Language Islands — On Language Isolates

Imagine a map showing the languages of the world, not in a ‘where they are spoken’ sense, but more rather, based on how closely is one related to another. We would see the vast continents of Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Niger-Congo, some large islands like the Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric, and then we have the remotest of islands, far from any other. With no land connections to other islands, these islands and islets are isolated. Basque, Mapudungun, Korean and Ainu all are found scattered in these regions. These are what we are going to talk about in this post, language isolates.

When we draw a family tree of languages, there are occasionally times when a language is found to have no demonstrable relationship with any other language. They do not seem to have an ancestor common to any other language, and are more rather considered as their own language family. They are spoken all over the world, numbering from a dozen speakers to some 80 million. Many of these are endangered or moribund, with no signs of revival or revitalisation, but sometimes it is easy to figure out why.

Often we would find few speakers of language isolates, sometimes it is due to geographical factors or social factors. For example, the heavily forested areas in Papua New Guinea allowed small tribes to form, speaking their own language completely unrelated to other languages in that area. For a long time, these tribes were uncontacted by other tribes, and their language remains uninfluenced by other cultures. Such languages include Abinomn, Pyu and Isirawa. However, the languages of Papua New Guinea are quite poorly studied, thus thorough knowledge in the relationship between these languages are not established as of yet. Thus, undoubtedly, this classification of the languages of Papua New Guinea would change once more data have been gathered.

Another factor we would discuss here is the assimilation of the dominant language which replaces their indigenous language. One example is the Ainu language spoken in Hokkaido and formerly Sakhalin island. Although thousands of ethnic Ainu remain on Hokkaido, only a few hundred could speak the language to some standard. This may be due to the pressure to assimilate Japanese to communicate with the Japanese, and over time, the ethnic Ainu did not learn their native tongue. Revitalisation of this moribund language is now underway, however, through radio programs and the Ainu cultural center all based in Hokkaido.

Language isolates still thrive in some areas, however. Such languages include Basque (or Euskara), spoken in the Basque country of north-eastern Spain. In fact, Basque is the second-most spoken language isolate in the world, at around 750,000 speakers, vastly trailing behind Korean at 80 million speakers. Behind these two languages would be Mapudungun, a language isolate spoken in Chile and Argentina, with a total of about a quarter of a million speakers. These languages form a distinct and unique identity in their speakers, standing out in their regional counterparts, like how the Basque identity stands out in the Iberian peninsula, dominated by the Romance languages.

To conclude, language isolates would be quite interesting to study, as learning each one involves going through a unique, refreshing experience like none other, quite literally. Each language represents their own distinct culture, way of life and how they view the world (in which I would be criticised for having read The Language Hoax by McWhorter). I would be sharing my learning experience in Korean in a month or so, so stay tuned.

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