Euskara, a language isolate

One of the most unique features of the Basque language is its status as a language isolate. A language is considered to be an isolate when we are unable to find common features with other languages that tell us they are part of the same language family. For example, French and Spanish are distinct languages, but have similar sound systems and vocabularies. Thus, linguists are able to propose past sound changes and reconstruct a language that Spanish and French are descended from. With this connection, we say that they are part of the same language family (specifically, they are both Romance languages).

ie_families

Image: The Indo-European Family Tree. This includes Spanish and French, but not Basque, which is an isolate and does not have a family.

Ethnologue, a linguistics website that focuses on cataloging the world’s languages, lists 82 existing isolate languages (1). This means that only 1.1% of the 7,000 languages that exist today are (believed to be) unrelated to any others. Language isolates can arise in a two ways: the language can be created and never split into daughter languages, but merely grow as one language; or the language can be part of a language family where the rest of the family has died away and there is no evidence it ever existed. This means it is often difficult or impossible to tell which circumstance the isolate has arisen from. Studying languages like Basque helps us to further our understanding of its history and come closer to knowing how it came to be a language isolate. Discovering connections between languages and uncovering language change is essential in understanding human language as a whole.

1 https://www.ethnologue.com/subgroups/language-isolate

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2 Responses to Euskara, a language isolate

  1. borges99 says:

    Oso interesgarria!
    Just to elaborate on the concept of language isolate which we might be unconsciously tempted to connect with the concept of minority languages. I’m reading the very useful book ‘Basc per a Catalanoparlants (o de com dues llengües tan diferents s’assemblen tant)’ (Basque for Catalan speakers, or on how such two different languages are so alike), and in 37 the author (Beatriz Fernandez, adaptation by Anna Pineda) warns us that languages isolate don’t need to be minority. For instance, they explain, Korean is a language isolated, but it is spoken by more than 70 millions of people. Other examples of languages isolate they give is burushaski in Pakistan, purepetxa in Michoacan, and warao in Venezuela.
    -Iker Garcia

  2. danielenriquecarballal says:

    Definitely one of the most interesting features of the Basque language. I’m tempted to ask how it is that some words have a strong romance or Germanic connection (kotxe, dantza, etc). Anyways, a very interesting language and article, thanks!

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