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Language Isolates 


Language isolates are languages that have no known historical or linguistic relationship to any other languages. Language isolates can be found in all parts of the world. In some cases, languages are classified as isolates because we know so little about them that we are unable to establish a family relationship, as in the case of some languages of Papua New Guinea. In other cases, the languages are well known and well described, but a family relationship cannot be determined because all their relatives went extinct and have left no record. Such is probably the case of Basque. On the other hand, a language thought to be an isolate may turn out to be related to other languages once scholars agree on the classification scheme. This is the case of Japanese which was considered to be a language isolate until its relationship to Ryukyuan languages was established. As a result,Japanese is now considered to be a member of the Japanese (Japonic) language family. There is also the case of Korean which was considered by scholars to be a language isolate, but today is thought to be a member of the the Altaic language family, and by others a language isolate. Finally, some languages have become isolates in recent times. This happened because all their known relatives have become extinct.

Ethnologue lists 75 language isolates. Of these, 9 are extinct and 8 are on the verge of extinction with fewer than 100 speakers remaining. A good percentage of the languages listed are spoken in remote areas of Papua New Guinea, and the Andean regions of South America. The only large language isolates are Korean with 42 million and Basque with more than 580,000 speakers. The table below lists some of the existing language isolates.

Indonesia and Papua New Guinea
Abinom 300 Indonesia (Papua)
Ainu 15 Hokkaido Island, Japan, Kuril Islands Historically a small closely related family of its own.
Burmeso 250 Indonesia (Papua)
Karkar-Yuri 1,142 Papua New Guinea
Kibiri 1,100 Papua New Guinea
Odiai 244 Papua New Guinea
Yale 600 Papua New Guinea
Burushaski 87,000 Pakistan Possibly related to Yeniseian (Karasuk language family)
Gilyak (Nivkh) 1,089 Russia Far East, lower Amur River basin and on the Sakhalin Islands Palaeosiberian language possibly linked to Chukchi-Kamchatkan.
Nihali 2,000 Maharashtra state of India
South America
Andoque 619 (50 are monolingua) Colombia Possibly belongs to Witotoan language family.
Camsá 4,000 Colombia
Candoshi-Shapra 3,000 Peru May be distantly related to Arawakan
Itonama 10 Bolivia
Leco 20 Bolivia
Movima 1,452 Bolivia
Páez 71,400 to 83,300 Colombia
Puelche 5-6 Argentina
Puinave 2,000 Colombia
Ticuna 25,000 Brazil
Tol 350 Honduras
Trumaí 78 Brazil
Tsimané 5,316 Bolivia
Urarina 3,000 Peru
Waorani 1,650 Ecuador
Warao 18,000 Venezuela
Yuracare 2,675 Bolivia
North America
Kutenai 6 Canada
Yuchi 10-12 U.S.
Zuni 9,651 U.S.
Centúúm 200 Nigeria
Basque 580,000 Spain




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Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Language Isolates?
There is no data on the difficulty of Language Isolates for speakers of English.

13 Responses to Language Isolates

  1. Erin

    Really? There’s no data on the difficulty of language isolates for speakers of English?

    I would think that Korean offers some potential for research on this – large numbers of English language learners take on Korean as a FL.

    (I didn’t know it was an isolate – very interesting.)

    Thank you for the article,

    Language Coach
    Strategic L2

    • Irene Thompson

      There is enough data on Korean to consider it to be about as difficult as Chinese or Japanese, except for the Hangul writing system being easier to learn than the writing systems of Chinese and Japanese. As for its status as a language isolate, it is debated but not resolved. Language isolates are not a uniform category in terms of difficulty for English speakers. Basque, in all probability, is likely to be easier to learn than Korean (my somewhat undereducated guess on this point). Of course, we know nothing about Ainu and how difficult it would be for speakers of English.

      • Yakinoshoya

        Being a Chinese that learns all three – Korean, Japanese and Chinese, I would say Korean is much easier than the other two, and Japanese is much easier than Chinese.

        Both Korean and Japanese are non-tonal, Chinese is.

        Korean has alphabet, Japanese has Hiragana and Katakana to help while Chinese completely tests your memory as there is no other way.

        Chinese is also far harder to write than the other two languages, especially Traditional Chinese – where it is extremely complex.

        The difficulty only gets harder as you enter the world of Chinese dialects with 9 tones which is far worse than Korean or Japanese.

        • Irene Thompson

          Since you are a speaker of Chinese, how can you judge its difficulty?

  2. Chizwa

    I heard that Japanese is easier for English speakers to learn than Chinese or Cantonese because it includes a phonetic alphabet.

    • Irene Thompson

      Japanese has what is probably the most complicated writing system of all languages. It includes the Chinese characters (Kanji) as well as two syllabaries. See our Japanese page. You have to learn all three.

  3. A-1 lock Service

    A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I think that you ought
    to publish more on this subject matter, it may not be
    a taboo subject but generally folks don’t speak about such issues.
    To the next! Many thanks!!

  4. Ransom

    From Northern California to midway up British Columbia, the West Coast of the US and Canada has many language isolates, (which I’m sure you’re aware that the list you’ve posted was not all-inclusive), but: Yana, Kurok, Shastan, etc. Any takes or personal views on Hokan?

    • Irene Thompson

      My somewhat limited understanding is that there is conflicting evidence regarding the status of the Hokan languages with some of them likely to be isolates and other members of possibly familial groupings. I did not include them because of relative concensus on their status which is probably a mistake on my part which I will try to remedy in the future after I fix all the other mistakes, misstatements, and other infelicities on the website. I do sincerely appreciate your interest in these languages. You are welcome to submit a “fix” for the Language Isolates page with regard to the Hokan group of languages.

  5. Mikel Perez Diez de Ulzurrun

    Some data about Basque is wrong; it has more than 720,000 speakers and it’s not only spoken in Spain but in France too. Just look the facts on Wikipedia.

    • Irene Thompson

      According to the latest version of Ethnologue, there are 468,000 Basque speakers in Spain (European Commission 2012) and 76,200 in France, with a population total of 545,872. However, the data in Wikipedia, based on a soiolinguistic survey of Basque, gives the numbers at 663,035 in the Spanish part of the Basque Country and 51,100 in the French part with a total of 714,136. We will be happy to make the changes.

      Just as a pointer, it is more appropriate to say something like “Your data shows some discrepancies with the data in Wikipedia”: rather than saying “…data is wrong”. A proper etiquette in conducting this type of conversation goes a long way. But we do thank you for the comment.

  6. 10

    Korean has 78million speakers. I think you’ve not included North Koreans and Korean speakers in China


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