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A language isolate, in the absolute sense, is a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical (or "genetic") relationship with other languages, one that has not been demonstrated to descend from an ancestor common with any other language. Language isolates are in effect language families consisting of a single language. Commonly cited examples include Basque, Sumerian, and Elamite, though in each case a minority of linguists claim to have demonstrated a relationship with other languages.[1]

Some sources use the term "language isolate" to indicate a branch of a larger family with only one surviving member. For instance, Albanian, Armenian and Greek are commonly called Indo-European isolates. While part of the Indo-European family, they do not belong to any established branch (such as the Romance, Indo-Iranian, Celtic, Slavic or Germanic branches), but instead form independent branches. Similarly, within the Romance languages, Sardinian is a relative isolate. However, without a qualifier, isolate is understood to mean having no demonstrable genetic relationship to any other language.

Some languages once seen as isolates may be reclassified as small families. This happened with Japanese (now included in the Japonic family along with Ryukyuan languages such as Okinawan), Ainu in Ainu languages and Korean in Koreanic languages with Jeju language. The Etruscan language of Italy has long been considered an isolate, but some have proposed that it is related to the so-called Tyrsenian languages, an extinct family of closely related ancient languages proposed by Helmut Rix in 1998, including the Rhaetian language, formerly spoken in the central Alps, and the Lemnian language, formerly spoken on the Greek island of Lemnos.

Language isolates may be seen as a special case of unclassified languages that remain unclassified even after extensive efforts. If such efforts eventually do prove fruitful, a language previously considered an isolate may no longer be considered one, as happened with the Yanyuwa language of northern Australia, which has been placed in the Pama–Nyungan family. Since linguists do not always agree on whether a genetic relationship has been demonstrated, it is often disputed whether a language is an isolate or not.

With few exceptions, all of Africa's languages have been gathered into four major phyla: degree of endangerment of the language, according to the definitions of the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.[citation needed] "Vibrant" languages are those in full use by speakers of every generation, with consistent native acquisition by children. "Vulnerable" languages have a similarly wide base of native speakers, but a restricted use and the long-term risk of language shift. "Endangered" languages are either acquired irregularly or spoken only by older generations. "Moribund" languages have only a few remaining native speakers, with no new acquisition, highly restricted use, and near-universal multilingualism. "Extinct" languages have no native speakers, but are sufficiently documented to be classified as isolates.

With few exceptions, all of Africa's languages have been gathered into four major phyla: Afroasiatic, Niger–Congo, Nilo-Saharan and Khoisan.[5] However, the genetic unity of some language families, like Nilo-Saharan,[6][7] is questionable, and so there may be many more language families and isolates than currently accepted.[by whom?] Data for several African languages, like Kwadi and Kwisi, are not sufficient for classification. In addition, Jalaa, Shabo, Laal, Kujargé, and a few other languages within Nilo-Saharan and Afroasiatic-speaking areas may turn out to be isolates upon further investigation. Defaka and Ega are highly divergent languages located within Niger-Congo-speaking areas, and may also possibly be language isolates.[8]

Language Speakers Status Countries Comments
Bangime 2,000 Vibrant Mali Spoken in the Bandiagara Escarpment. Used as an “Papuasphere” centered in New Guinea includes as many as 37 isolates.[13] (The more is known about these languages in the future, the more likely it is for these languages to be later assigned to a known language family.) To these, one must add several isolates found among non-Pama-Nyungan languages of Australia:[14]

Language Speakers Status Countries Comments
Abinomn 300 Vibrant Indonesia Spoken in the far north of New Guinea. Also known as Bas or Foia. Language is considered safe by UNESCO but endangered by Ethnologue.[15]
Anêm 800 Vibrant Papua New Guinea Spoken on the northwest coast of New Britain. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Ata.
Ata 2,000 Vibrant Papua New Guinea Spoken in the central highlands of New Britain. Also known as Wasi. Perhaps related to Yélî Dnye and Anem.[16][17]
Giimbiyu Extinct Australia Spoken in the northern part of Arnhem Land until the early 1980s. Sometimes considered a small language family consisting of Mengerrdji, Urningangk and Erre.[18] Part of a proposal for the undemonstrated Arnhem Land language family.
Kol 4,000 Vibrant Papua New Guinea Spoken in the northeastern part of New Britain. Possibly related to the poorly-known Sulka, or the Baining languages.
Kuot 2,400 Vulnerable Papua New Guinea Spoken on New Ireland. Also known as Panaras.
Malak-Malak 10 Moribund Australia Spoken in northern Australia. Often considered part of one Northern Daly family together with Tyeraity. Used to be considered genetically related to the Wagaydyic languages, but nowadays they are considered genetically distinct.[19]
Murrinh-patha 1,973 Vibrant Australia Spoken on the eastern coast of Joseph Bonaparte Gulf in the Top End. The proposed linkage to Ngan’gityemerri in one Southern Daly family[20] is generally accepted to be valid.
Ngan’gityemerri 26 Moribund Australia Spoken in the Top End along the Daly River. The proposed linkage to Murrinh-patha in one Southern Daly family[20] is generally accepted to be valid.
Sulka 2,500–3,000 Vibrant New Britain, Papua New Guinea Possible language isolate spoken across the eastern end of New Britain. Poorly attested.
Tayap >50 Moribund Papua New Guinea Formerly spoken in the village of Gapun. Link to Lower Sepik languages and Torricelli languages have been explored, but the general consensus among Linguists is that it is an isolate unrelated to surrounding languages.[21]
Tiwi 2,040 Vulnerable Australia Spoken in the Tiwi Islands in the Timor Sea. Traditionally Tiwi is polysynthetic, but the Tiwi spoken by younger generations is not.
Wagiman 11 Moribund Australia Spoken in the southern part of the Top End. May be distantly related to the Yangmanic languages,[22] which might in turn be a member of the Macro-Gunwinyguan family,[14] but neither link has been demonstrated.
Wardaman 50 Moribund Australia Spoken in the southern part of the Top End. The extinct and poorly-attested Dagoman and Yangman dialects are sometimes treated as separate languages, forming a Yangmanic family, to which Wagiman may be distantly related.[22] Possibly a member of the Macro-Gunwinyguan family,[14] but this has yet to be demonstrated.

Europe

Language Speakers Status Countries Comments
Basque 751,500 (2016),[23] 1,185,500 passive speakers Vulnerable Spain, France Natively known as Euskara, the Basque language, found in the historical region of the Basque Country between France and Spain, is the second most-widely spoken language isolate after Korean. It has no known living relatives, although Aquitanian is commonly regarded as related to or a direct ancestor of Basque. Some linguists have claimed similarities with various languages of the Caucasus[24][25] that are indicative of a relationship, while others have proposed a relation to Iberian[26] and to the hypothetical Dené–Caucasian languages.

North America

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