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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, 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, Sumerian, and Elamite, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with other languages.[1]

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 (such as the Romance, Celtic or Germanic branches), but instead form independent branches. 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 of the Caucasus). 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,[citation needed] 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" relationshipsEdit

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.[2]

Looking for relationshipsEdit

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.

Extinct isolatesEdit

Caution is required when speaking of extinct languages as isolates. Despite their great age, Sumerian and Elamite can be safely classified as isolates, as the languages are 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. Hattian, Gutian,[3] Hurrian, Mannean and Kassite are also believed to be isolates by mainstream majority, but their status is disputed by a minority of linguists. 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 isolatesEdit

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.[4] 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.

Studies are also being conducted on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) in an isolated village in Israel. The language was developed in isolation for over 75 years by both deaf and hearing people within the village.[5]

These and more are all presumed isolates or small local families, because many deaf communities are made up of people whose hearing parents do not use sign language, 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.[citation needed]

List of language isolates by continentEdit

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".

[Where do these definitions come from?]


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.[6]

Language Status Comments
Bangime Vibrant Spoken in the Dogon Cliffs, Mali. Used as an anti-language.
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.


Language Status Comments
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 the Hunza Valley of 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.[7] 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 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.
Puroik Vibrant Also known as Sulung. Formerly regarded as Sino-Tibetan despite near complete lack of lexical similarity.
Sumerian Extinct Long-extinct but well-attested language of ancient Sumer.


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 Vibrant Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Baso, Foia. Language use is vigorous, despite low number of speakers.
Amberbaken Endangered Spoken on Bird's Head Peninsula. Tentatively linked to the West Papuan languages.
Anem Vibrant Spoken on New Britain. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Pele-Ata.
Busa Vibrant Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Odiai.
Enindhilyagwa Vulnerable Spoken in the Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. Also known as Andilyaugwa. Part of a proposal for the Macro-Gunwinyguan languages.
Giimbiyu Extinct Spoken in northern Australia until the early 1980's. Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Land language family.
Isirawa Vulnerable 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 language family.
Kol Vibrant Spoken on New Britain.
Kuot Vulnerable Spoken on New Ireland. Also known as Panaras.
Laragiya Moribund May be extinct now. Spoken in northern Australia. Part of a proposal for a Darwin language family.
Massep Moribund 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 Endangered Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Kwomtari–Baibai.
Sulka Vibrant Spoken on New Britain. Primary schools now teach the language
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 Vulnerable Spoken off northern Australia.
Umbugarla Extinct Spoken in northern Australia until the late 20th century. Part of a proposal for an Darwin language family.
Wagiman Moribund Spoken in the north-central area of the Northern Territory
Wardaman Moribund Spoken in the north-central area of the Northern Territory
Yalë Vibrant Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Nagatman.
Yele Vibrant Spoken on Rossel Island, Papua New Guinea. Perhaps related to Anem and Pele-Ata.


Language Status Comments
Basque Vulnerable Natively known as Euskara, the Basque language, found in the historical region of Basque between France and Spain, is the second most-widely spoken language isolate after Korean. It has no known living relatives, although 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, while others have proposed a relation to Iberian and to the hypothetical Dené–Caucasian languages.
Etruscan Extinct Language of the ancient Etruscans in northwestern Italy; not well attested. Some have suggested a Tyrrhenian family consisting of Etruscan, Lemnian, and possibly Raetic and Camunic.

North AmericaEdit

Language Status Comments
Atakapa Extinct Was spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States. Often linked to Muskogean in a Gulf hypothesis.
Chimariko Extinct Was spoken in California, United States.
Chitimacha Extinct Was spoken in Louisiana, United States. Often linked to Muskogean in a Gulf hypothesis.
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 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 in a Gulf hypothesis. Revival underway.
Purépecha Endangered Spoken by the Purépecha people in Mexico. Sometimes regarded as two languages.
Salinan Extinct Was spoken in California, United States. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.
Seri Vulnerable 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 Vulnerable Spoken in New Mexico, United States. Connections to Penutian languages have been proposed, but is generally considered unlikely.

South AmericaEdit

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.
Candoshi Endangered 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 Endangered Spoken in Colombia and Ecuador. Sometimes classified as Chibchan, but the similarities appear to be due to borrowings. Seriously endagered in Colombia.
Waorani Endangered Spoken in Ecuador and Peru.
Irantxe? Moribund Also known as Iranche or Münkü. Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Itonama Moribund Spoken in Bolivia. Paezan has been suggested. 5 speakers remaining.
Kunza Extinct Spoken in Chile in areas near Salar de Atacama. Also known as Atacameño.
Kanoê Moribund Spoken in Rondônia, Brazil. Also known as Kapishana.
Leco Endangered Thought to be extinct, recently refound in areas east of Lake Titicaca, Bolivia.
Mapudungun Endangered 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. Sometimes Huilliche is treated as a separate language.
Movima Endangered 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 Extinct 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 Vulnerable 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 Moribund Spoken in southern Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Also called Yaghan
Yuracaré Endangered Spoken in Bolivia. Connections to Mosetenan, Pano–Tacanan, Arawakan, and Chon have been suggested.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Campbell, Lyle (2010-08-24). "Language Isolates and Their History, or, What's Weird, Anyway?". Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society. 36 (1): 16–31. doi:10.3765/bls.v36i1.3900. ISSN 2377-1666. 
  2. ^ Grey., Thomason, Sarah. Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. Kaufman, Terrence, 1937-. Berkeley. ISBN 0520078934. OCLC 16525266. 
  3. ^ Jump up ^ Mallory, J.P.; Mair, Victor H. (2000). The Tarim Mummies. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 281–282. ISBN 978-0-500-05101-6.
  4. ^ Tanzanian Sign Language (TSL) Dictionary. H.R.T. Muzale, University of Dar es Salaam, 2003
  5. ^ "American Sign Language". NIDCD. 2015-08-18. Retrieved 2017-01-25. 
  6. ^ Roger Blench, Niger-Congo: an alternative view
  7. ^ Sanchez-Mazas; Blench; Ross; Lin; Pejros, eds. (2008), "Stratification in the peopling of China: how far does the linguistic evidence match genetics and archaeology?", Human migrations in continental East Asia and Taiwan: genetic, linguistic and archaeological evidence, Taylor & Francis 


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