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 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
Gilyak (Nivkh) 1,089 Russia Far East, lower Amur River basin and on the Sakhalin Islands A 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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  • Basque
  • Korean


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  • Basque
  • Korean


Language Difficulty

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