Even today, mysteries remain common in the world of languages and one of the biggest of these is the origin of the world’s language isolates. The term refers to languages such as Basque, Korean, and, up until recently, also included Japanese that have no demonstrable living (or dead) ancestors, so their history and origins remain a secret. While there is still some confusion about what exactly makes a language isolate and the term keeps changing, it’s still an interesting topic to get acquainted with.
So today, we’ll take a closed look at the concept of language isolates to see what makes them so unusual and fascinating.
Isolated is not quite the same as unclassified
Seeing as there are between 6000 and 7000 languages in the world and most of them are only spoken by a small number of people in remote areas, there is still a lot of work to be done in classifying all human languages properly.
In the case of the most secluded languages, not enough data even exists to make the decision of which family they belong in, so many of them remain unclassified. This, however, is somewhat different to being categorised as a language isolate. Although, it might very well turn out that some of the languages that today remain unclassified will someday discovered to also be language isolates.
What makes isolates different from the unclassifieds, however, is that in their case, plenty of data exists but it simply remains impossible to draw concrete conclusions. Although, as we’ll see later, sometimes breakthroughs do happen.
Several kinds of isolates
Depending on whom you ask, there are between 86 and 129 known language isolates in the world right now. If we characterise each language isolate as their own family, it turns out that type of families will make up around one third of all the world’s language families. But, as is the case with many terms in linguistics, no one seems to be able to agree on what exactly constitutes a language isolate.
In the strictest sense, one should only refer to language isolates in the case where a living, natural language has no known relatives or parent-languages. They’re not known to share a common ancestor with any other known language and, essentially, form a separate language family all on their own. This is the category that holds Basque and Korean, for example.
If you’re taking the more liberal approach, however, the concept expands to include languages whose ancestry is known and who previously had known relatives but whose sister-languages have since died out. Essentially, these languages are a part of a bigger family tree but remain the only living leaf on their branch. Examples for this category include Albanian and Greek.
Of course, there are those who disagree with even this categorisation. Some claim to have discovered the Basque ancestor who’s been missing for centuries and others do the same for the other isolates. None of these theories are widely accepted, however. But the trouble of classification doesn’t even stop there.
Japanese – once an isolate, now a family
Trying to draw distinct borders between modern languages is often a complicated and thankless task. What is one day considered a mere dialect can the next be elevated to the status of a fully fledged language and find their newfound rights stripped away the next. This feature also impacts the general understanding of isolates.
For example, up until recently, Japanese was considered a very exemplary form of a language isolate. Today, however, it’s included in the Japonic language family with the smaller Ryukyuan languages. Funnily enough, these small languages that are spoken on the nearby Ryukyu islands, are actually considered dialects by many on mainland Japan, despite their very limited intelligibility.
But, by working on the similarities between Japanese and Ryukyuan languages, linguists were able to construct the now-extinct Proto-Japanese that must’ve been their mutual ancestor, and so, Japanese is no longer considered isolated. Although, since most of the Ryukyuan languages are in danger of dying out, Japanese might soon join the more liberal class of language isolates.
Will we ever figure out where Basque or Korean came from?
So, if Japanese finally found its family, is there a hope that the same might happen for Basque and Korean as well?
In the case of Korean, for example, plenty of hypotheses have been put forward.
Some link Korean and Jeju, spoken on Korea’s biggest island of the same name, together to form a small Koreanic language family, while others consider Jeju a dialect of Korean. There is also a group of linguists who add Korean to the Altaic language family, although it’s not even entirely certain that language family exists and, many claim that even if it does, Korean definitely doesn’t belong in it. A further theory includes Korean in the Paleosiberian family, although that group is not so much a family, as it is a bunch of straggling languages collected together under one umbrella term.
In any case, a convincing Proto-Korean language has yet to be produced, although it could very well be that in the coming years, one of the presented theories will be proven to be true or that a completely new classification of Korean will emerge.
The case is not any different with the origin of Basque, either. Plenty of theories on the ancestry of Basque exist but all of them remain controversial and none is widely accepted.
So, as you can see, there is ongoing work in the field but, as we mentioned, trying to classify languages is often a complicated task. It’s not certain there will ever be concrete answers but as soon as a groundbreaking discovery takes place, we’ll be sure to let you know!
Conclusion – Language isolates remain a common mystery
It might seem peculiar to think that up to a third of the planet’s languages might not have any known relatives and no clear lineage, but that does seem to be the case. These numbers do make language isolates a rather big mystery. While some languages, like Japanese, do finally get successfully classified, the jury is still very much out on many of the other great language isolates.
However, it’s occasionally nice to come up against a riddle, even in this day and age. Their mystery does bring something distinctly Darwinian into the world of linguistics, clearly mirroring the never-ending quest for the missing link between both our biological and linguistic ancestors.