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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. They are in effect language families consisting of a single language. Commonly cited examples include Basque, Ainu, and Burushaski, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with another language (see Dene-Caucasian, Karasuk, and Altaic, for three examples).

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 Brazilmarker 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 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 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 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

That all languages spoken in the world today are related by descent from a single ancestral tongue is possible, though uncertain. 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 can be safely classified as an isolate, as it 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

Many linguists expect that spoken isolates like Basque are related to other languages, but at a time depth difficult to reconstruct because the evidence of the missing links to the modern language have been mostly lost to history.

There is direct evidence 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 in the world. 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, 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.


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 Hokkaidōmarker Island, Japan. Written in modified katakana. Historically a small closely related family of its own.
Burushaski Vibrant Spoken in northern Pakistanmarker. Sometimes thought to be related to Yeniseian in a family called Karasuk.
Elamite Extinct Spoken in the Elamite Empiremarker. Some conjecture a relationship to the Dravidian languages (see Elamo-Dravidian), but this is not well supported.
Hattic Extinct Spoken in Asia Minormarker before the 2nd millennia BCE. Connections to all three major indigenous language families of Caucasus have been proposed.
Nihali Endangered Also known as Nahali. Spoken in Maharashtramarker state of Indiamarker. Strong lexical Munda influence.
Korean Vibrant With over 78 million speakers, Korean has more speakers than all other language isolates combined. Connections to the Altaic languages have been proposed. See the Altaic hypothesis for these theories. Sometimes, It is classified Korean language family with Jeju dialect.
Kusunda Moribund A nearly extinct language of western Nepalmarker. 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 Rivermarker basin and on the Sakhalin Islandsmarker. Dialects sometimes considered two languages. Has been linked to Chukchi-Kamchatkan.
Pucikwar Moribund Spoken on the Andaman Islandsmarker. Related to other Great Andamanese languages which are now extinct. Most linguists see a connection in the Andamanese family.
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 Guineamarker 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 Guineamarker. Also known as Baso, Foia.
Anem Endangered Spoken on New Britainmarker. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Pele-Ata.
Busamarker Endangered Spoken in New Guineamarker. Also known as Odiai.
Enindhilyagwa Endangered Spoken in the Gulf of Carpentariamarker, Australia. Also known as Andilyaugwa.
Isirawa Endangered Spoken in New Guineamarker. Formerly classified as Trans–New Guinea.
Kakadju Endangered Spoken in northern Australia. Also known as Gaagudu. Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Landmarker family.
Kol Endangered Spoken on New Britainmarker.
Kuot Endangered Spoken on New Irelandmarker. 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 Britainmarker. Also known as Wasi. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Anem.
Pyu Endangered Spoken in New Guineamarker. Formerly classified as Kwomtari-Baibai.
Sulka Endangered Spoken on New Britainmarker.
Taiap Endangered Spoken by around a hundred people in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guineamarker. 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 Landmarker family.
Yalë Endangered Spoken in New Guineamarker. Also known as Nagatman.
Yawa Endangered Spoken on Yapen Islandmarker, New Guineamarker. Part of the Extended West Papuan proposal; sometimes considered two languages.
Yélî Dnye Endangered Spoken on Rossel Islandmarker, Papua New Guineamarker. Also known as Yele. Perhaps related to Anem and Pele-Ata.
Yurimarker Endangered Spoken in New Guineamarker. 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 Francemarker and Spainmarker. 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 Italymarker; 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.
Iberian Extinct Once spoken in the Iberian peninsulamarker, was replaced by Latin


North America

Language Status Comments
Adai Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Texasmarker and Louisianamarker, United Statesmarker.
Atakapa Extinct Was spoken in Texasmarker and Louisianamarker, United Statesmarker. A connection to the Muskogean languages is sometimes proposed.
Beothuk Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Newfoundlandmarker, Canadamarker. Sometimes thought to be Algonquian.
Chimariko Extinct Was spoken in Californiamarker, United Statesmarker.
Chitimacha Extinct Was spoken in Louisianamarker, United Statesmarker. A connection to the Muskogean languages has traditionally been proposed.
Coahuilteco Extinct Was spoken in Texasmarker, United Statesmarker and northeastern Mexicomarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Cotoname Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Texasmarker, United Statesmarker and northeastern Mexicomarker.
Cuitlatec Extinct Was spoken in Guerreromarker, Mexicomarker.
Esselen Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Californiamarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Haida Endangered Spoken in Alaskamarker, United Statesmarker and British Columbiamarker, Canadamarker. Some proposals to connect to Na-Dené languages, but these have fallen in disfavor.
Huave Endangered Spoken in Oaxacamarker, Mexicomarker. 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 Hondurasmarker. A connection to the Tequistlatecan languages has been proposed, but remains unexplored.
Karankawa Extinct Was spoken in Texasmarker, United Statesmarker. Proposed member of Coahuiltecan family, later under Sapir's Hokan phylum. These hypotheses are currently disfavored.
Karuk Endangered Spoken in Californiamarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Kootenai Endangered Spoken in Idahomarker and Montanamarker, United Statesmarker and British Columbiamarker, Canadamarker.
Natchez Extinct Was spoken in Mississippimarker and Louisianamarker, United Statesmarker. 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 Mexicomarker.
Quileute Endangered Spoken in Washingtonmarker, United Statesmarker. Last survivor of the Chimakuan family. The Mosan hypothesis is now seen as a language area.
Quinigua Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in northeastern Mexicomarker.
Salinan Extinct Was spoken in Californiamarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Seri Endangered Spoken in Sonoramarker, Mexicomarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Siuslaw Extinct Was spoken in Oregonmarker, United Statesmarker. Likely related to Coos, Alsea, possibly the Wintuan languages. Part of the Penutian hypothesis.
Takelma Extinct Spoken in Oregonmarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Penutian hypothesis. A specific relationship with Kalapuyan is now rejected.
Timucua Extinct Well attested. Was spoken in Floridamarker and Georgiamarker, United Statesmarker. A connection with the poorly known Tawasa language has been suggested, but this may be a dialect.
Tonkawa Extinct Was spoken in Texasmarker, United Statesmarker.
Tunica Extinct Was spoken in Mississippimarker, Louisianamarker, and Arkansasmarker, United Statesmarker. Often linked to Muskogean.
Washo Endangered Spoken in Californiamarker and Nevadamarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Xinca Endangered Spoken in eastern Guatemalamarker. A relationship with Lenca has been proposed.
Yana Extinct Was spoken in Californiamarker, United Statesmarker. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Yuchi Endangered Spoken in Georgiamarker and Oklahomamarker, United Statesmarker. Connections to Siouan languages have been proposed.
Zuni Endangered Spoken in New Mexicomarker, United Statesmarker. Connections to Penutian languages have been proposed, but is generally considered unlikely.


South America

Language Status Comments
Aikaná Endangered Spoken in Rondôniamarker, Brazilmarker. Arawakan has been suggested.
Andoque Endangered May be extinct now. Spoken in Colombiamarker and Perumarker. Possibly Witotoan.
Betoi Extinct Was spoken in Colombiamarker. Paezan has been suggested.
Camsá Endangered Also known as Kamsa, Coche, Sibundoy, Kamentxa, Kamse, or Camëntsëá. Spoken in Colombiamarker.
Canichana Living Spoken in Boliviamarker. A connection with the extinct Tequiraca (Auishiri) has been proposed.
Cayubaba Extinct Was spoken in Boliviamarker.
Cofán Living Spoken in Colombiamarker and Ecuadormarker. Sometimes classified as Chibchan, but the similarities appear to be due to borrowings.
Culle Extinct Was spoken in Perumarker. Possibly related to the extinct Cholonan languages.
Gamela Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Maranhãomarker, Brazilmarker.
Huamoé Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazilmarker.
Huaorani Endangered Spoken in Ecuadormarker and Perumarker. Also known as Waorani.
Irantxe Living Also known as Iranche or Münkü. Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazilmarker. Arawakan has been suggested.
Itonama Endangered Spoken in Boliviamarker. Paezan has been suggested.
Karirí Extinct Was spoken in Paraíbamarker, Pernambuco, and Cearámarker, Brazilmarker. Likely demonstration of being Macro-Gê.
Kawésqar Endangered Was spoken in the Chileanmarker coast between Tierra del Fuegomarker and Taitao Peninsula. There are a few speakers left in Puerto Edénmarker, Wellington Islandmarker.
Kukurá Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazilmarker.
Mapudungun Vibrant Spoken in Chilemarker and Argentinamarker. 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 Boliviamarker.
Munichi Extinct Was spoken in Perumarker.
Nambikwaran Endangered Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazilmarker.
Natú Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazilmarker.
Omurano Extinct Spoken in Perumarker. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Otí Extinct Was spoken in São Paulomarker, Brazilmarker. Macro-Gêan has been suggested.
Pankararú Extinct Was spoken in Pernambuco, Brazilmarker.
Pirahã Endangered Spoken in the Brazilianmarker Amazon rainforest. Related to other Muran languages that have recently become extinct.
Puquina Extinct Was spoken in Boliviamarker. Puquina words survive in the Callahuaya jargon of Quechua.
Taushiro Living Spoken in Perumarker. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Tequiraca Living Spoken in Perumarker. Also known as Auishiri. A tentative family composed of Omuranao, Candoshi, Tequiraca, and Taushiro has been proposed.
Ticunamarker Living Spoken in Colombiamarker, Perumarker, and Brazilmarker. Perhaps related to the extinct Yuri language.
Tinigua Living Spoken in Colombiamarker and last survivor of the Tiniguan family.
Tuxá Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Bahia and Pernambuco, Brazilmarker.
Warao Endangered Spoken in Guyanamarker, Surinammarker, and Venezuelamarker. Sometimes linked to Paezan.
Xokó Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Alagoas and Pernambuco, Brazilmarker.
Xukurú Extinct Poorly known. Was spoken in Pernambuco and Paraíbamarker, Brazilmarker.
Yámana Endangered Spoken in southern Tierra del Fuegomarker, Chilemarker.
Yuracaré Endangered Spoken in Boliviamarker. Connections to Mosetenan, Pano-Tacanan, Arawakan, and Chon have been suggested.
Yurimarker Extinct Was spoken in Colombiamarker and Brazilmarker. Perhaps related to Ticunamarker
Yurumanguí Extinct Was spoken in Colombiamarker.


See also



References

  1. Tanzanian Sign Language (TSL) Dictionary. H.R.T. Muzale, University of Dar es Salaam, 2003
  2. Robert Blench, ms. The language of the Shom Pen: a language isolate in the Nicobar islands.


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 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).



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