Isolates Lose Their Linguistic Relationship to Other Languages

August 7, 2019


Language isolates are languages found around the world that have no known historical link to any other language. In the absolute sense, a language isolate is a natural language that has not been proven to descend from a common language ancestor. Isolates are their own language family with only one surviving member. For example, Basque is a common language isolate spoken in border communities between France and Spain by more than half a million speakers. Although much is known about the language, its relatives went extinct and left no records.

The annual reference book Ethnologue: Languages of the World lists 75 language isolates with nine of these already extinct and eight others, with less than 100 language speakers remaining, on the verge of extinction. Korean is considered by some scholars to be the most widely spoken language isolate with 42 million speakers, but Korean is thought by other linguists to be a member of the Altaic language family. At times, a language may be classified as an isolate because we know so little about it that we are unable to establish a family relationship, as in the case of several language dialects spoken in Papua New Guinea.

Japanese was considered to be an exemplary form of a language isolate for many years. Today, after working on the similarities between Japanese and Ryukyuan languages, linguists have reconstructed a mutual ancestor, the now extinct Proto-Japanese. These smaller Ryukyuan languages are spoken only on the nearby Ryuku Islands and are in danger of dying out. Japanese may go from isolate to language family and back to a language isolate. Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language and the most successful example of a revived dead language. Nonetheless, it belongs to the West Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family.

By the turn of the century, linguists expect more than fifty percent of the world's current spoken languages will be extinct. Unfortunately, when we lose a language, we don't just lose the words; we lose the vision from a different perspective on life.

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