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Language Isolate

Language Isolate

Most languages can be traced back to a larger language family, as many languages are related in some way and are descendants of the same older language. But what about the languages that are not a part of a larger language family? What if they make up their own family instead? Some languages across the world are not related to any other languages. In English linguistics, these are known as language isolates. For example, in Europe, the language isolate is the Basque language.

If you are unsure of the meaning of language isolates or can't think of any more examples of them, don't worry! We will now explore the meaning of language isolates, including some examples and lists of language isolates from around the world.

Language Isolate Meaning

Take a look at the meaning of a language isolate below:

A language isolate is a language that is not related to other languages and does not belong to a larger language family. Instead, it makes up its own language family.

It is unclear how many language isolates there are in total, but we will explore a few examples in this article!

The history of language isolates is not clear, as they are not very well documented. However, here are a few interesting facts about them:

  • Language isolates exist as they do not appear to descend from a related language. Instead, they make up their own language family or may be the only branch left in a language family.
  • There are no "pure" language isolates, as every single language has been influenced by another in some way. For example, language isolates can still have loanwords (words taken from another language and incorporated into the vocabulary of another).
  • Most language isolates have a limited number of speakers and are typically spoken in small geographical regions.
  • Language isolates do not always stay as such. For example, Japanese used to be considered a language isolate, but the language family was later found.

Language Isolate Examples

Some examples of language isolates are:

Korean

Although some linguists believe it is part of the Altaic language family, Korean is widely regarded as the most commonly spoken language isolate. Around 74 million people speak Korean, which is currently the 14th most widely used language in the world.

Some basic Korean words and phrases are as follows:

Korean words/phrasesMeaning
안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo)Hello / goodbye
감사합니다 (gamsahamnida)Thank you
만나서 반가워요 (mannaseo bangawoyo)Nice to meet you
괜찮아요 (gwaenchanhayo)It's okay
실례합니다 (sillyehamnida)Excuse me
네 (ne)Yes
아니오 (aniyo)No
사랑해요 (saranghaeyo)I love you
오랜만에요 (oraenmaneyo)Long time no see

Purépecha (also known as Tarascan) is a language isolate spoken in Mexico. There are around 140000 native speakers. Some examples of commonly used words and phrases are:

Greek is not a full language isolate, but is sometimes referred to as an Indo-European isolate. Greek - alongside other languages such as Armenian and Albanian - is a language that is part of a larger language family but forms its own branch. Although Greek belongs to the Indo-European language family, it does not belong to any official branches, such as Romance, Germanic, Slavic, etc.

List of Language Isolates

Here is a list of language isolates that are still being spoken:

Language IsolateCountryNumber of speakers
BangimeMali2000
HadzaTanzania1000
LaalChad750
SandaweTanzania60000
ShaboEthiopia400
BurushaskiPakistan126300
KusundaNepal87
NihaliIndia2000
NivkhRussia200
Abinomn Indonesia300
AnêmPapua New Guinea800
AtaPapua New Guinea2000
KolPapua New Guinea4000
KuotPapua New Guinea2400
Malak-MalakAustralia10
Murrinha-pathaAustralia1973
Ngan’gityemerriAustralia26
SulkaPapua New Guinea2500/3000
TayapPapua New Guinealess than 50
TiwiAustralia2040
WagimanAustralia11
WardamanAustralia50
BasqueSpain and France751500
HaidaCanada and the United States24
HuaveMexico20000
KarukUnited States12
KeresUnited States13190
KutenaiCanada and the United States345
PurépechaMexico140000
SeriMexico720
WashoUnited States20
YuchiUnited States4
ZuniUnited States9620
AikanãBrazil200
AndoqueColombia and Peru370
Candoshi-ShapraPeru1100
CayuvavaBolivia4
ChimaneBolivia5300
ChiquitanoBolivia and Brazil5900
CofánColombia and Ecuador2400
FulniôBrazil1000
GuatóBrazil6
ItonamaBolivia5
KamëntsáColombia4000
KanoêBrazil5
KwazaBrazil54
LecoBolivia20
MapucheChile and Argentina260000
MovimaBolivia1400
PáezColombia60000
TrumaiBrazil50
UrarinaPeru3000
WaoraniEcuador and Peru2000
WaraoGuyana, Suriname and Venezuela28000
YaruroVenezuela7900
YuracaréBolivia2700

Now here is a list of language isolates that are extinct (no longer existing):

Extinct Language IsolateCountrySpoken until
JalaaNigeriaAround 2010
ElamiteIran300 BC
SumerianIraq1800 BC
GiimbiyuAustraliaEarly 1980s
AlseaUnited StatesEarly 1950s
AtakapaUnited StatesEarly 1900s
ChimarikoUnited StatesThe 1950s
ChitimachaUnited States1940
CoahuiltecoUnited States and MexicoThe 1700s
CuitlatecMexicoThe 1960s
EsselenUnited StatesEarly 1800s
NatchezUnited States1957
SalinanUnited States1958
SiuslawUnited States1960
TakelmaUnited States1934
TimucuaUnited StatesLate 1700s
TonkawaUnited StatesEarly 1940s
TunicaUnited States1948
YanaUnited States1916
BetoiVenezuelaMid 19th Century
CanichanaBolivia2000 AD
KunzaChileThe 1950s
MunichiPeruLate 1990s
OtiBrazilEarly 1900s
PuelcheArgentina and Chile1934
TequirachaPeruThe 1950s
YaghanChile2022

Language Isolate vs. Unclassified Language

A language isolate may often be mistaken for an unclassified language, as the line between these two terms can sometimes be blurry. Here is a definition of an unclassified language:

An unclassified language is a language whose relationship to other languages has not yet been identified.

If an unclassified language does end up being identified, it will no longer be labeled as unclassified. If an unclassified language has been documented for a while but does not have a relation to any other language, it's considered a language isolate.

Language Isolate vs. Isolating Language

Another term often mistaken for a language isolate is an isolating language. Although the terms sound similar, they have different meanings. Take a look at a definition of an isolating language:

An isolating language is a language where almost every word contains a single morpheme (a unit of meaning that cannot be reduced down). For example, Vietnamese is considered an isolating language.

On the other hand, a language isolate is a language that does not have any genetic relation to any other languages, so it makes up its own language family.

Language Isolate - Key takeaways

  • A language isolate is a language that is not related to other languages and does not belong to a larger language family.
  • Although some linguists believe it is part of the Altaic language family, Korean is widely regarded as the most commonly spoken language isolate.
  • The language isolate in Europe is the Basque language, also known as Euskara.
  • Greek is not a full language isolate but is sometimes referred to as an Indo-European isolate (part of a larger language family but forms its own branch).
  • An unclassified language is a language whose relationship to other languages has not yet been identified. Unclassified languages can be considered language isolates if they don't show a relation with other languages after significant documentation.
  • An isolating language is a language where almost every word contains a single morpheme.

Frequently Asked Questions about Language Isolate

A language isolate is a language that is not related to other languages and does not belong to a larger language family.

It has been argued that Korean is the most commonly spoken language isolate, although some people believe Korean is related to the Altaic language family.

There are language isolates spoken all over the world! 

In linguistics, isolate refers to having no relation to other languages.

A language isolate is a language that is not related to other languages, whereas  an isolating language is a language where almost every word contains a single morpheme.

Final Language Isolate Quiz

Question

What is a language isolate?

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Answer

A language isolate is a language that is not related to other languages and does not belong to a larger language family.

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Question

True or false?


A language isolate makes up its own language family, as it does not belong to a larger language family.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which language is widely regarded as the most commonly spoken language isolate? 

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Answer

Korean

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Question

Some linguists believe Korean is part of which language family?

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Answer

The Altaic language family

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Question

True or false?


A language isolate is the same as an isolating language.

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Answer

False

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Question

Around how many people speak Korean?

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Answer

74 million

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Question

Mapuche is a language isolate spoken where?

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Answer

Chile and Argentina

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Question

Purépecha is a language isolate spoken in which country?

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Answer

Mexico

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Question

Burushaski is a language isolate spoken in which South Asian country?

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Answer

Pakistan

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Question

Sandawe is a language isolate spoken in which African country?

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Answer

Tanzania

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Question

What is the language isolate in Europe? 

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Answer

The language isolate in Europe is the Basque language

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Question

Greek is not a full language isolate, but is sometimes referred to as what?

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Answer

An Indo-European isolate

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Question

What is an unclassified language?

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Answer

An unclassified language is a language whose relationship to other languages has not yet been identified. 

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Question

What is an isolating language?

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Answer

An isolating language is a language where almost every word contains a single morpheme.

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Question

Fill in the blanks:


Greek is a language that is part of a ______ language family but forms its own ______. 

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Answer

larger, branch

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