Language Isolates Part I

Why should a language have any relatives? Like many historical linguistis, I was trained in the tacit assumption that languages belong in families. Large families were seen as ‘normal’; tiny families were problems requiring further work; and isolates were a positive embarassment: Basque and Burushaski were regarded with some amazement, if not with consternation. How could such things exist?

R. Trask, ‘Why should a language have any relatives?’

Language isolates are arguably the most interesting phenomenon in historical linguistics, and their geographic dispersion is equally fascinating – and very revealing. We can think of isolates as providing a deep link to the past of a certain region.

Let us take what is probably the best known example of a language isolate, or at least the one that immediately comes to the mind of speakers of Western European languages: Basque (Euskara). Basque has several characteristics that are typical of language isolates: it is spoken by a (relatively) small community, its geographic extension is very constrained, and it is surrounded by an “ocean” of other languages that can all be linked to larger and more widespread families (in this case, all of them are Indo-European).

How did this situation come to be? One hypothesis is that language isolates were once part of a larger language family, until all the other members died out or were absorbed by neighbouring languages. Luckily, in the case of Basque, we have written records from the Roman era (mainly personal names) that confirm that a language related to Basque was spoken in a (not much) wider area. There is also toponymical evidence of that. This hypothetical language family of which Basque would be the last remnant is called Aquitanian (the name the Romans gave to the people of the area). The Aquitanian languages were gradually replaced by the language of the Roman conquerors, until the last member of the family – Basque – ended up surrounded by Spanish, on one side, and French, on the other.

Basque is a “survivor” of a hypothetical language family, Aquitanian. Its sister languages were wiped out, probably first by the Celtic languages. These, in their turn, were later largely replaced by Romance (in France and Iberia) and Germanic (in the British Isles). The modern “patchy” distribution of Celtic languages resembles the geographical situation of isolates: the last remaining islands in an ocean that consists of layer over layer of past expansions.

However, this is where we get to an interesting point of the story. Before the Roman armies brought their language to France and the Iberian peninsula, Aquitanian languages were already surrounded by other languages of the Indo-European family: the Celtic languages. These were spoken by the Gauls, to the east, and by the Celtiberians, to the west. In fact, Celtic languages were once spoken over a large part of Western Europe, including all of the British Isles. They must have expanded over other languages and language families that may or may not have been related to Aquitanian, but the fact is that, by Roman times, Aquitanian was already a “survivor” of previous language spreads. Geography, of course, helped – as we will see, many language isolates are spoken in mountainous areas, islands, or other locations of difficult access, the “residual zones” of Nichols.

Seven words in Basque


Basque is completely different from surrounding languages of the Indo-European family. Even a glimpse at those languages, without any prior etymological knowledge, shows their remarkable similarity after six thousand (or more) years of divergence. Comparing seven basic words from a Germanic, a Romance and a Celtic language makes the contrast with Basque obvious (see above). Irish iasc lost the initial *p from PIE. Fulllleno and lán are actually cognates (from PIE *plh1nos). The position of Basque as an outlier is also clear in its morphology and syntax. For example, consider a sentence such as “you are taking me”. This would be constructed similarly in other Indo-European languages: just compare Spanish tu me llevas and German du nimmst mich. Basque, on the other hand, can be more synthetic, marking the object in the verb. The same sentence would be naramazu, where na– is the first person patient. Basque is also an ergative language, unlike its neighbours. These grammatical peculiarities, beyond the simple divergence in vocabulary, are an important feature of many language isolates.

How far back in time can the origin of Basque go? Although it is tempting to bring it as far back as the Palaeolithic, genetically the Basques appear to be closer to Neolithic farmers, with some admixture with the previous settlers. Of course, that implies that Renfrew’s hypothesis is definitively incorrect and the Indo-European language spread cannot be linked to the Neolithic… or can it? This introductory post is certainly not the place to discuss such controversies (I might do it in the future when writing specifically about Eurasia). What is important to retain is that, as the lesson of Basque shows, we can take the distribution of language isolates (as well as very small language families) as a point of departure, remove layers over layers of more recent language spreads, and uncover deep linguistic prehistory (by the way, a lot of the ideas about Basque and language isolates that are expressed here can be read in much more detail in this paper by Lyle Campbell). The next posts on isolates will be dedicated to map their distributions in different continents and try to make sense of them.

Perhaps a good (though unusual) place to start is South America.

3 thoughts on “Language Isolates Part I”

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