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Omurano Extinct Spoken in Peru. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Otí Extinct Was spoken in São Paulo, Brazil. Macro-Gêan has been suggested.
Pankararú Extinct Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Pirahã Endangered Spoken in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Related to other Muran languages that have recently become extinct.
Puquina Extinct Was spoken in Bolivia. Puquina words survive in the Callahuaya jargon of Quechua.
Sabela Endangered Spoken in Ecuador and Peru. Also known as Waorani.
Taushiro Living Spoken in Peru. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Tequiraca Living Spoken in Peru. Also known as Auishiri. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Ticuna Living Spoken in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Perhaps related to the extinct Yuri language.
Tuxá Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Bahia and Pernambuco, Brazil.
Warao Endangered Spoken in Guyana, Surinam, and Venezuela. Sometimes linked to Paezan.
Xokó Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Alagoas and Pernambuco, Brazil.
Xukurú Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco and Paraíba, Brazil.
Yámana Endangered Spoken in southern Tierra del Fuego, Chile.
Yuracaré Endangered Spoken in Bolivia. Connections to Mosetenan, Pano-Tacanan, Arawakan, Chon and Greenberg's Equatorial languages have been proposed.
Yuri Extinct Was spoken in Colombia and Brazil. Perhaps related to Ticuna
Yurumanguí Extinct Was spoken in Colombia.

References

External links

Bibliography

  • 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: http://www.ethnologue.com/).
  • 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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