To study languages more effectively, linguists classify them into various groups according to different characteristics. One such classification is a genetic (genealogical) classification that unites languages into language families.
A language family is a grouping of linguistically connected languages that originate from a common ancestral mother-language called the ‘proto-language’. Like people who belong to the same family, related languages share similar features: there is some shared vocabulary, the basic grammatical principles are often similar. They can even be mutually intelligible to a degree.
This is part two of a two-part article. If you want to know more about language families, check out part one of this article.
However, not all languages belong to this or that language family. Some languages simply remain unclassified, usually because there is simply not enough information available about them to decide what family they belong to.
Other languages are the, so-called, language isolates. Let us take a more detailed look at them.
What are language isolates?
According to definitions.net, a language isolate is:
‘a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages; that is, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language’.
Basically, a language isolate is a language family consisting of one single language.
This is not the same as an unclassified language. Unlike unclassified languages, language isolates are usually very thoroughly studied and plenty of information and linguistic data is available about them. However, despite all the available data, it still remains impossible to classify them as members of this or that language family. Often because there are little to no written records of related proto-languages.
What language isolates are there?
Determining a language’s genetic connections is a complicated matter which involves a lot of research, analysing historical data and written records. Linguists have different approaches to this, and there is no universal agreement on what languages can be considered isolates.
One common example of a language isolate is the Basque language. Although Basque is spoken in Europe — in areas of Spain and France — it is not an Indo-European language. In fact, Basque is not related to any other known languages spoken today.
The classification also may change over time. Some languages that were considered isolates have been re-classified after more data becomes available, and connections are established. For instance, the Japanese language was thought to be a language isolate, until researchers discovered its relationship to Ryukyuan languages. They now form the Japonic language family together.
The Korean language is now believed by some researchers to be a member of Altaic language family. However, others do not recognise this family and still believe Korean to be a language isolate.
Due to the differences in opinions and approaches, it is impossible to say how many language isolates there are in total. The numbers range from 75 to 129.
For many years, language isolates have presented a puzzling mystery for linguists to try and uncover, and they probably will for many more years to come. Some new developments are possible: after all, Japanese has found its family members fairly recently.
Researchers always hope to discover new written records, or a new approach to analysis can yield more conclusive data. However, it is also quite possible that many languages will always remain isolates, a language family of one.