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.
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 Slavic and 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 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.
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.
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 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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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Below is a list of known language isolates, arranged by continent, along with notes on possible relations to other languages or language families.
"One of the notable differences between Africa and most other linguistic areas is its relative uniformity. With few exceptions, all of Africa’s languages have been gathered into four major phyla." Hoever, 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||2,000||Vibrant||Mali||Spoken in the Dogon Cliffs. Used as an anti-language.|
|Hadza||1,000+||Vibrant||Tanzania||Once listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages. Language use is vigorous, though there are fewer than 1,000 speakers.|
|Laal||750||Moribund||Chad||Poorly known. Also known as Gori. Possibly a distinct branch of Niger–Congo, Chadic of the Afroasiatic languages, or mixed|
|Jalaa||200||Moribund||Nigeria||Poorly known. Strongly influenced by Dikaka, but most vocabulary is very unusual.|
|Sandawe||60,000||Vibrant||Tanzania||Tentatively linked to the Khoe languages of Southern Africa.|
|Shabo||400||Endangered||Ethiopia||Poorly known. Spoken in Anderaccha, Gecha, and Kaabo. Included in the proposed Komuz languages of the Nilo-Saharan family.|
|Ainu||10||Moribund||Japan, Russia||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||96,800||Vibrant||Pakistan||Spoken in the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan. Linked to Caucasian languages, Indo-European, and Na-Dene languages in various proposals.|
|Elamite||Extinct||Iran||Spoken in the Elamite Empire. Some propose a relationship to the Dravidian languages (see Elamo-Dravidian), but this is not well-supported.|
|Enggano||700||Vibrant||Indonesia||Spoken on Enggano Island, west of the southern tip of Sumatra. Classified by some as a language isolate, and by others as Austronesian. However, general consensus holds that it has both Austronesian and non-Austronesian origins.|
|Hattic||Extinct||Turkey||Spoken in Asia Minor before the 2nd millennium BCE. Connections to all three major indigenous language families of Caucasus have been proposed.|
|Korean||77.23 million||Vibrant||North Korea, South Korea||With over 77 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 Korean may be related to Japanese in the Japanese-Korean classification hypothesis, both with and without a common Altaic ancestor. Others notice a connection between Korean and the Paleosiberian languages. Sometimes classified as a language family, forming the Koreanic family with the Jeju language.|
|Kusunda||3||Moribund||Nepal||Spoken in the Gandaki Zone. The recent discovery of a few speakers shows that it is not demonstrably related to anything else.|
|Nihali||2,000||Endangered||India||Also known as Nahali. Spoken in northern Maharashtra and southwestern Madhya Pradesh. Strong lexical Munda influence. Used as anti-language by speakers.|
|Nivkh||200||Moribund||Russia||Also known as Gilyak. Spoken in the lower Amur River basin and on the Sakhalin Islands. Dialects sometimes considered two languages. Has been linked to Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages.|
|Puroik||20,000||Vibrant||India||Also known as Sulung. Variously regarded as either a language isolate or as a Sino-Tibetan branch.|
|Sumerian||Extinct||Iraq||Long-extinct but well-attested language of ancient Sumer. Included in various proposals involving everything from the Basque language to the Sino-Tibetan languages.|
|Abinomn||300||Vibrant||Indonesia||Spoken in New Guinea. Also known as Baso, Foia. Language use is vigorous, despite low number of speakers.|
|Anêm||800||Vibrant||Papua New Guinea||Spoken on New Britain. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Ata.|
|Ata||2,000||Endangered||Papua New Guinea||Spoken on New Britain. Also known as Wasi. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Anem.|
|Enindhilyagwa||1,486||Vulnerable||Australia||Spoken on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Also known as Andilyaugwa. Classified as part of the Macro-Gunwinyguan languages.|
|Giimbiyu||Extinct||Australia||Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Land language family.|
|Isirawa||1,800||Vulnerable||Indonesia||Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Trans–New Guinea. Part of a proposal for a North Papuan family.|
|Kakadju||Extinct||Australia||Also known as Gaagudu. Part of a proposal for an Arnhem Land language family.|
|Kol||4,000||Vibrant||Papua New Guinea||Spoken on New Britain. Possibly related to the poorly-known Sulka, or the Baining languages.|
|Kuot||2,400||Vulnerable||Papua New Guinea||Spoken on New Ireland. Also known as Panaras.|
|Laragiya||14||Moribund||Australia||Spoken in the Darwin area. Part of a proposal for a Darwin language family.|
|Massep||25||Moribund||Indonesia||Spoken in New Guinea. A link to the Trans–New Guinea languages is being explored.|
|Malak-Malak||10||Moribund||Australia||Spoken in northern Australia. Sometimes linked with the Wagaydyic languages in a Northern Daly family.|
|Ngurmbur||Extinct||Australia||Extinct since ca. 1990. Spoken in northern Australia. Perhaps related to the Pama–Nyungan languages.|
|Pyu||100||Endangered||Papua New Guinea||Spoken in New Guinea. Formerly classified as Kwomtari–Baibai.|
|Sulka||2,500||Vibrant||Papua New Guinea||Poorly attested. Spoken on the eastern end of New Britain. Primary schools teach the language. Possibly related to Kol or the Baining languages.|
|Taiap||75||Endangered||Papua New Guinea||Spoken by around a hundred people in East Sepik Province. Also known as Gapun, formerly classified as Sepik-Ramu. Tentatively linked to the Torricelli languages.|
|Tiwi||2,040||Vulnerable||Australia||Spoken in the Tiwi Islands in the Timor Sea.|
|Umbugarla||Extinct||Australia||Part of a proposal for an Darwin language family.|
|Wagiman||18||Moribund||Australia||Spoken in the north-central area of the Northern Territory.|
|Wardaman||50||Moribund||Australia||Spoken in the north-central area of the Northern Territory. Sometimes classified as two languages in a Yagmanic family.|
|Yele||3,750||Vibrant||Papua New Guinea||Spoken on Rossel Island. Perhaps related to Anem and Ata.|
|Basque||751,000||Vulnerable||Spain, France||Natively known as Euskara, the Basque language, found in the historical region of the Basque Country 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||Italy||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.|
|Atakapa||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Texas and Louisiana. Often linked to Muskogean in a Gulf hypothesis.|
|Chimariko||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in California. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Chitimacha||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Louisiana. Often linked to Muskogean in a Gulf hypothesis.|
|Coahuilteco||Extinct||United States, Mexico||Was spoken in Texas and northeastern Mexico. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Cuitlatec||Extinct||Mexico||Was spoken in Guerrero.|
|Esselen||Extinct||United States||Poorly known. Was spoken in California. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Haida||14||Moribund||Canada, United States||Spoken in Alaska and British Columbia. Some proposals connect it to the Na-Dené languages, but these have fallen into disfavor.|
|Huave||18,000||Endangered||Mexico||Spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico. Part of the Penutian hypothesis when extended to Mexico, but this idea has generally been abandoned.|
|Karuk||12||Moribund||United States||Spoken in California. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Kutenai||245||Moribund||Canada, United States||Spoken in Idaho, Montana and British Columbia.|
|Natchez||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Mississippi and Louisiana. Often linked to Muskogean in a Gulf hypothesis.|
|Purépecha||124,494||Endangered||Mexico||Spoken by the Purépecha people in the state of Michoacán. Language of the ancient Tarascan kingdom. Sometimes regarded as two languages.|
|Salinan||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in California. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Seri||764||Vulnerable||Mexico||Spoken in Sonora. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Siuslaw||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Oregon. Likely related to Coos, Alsea, possibly the Wintuan languages. Part of the Penutian hypothesis.|
|Takelma||Extinct||United States||Spoken in Oregon. Part of the Penutian hypothesis. A specific relationship with Kalapuyan is now rejected.|
|Timucua||Extinct||United States||Well attested. Was spoken in Florida and Georgia. A connection with the poorly known Tawasa language has been suggested, but this may be a dialect.|
|Tonkawa||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Texas.|
|Tunica||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.|
|Washo||20||Moribund||United States||Spoken in California and Nevada. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Yana||Extinct||United States||Was spoken in California. Part of the Hokan hypothesis.|
|Yuchi||4||Moribund||United States||Spoken in Georgia and Oklahoma. Connections to Siouan languages have been proposed.|
|Zuni||9,620||Vulnerable||United States||Spoken in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico. Connections to Penutian languages have been proposed, but is generally considered unlikely.|
|Aikanã||200||Endangered||Brazil||Spoken in Rondônia. Arawakan has been suggested.|
|Andoque||370||Endangered||Colombia, Peru||May be extinct now. Possibly Witotoan.|
|Betoi||Extinct||Colombia||Paezan has been suggested.|
|Camsá||4,000||Endangered||Colombia||Also known as Kamsa, Coche, Sibundoy, Kamentxa, Kamse, or Camëntsëá.|
|Candoshi||1,100||Endangered||Peru||Spoken along the Chapuli, Huitoyacu, Pastaza, and Morona river valleys.|
|Canichana||Extinct||Bolivia||A connection with the extinct Tequiraca (Auishiri) has been proposed.|
|Cayuvava||4||Moribund||Bolivia||Spoken in Bolivia. Speakers live west of Mamore River, north of Santa Ana del Yacuma in the Beni Department.|
|Chimané||5,300||Vulnerable||Bolivia||Also spelled Tsimané. Sometimes split into multiple languages in a Moséten family. Linked to the Chonan languages in a Moseten-Chonan hypothesis.|
|Cofán||2,400||Endangered||Colombia, Ecuador||Also called A'ingae. Sometimes classified as Chibchan, but the similarities appear to be due to borrowings. Seriously endagered in Colombia.|
|Guató||6||Moribund||Brazil||Previously classified as Macro-Jê, but no evidence was found to support this.|
|Irantxe||40||Moribund||Brazil||Also known as Iranche or Münkü. Spoken in Mato Grosso.|
|Itonama||5||Moribund||Bolivia||Paezan has been suggested. 5 speakers remaining.|
|Kunza||Extinct||Chile||Was spoken in areas near Salar de Atacama. Also known as Atacameño.|
|Kanoê||5||Moribund||Brazil||Spoken in Rondônia. Also known as Kapishana.|
|Leco||20||Moribund||Bolivia||Thought to be extinct, recently rediscovered in areas east of Lake Titicaca.|
|Munichi||Extinct||Peru||Possibly related to Arawakan languages|
|Mapudungun||260,000||Endangered||Chile, 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, reclassifying Mapudungun into an Araucanian family.|
|Movima||1,400||Endangered||Bolivia||Spoken in the Llanos de Moxos region.|
|Otí||Extinct||Brazil||Was spoken in São Paulo. Macro-Gêan has been suggested.|
|Páez||40,000||Endangered||Colombia||Several proposed relationships in the Paezan hypothesis but nothing conclusive.|
|Tequiraca||Extinct||Peru||Also known as Auishiri. A connection with Canichana has been proposed.|
|Trumai||51||Moribund||Brazil||Settled on the upper Xingu River. Currently reside in the Xingu National Park in the state of Mato Grosso.|
|Urarina||3,000||Vulnerable||Peru||Spoken in Loreto Region. Part of the Macro-Jibaro proposal.|
|Waorani||2,000||Vulnerable||Ecuador, Peru||Also known as Sabela. Spoken between the Napo and Curaray rivers. Could be spoken by several uncontacted groups.|
|Warao||28,000||Endangered||Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela||Sometimes linked to Paezan. Spoken almost entirely in Venezuela, with almost no speakers in Guyana and Suriname|
|Yámana||1||Moribund||Chile||Spoken in southern Tierra del Fuego. Also called Yaghan. Last speaker is Cristina Calderón, who is 89 years old.|
|Yatê||1,000||Moribund||Brazil||Divided into two dialects, Fulniô and Yatê. Sometimes classified as a Macro-Jê language, but not much evidence to support this.|
|Yuracaré||2,700||Endangered||Bolivia||Connections to Mosetenan, Pano–Tacanan, Arawakan, and Chon have been suggested.|