Just like chimpanzees are related to humans, and lions are related to tigers, languages can also be related to each other.
Think of French and Spanish – they’re part of a language family called the Romance Languages.
But there are some mysterious languages that aren’t related to any other known languages. They’re linguistic islands, cut off from the language-mainland. We call them language isolates.
Language isolates are like orphans and only children – linguists have been unable to identify their parent lingos, and they don’t appear to have any sister languages. Each language isolate forms its own special language family with population=1.
Considering each language isolate to be its own little family, then there are around 350 language families in total. Of these, 37% or 129 are language isolates – that’s quite a few!
It is still possible that most languages on Earth evolved from a single common ancestor. Maybe these isolates did have relatives that have since disappeared or died out.
It’s important to note that language isolates are different to unclassified languages. Isolates remain, well, isolated – despite linguists’ extensive efforts to connect them with other languages. On the other hand, unclassified languages haven’t been studied well enough, or there isn’t enough data, for linguists to classify them. Some unclassified languages may well be isolates – but we don’t know yet.
Unsurprisingly, lots of language isolates are endangered. But there are a few that have absolutely boomed.
Let’s explore a few of these fascinating languages. Here’s a selection from around the world.
Spoken by 80 million people worldwide, Korean is by far the most successful language isolate. Or at least, most historical linguists consider Korean to be a language isolate – but the writing on the wall isn’t fixed.
Just like Proto-Indo-European is the ancestor of the Indo-European languages, linguists can trace the ancestry of Modern Korean back through Middle Korean and Old Korean to Proto-Korean. Along this path back through history, there are some hypothetical related lingos – like the Buyeo languages. These ancient relatives are now extinct, so ya know, for all intents and purposes, today’s Korean is all on its lonesome.
Or is it? Off the coast of the Korean mainland is an island called Jeju. Here, the locals speak the Jeju dialect of Korean, which is almost unintelligible to mainlanders. Some peeps reckon it’s different enough to qualify as its own language. In this case, Jeju and Korean could team up to form a Koreanic Language Fam.
The distinctive Korean alphabet hasn’t always been fixed either. For over 1,000 years, Korean was written with modified Chinese characters called hanja. These were tricky to get yo head around, so only the wealthy elite were literate.
Enter Sejong the Great: a Korean king in the 15th century, who wanted to establish a distinct Korean national identity. He oversaw the creation of the hangul alphabet, designed so that anyone could learn to read and write. It took several hundred years for hangul to take the throne, but by 1894 it was decreed ~the official~ alphabet.
Tucked away in the western Pyrenees, in a region straddling Spain and France, the Basque culture and language blossoms. Unlike Spanish and French, Basque is not an Indo-European language. In fact, it probably existed before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans – perhaps as far back as the Stone Age. Basque is one of the few surviving pre-Indo-European languages. So cool hey!
There are more than 700,000 Basque speakers today, but there are a tonne of different forms. There’s five dialects, and these are further broken up into 11 subdialects and 24 other minor varieties. In the 1960s, a standard Basque – called Euskara – was created too.
Some linguists have suggested that the Basque dialects are becoming sufficiently different to classify them as separate languages. So, maybe Basque won’t be a language isolate in the future, as it splits off into different tongues in a Basque mini-family. Just goes to show how language is ever-evolving – and the line between “language” and “dialect” is kinda blurry.
The Hadza don’t farm and they don’t grow crops. They are the last hunter-gatherers in Africa. The Hazda oral history doesn’t describe originating anywhere except where they currently live – so perhaps they have been inhabiting north-central Tanzania since the dawn of humankind. Their way of life offers anthropologists a fascinating insight into how all of us humans once lived.
The Hadza language features the click consonant that characterises many African languages. Despite this common element, Hazda is a language isolate. What’s more, this ancient language is positively thriving. Although it’s only spoken by around 1,000 people, it’s known by most Hadza children.
The Hadza live a timeless existence, and their language reflects this. They have words for “one” and “two,” but they have to borrow words from other languages (like Swahili) to count any higher.
The importance of hunting is also reflected in the Hadza language: there are different words for dead and living animals. When an animal is killed, it is referred to by a special “triumphal name.” For example, a lion is usually called “séseme” but if it has been successfully hunted, its triumphal name is “hubúhee.” (Wikipedia has a bunch more examples, if you’re interested.)
Also known as Leco, this unwritten language isolate was once widely spoken along the slopes of the Andes, east of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.
For many years, Leko was considered to be extinct. But one linguist searched all the nooks and crannies in Bolivia, and came across a handful of people who could speak Leko.
These people, the final bastions of Leko, are now all aged over 60. Sadly, the language has not been taught to younger generations and it’s likely it will die out as the last speakers pass away.
Linguists are doing their best to learn as much as they can about the Leko language and culture, but gathering data is a tricky task. The Leko-situation is made more difficult because many hadn’t spoken this tongue in more than 40 years, and did not feel comfortable entering into spontaneous conversation with one another.
Leko is not alone – many hundreds of endangered languages face this same sorrowful fate.
The Tiwi Islands are found just off the Northern Coast of Australia, and are home to around 2.500 Tiwi Indigenous people. The Tiwi language is pretty different to mainland Aussie lingos, so much so it’s considered an isolate. Here’s a word (and its English translation) from the Traditional Tiwi language:
He came and stole my wild honey this morning while I was asleep
No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That one single word translates into that entire sentence in English. To get our heads around this tongue-(and-brain)-twister, we’ve gotta tackle morphemes.
Morphemes ain’t that character from The Matrix, nor is it that addictive painkilling drug. A morpheme is a “word-part” that carries a distinct meaning. It may be able to standalone (in which case, it is also a word) but some need to be combined with another morpheme.
Here’s an example: walk is both a morpheme and a word. -ed is a morpheme but it cannot stand on its own. But we can combine these two morphemes to make walked.
Tiwi is a polysynthetic language which means that its words are made up of lots of morphemes lumped together – just like the example above.
Since European contact, Tiwi has undergone a marked transformation. Modern Tiwi is a lot more isolating compared to the Traditional form – this basically means its structure is becoming more like English and less like the polysynthetic example above.
Traditional Tiwi is now generally confined to the elders, but Modern Tiwi is surviving fairly well amongst the younger generations.
Japanese used to be a language isolate. Buuuuut… now it’s not. I’ve included it here as an interesting example of the fluid nature of language classification.
The southernmost islands of the Japanese archipelago are called the Ryukyu Islands, and they’re home to ten distinct languages called the Ryukyuan languages. Historically, these have been considered dialects of Japanese, but in fact, they are mutually unintelligible with Standard Japanese and with each other. Together, the Ryukyuan languages and Japanese form the Japonic family.
I find it interesting to think about what “mutually unintelligible” means. For example, I can barely understand Scottish people, and yet they supposedly speak the same mother tongue (English) as me…
Video via Canal de JUSTVIRALVIDEOS4 on Youtube
Anyway, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many speakers of the Ryukyuan languages remain – but they are generally confined to the older generation. Several are listed as endangered on UNESCO’s Atlas of Languages in Danger.
That concludes our tour…
…around the world through language isolates. Of course there are many more – do you know a particularly interesting one? Let me know in the comments.
Language isolates add a lil somethin’ special and spicy to the Earth’s language soup. But just like scientists are constantly refining the tree of life, so too, our interconnected web of languages is reworked and rebuilt as we uncover more about our mother tongues.