A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or "genetic") relationship with other languages; that is, 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 Basque, Korean, Ainu, and Burushaski, 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.
Some languages became isolates after all their demonstrable 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 when the Japonic family was formulated after it was recognized that certain Japanese dialects, such as Okinawan, were distinct languages. The Etruscan language of Italy was long considered an isolate, but is now believed to be related at least to several other poorly attested languages of the Mediterranean area.
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 oral 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 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.
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
There is direct evidence that 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 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, and seven sign languages, none with any known connection to anything else in the world. The disregard shown to such languages, which students may be punished for using, and that schools may deny even exist, makes it difficult 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, 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, such as 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 often recorded history of these languages.
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, Jalaa, Shabo, Laal, Kujarge, and a few other languages within Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic-speaking areas may turn out to be isolates upon further investigation. Defaka, Ega, and Bijogo are highly divergent languages located within Niger-Congo-speaking areas, and may also possibly be language isolates according to Roger Blench.
|Bangime||Living||Spoken in the Dogon Cliffs, Mali|
|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.|
|Ainu||Moribund||Spoken on Hokkaidō Island, Japan. 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||With over 78 million speakers, Korean has more speakers than all other language isolates combined. Connections to the Altaic languages and Japanese have been proposed. See the Altaic hypothesis and Classification of Japanese for these theories. Sometimes, it is classified in a language family with the Jeju dialect.|
|Nihali||Endangered||Also known as Nahali. Spoken in Maharashtra state of India. Strong lexical Munda influence.|
|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.|
|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 that are now extinct.|
|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.
|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 Carpentaria, 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.|
|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.|
|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. Other linguists have proposed a relation to Iberian, while others point to a relationship with the Afroasiatic 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.|
|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||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.|
|Karuk||Endangered||Spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Kutenai||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.|
|Purépecha (Tarascan)||Generally viable but some varieties are endangered, more than 100,000 total speakers.||Spoken by the P'urhépecha 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. 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.|
|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||Moribund or 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.|
|Kawésqar||Endangered||Small family. Was spoken in the Chilean coast between Tierra del Fuego and Taitao Peninsula. There are a few speakers left in Puerto Edén, Wellington Island.|
|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.|
|Omurano?||Extinct||Spoken in Peru. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, and Taushiro has been proposed.|
|Otí||Extinct||Was spoken in São Paulo, Brazil. Macro-Gêan has been suggested.|
|Pirahã||Endangered||Spoken in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. Related to other Muran languages that have recently become extinct.|
|Taushiro?||Living||Spoken in Peru. A tentative family composed of Omurano, Candoshi, and Taushiro has been proposed.|
|Tequiraca||Living||Spoken in Peru. Also known as Auishiri. A connection with Canichana has been proposed.|
|Tinigua||Living||Spoken in Colombia and last survivor of the Tiniguan family.|
|Trumai||Endangered||Settled on the upper Xingu River. Currently reside in the Xingu National Park in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.|
|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
- 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 Institution). (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).