Language isolate

From Academic Kids

A language isolate is a natural language with no demonstrable genetic relationship with other living languages; that is, one that has not been proven to descend from a common ancestor to any other language. Commonly cited examples include Japanese, Basque, Ainu, Burushaski and Korean, although in each case a minority of linguists claims to have demonstrated a relationship with another language (see Dene-Caucasian and Altaic).

Some languages became isolates in historical times, after all their known relatives became extinct. The Pirahã language of Brazil 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.

Language isolates may be seen as a special case of unclassified languages, being languages which remain unclassified even after extensive efforts. If eventually such efforts do prove fruitful, a language previously considered an isolate may no longer be considered one; and 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.

A second use of the term understands "isolate" to be within a particular context. For instance, Albanian and Armenian are considered isolates within Indo-European. While part of the Indo-European family, they have no demonstrable close genetic relationship with any particular languages, but instead form independent branches of their own. However, without a disambiguating context, "isolate" is understood to be in the absolute sense.


Genetic relationship

The term "genetic relationship" is meant in the sense of historical linguistics, which claims that almost all languages spoken in the world today can be grouped by derivation from common ancestral languages into a relatively small number of families. For example, English is related to other Indo-European languages and Mandarin is related to many other Sino-Tibetan languages. By this criterion, each language isolate constitutes a family on its own, which explains the exceptional interest that those languages have received from linguists.

Looking for relationship

It is possible, though not certain, that all languages spoken in the world today are genetically related by descent from a single ancestral tongue. The established language families would then be only the upper branches of the genealogical tree of all languages. For this reason, isolate languages have been the object of numerous studies seeking to uncover their genealogy. For instance, Basque has been compared with every living and extinct language family known, from Sumerian to the 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. Such a situation is not very likely to occur at any one time but, looking at tens of thousands of years of human history plus pre-history, the likelihood of this occurring at least a few times increases.

Isolate, not isolated

One should not confuse the concept of a language isolate with a language whose speakers are isolated in some sense, such as people who have little contact with other cultures (like the Rapa Nui language of Easter Island) or because they live far away from the regions where related languages are spoken (like the Malagasy language of Madagascar whose closest relatives are spoken in Kalimantan). These two languages are definitely not isolates.

List of language isolates

Below is a list of known language isolates, along with notes on possible relations to other languages or language families:

Language Comments
Adai Spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States.
Aikaná Spoken in Rondônia, Brazil.
Alagüilac Spoken in Guatemala.
Andoque Spoken in Colombia and Peru.
Atakapa Spoken in Texas and Louisiana, United States.
Ainu Endangered language that is spoken in northern Japan.
Baenan Spoken in Brazil.
Basque No known living relatives; found in the Basque region of France and Spain. Aquitanian is commonly regarded as a direct ancestor of Basque. Some linguists have claimed similarities with various languages of the Caucasus, especially because of its ergative case system, but the resemblances seem superficial. Other linguists have proposed a relation to Iberic.
Beothuk Spoken in Newfoundland, Canada.
Betoi Spoken in Colombia.
Birale (Ongota) Often considered Afroasiatic.
Burushaski Spoken in northern Pakistan. Sometimes thought to be related to Yeniseian.
Calusa Spoken in Florida, United States.
Camsá Spoken in Colombia.
Canichana Spoken in Bolivia.
Cayubaba Spoken in Bolivia.
Cayuse Spoken in Oregon and Washington, United States.
Chimariko Spoken in California, United States.
Chitimacha Spoken in Louisiana, United States.
Coahuilteco Spoken in Texas, United States and northeastern Mexico.
Cofán Spoken in Colombia and Ecuador.
Cotoname Spoken in Texas, United States and northeastern Mexico.
Cuitlatec Spoken in Guerrero, Mexico.
Culle Spoken in Peru.
Elamite Extinct language of Elamite Empire. Some conjecture a relationship to the Dravidian languages.
Esselen Spoken in California, United States.
Etruscan Language of the ancient Etruscans in northwestern Italy; not well understood at present.
Gamela Spoken in Maranhão, Brazil.
Gorgotoqui Spoken in Bolivia.
Hadza Often listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages.
Haida Spoken in Alaska, United States and British Columbia, Canada. Some proposals to connect to Na-Dené languages.
Huamoé Spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Huave Spoken in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Iberic There are lexical coincidences with Basque, but it is hard to know if they are more than a result of vicinity.
Irantxe Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Itonama Spoken in Bolivia.
Jalaa An endangered language of northeastern Nigeria.
Japanese Possibly related to Korean language, though not yet proven. Connections to the Altaic languages have also been proposed. See Altaic hypothesis for these theories. According to the Japonic languages theory, it would rather have its own language group.
Jotí Spoken in Venezuela.
Kalto Also called Nahali, it is a near-extinct language of western India.
Karankawa Spoken in Texas, United States.
Karirí Spoken in Paraíba, Pernambuco, and Ceará, Brazil.
Karok Spoken in California, United States.
Ket No known relatives. Some linguists have attempted to show a relationship with Burushaski.
Koayá Spoken in Rondônia, Brazil.
Konomihu Spoken in California, United States.
Kootenai Spoken in Idaho and Montana, United States and British Columbia, Canada.
Korean Connections to the Altaic languages have also been proposed. See the Altaic hypothesis for these theories.
Kukurá Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Kwadi Often listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages.
Kusunda Nearly extinct language of Nepal. Sometimes considered one of the Tibeto-Burman languages.
Laal Unclassified; sometimes considered Niger-Congo.
Mapudungu Spoken in Chile and Argentina.
Maratino Spoken in northeastern Mexico.
Mekejir (Shabo) Often considered Nilo-Saharan.
Meroitic Extinct language of ancient kingdom of Meroe (Kush).
Movima Spoken in Bolivia.
Munichi Spoken in Peru.
Nambiquaran Spoken in Mato Grosso, Brazil.
Naolan Spoken in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Natchez Spoken in Mississippi and Louisiana, United States.
Natú Spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Nivkh Also known as Gilyak. A Palaeosiberian language spoken in the lower Amur River basin and on the Sakhalin Islands. Ainu is also spoken on Sakhalin.
Omurano Spoken in Peru.
Oropom Possibly nonexistent.
Otí Spoken in São Paulo, Brazil.
Pankararú Spoken in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Pirahã Related to languages that have recently become extinct. Only known language with no number terminology, grammatical recursion, and several other unique features.
Puquina Spoken in Bolivia.
Quileute Spoken in Washington State, United States.
Quinigua Spoken in northeastern Mexico.
Sabela Spoken in Ecuador and Peru.
Salinan Spoken in California, United States.
Sandawe Often listed as an outlier among the Khoisan languages.
Seri Spoken in Sonora, Mexico.
Siuslaw Spoken in Oregon, United States.
Solano Spoken in Texas, United States and northeastern Mexico.
Sumerian Long-extinct language of ancient Sumeria.
Takelma Spoken in Oregon, United States.
Tarairiú Spoken in Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil.
Tarascan Latest research suggests the possibility that it may be related to a family of languages from Ecuador.
Tasmanian Some theories suggest that they split Australian Aboriginal languages 10,000 years ago, but no conclusive proof exists.
Taushiro Spoken in Peru.
Tequiraca Spoken in Peru.
Ticuna Spoken in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.
Timucua Spoken in Florida and Georgia, United States.
Tonkawa Spoken in Texas, United States.
Tunica Spoken in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, United States.
Tuxá Spoken in Bahia and Pernambuco, Brazil. Now extinct.
Warao Spoken in Guyana, Surinam, and Venezuela.
Washo Spoken in California and Nevada, United States.
Xokó Spoken in Alagoas and Pernambuco, Brazil.
Xukurú Spoken in Pernambuco and Paraíba, Brazil.
Yámana Spoken in Chile.
Yana Spoken in California, United States.
Yuchi Spoken in Georgia and Oklahoma, United States. Connections to Siouan languages have been proposed.
Yukaghir Connections to Uralic Languages have been proposed.
Yuracare Spoken in Bolivia.
Yuri Spoken in Colombia and Brazil.
Yurumanguí Spoken in Colombia.
Zuni Spoken in New Mexico, United States. Connections to Penutian languages have been proposed.


  • 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 0-1604-8774-9.
  • 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 Institute). (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 1-55671106-9. (Online edition:
  • 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).de:Isolierte Sprache

als:Isolierte Sprache es:Lenguas aisladas sv:Isolerade språk eo:Izolita lingvo fr:Isolat ko:고립된 언어 nl:Isolaat nn:Isolerte språk fi:Isolaattikieli ja:孤立した言語


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