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I know there are many languages from many families besides just Mandarin Chinese and its close relatives within China.

But I was wondering if China has at least one language isolate within its borders.

If more than one, which has the most speakers?

If there are none, is there one language that is "least related" to other languages of the world?

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up vote 4 down vote accepted


Korean [kor]

There are roughly 2,000,000 Koreans living in China. Ethnologue lists 1,920,000 Korean speakers in China as of the 2000 census. (Not sure whether that counts North Korean refugees.)

Korean is an isolate (assuming you don't accept it as Altaic). Wikipedia says, "With over 78 million speakers, Korean has more speakers than all other language isolates combined." So Korean wins.

Chinese Sign Language [csl]

Wikipedia lists it as an isolate. There are probably other local sign language isolates, presumably undocumented or poorly documented. ISO 639-3 considers it two languages, the other being hks.


See also Wikipedia's partial list.

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Of course! When I was thinking of asking this question I thought Korean could be included, but I forgot to mention it when I actually wrote the question. The claim for Korean being the biggest language isolate sounds iffy to me. It relies on forcing both interpretations that Ryūkyū-go is too different from Japanese for it to count as an isolate but that Jeju-mal is too similar to Korean for it to not count as an isolate. (Then of course there's the possibility they're all related via Goguryeo...) – hippietrail Jan 6 '13 at 0:01
@hippietrail: Ethnologue consideres Ryukyuan to be 11 separate languages; I don't think it's a tenable claim that (say) Miyako is the same language as Japanese. – Mechanical snail Jan 6 '13 at 3:03
Ethnologue is well known to err on both sides. They claim what are regarded as single languages to be groups of languages and they claim what are regarded as groups of languages to be single languages. Probably because they are an organization made up of many people with differing views they have both lumpers and splitters, like anywhere in linguistics. I wouldn't count them as inherently either more or less authoritative than sources that claim Ryukuan as dialects of Japanese or ones that claim Jeju-mal is a distinct language from Korean. Etc. – hippietrail Jan 6 '13 at 4:45
Ryukyuanists consider Ryukyuan to consist of five distinct languages and to together form a branch of the Japonic language family; see here. The claim that they are dialects of Japanese is essentially a political claim; linguists have for some time considered them to be distinct languages (in the linguistic sense). – Gaston Ümlaut Mar 4 '13 at 8:29
Korean is a close relative of Japanese. The claim that it is an isolate is just a nationalist myth at best. No linguist doubts this. – Anixx Mar 8 '13 at 4:36

According to Wikipedia, there are no isolates in China (with the exception of Korean).

However, there are several languages having disputable or unclear taxonomy within the Tibeto-Burman language philum.

First, there is (or, rather, had been spoken) Zhanzhung, an ancient sacred language of Tibetan Bön tradition which had existed in Tibet long before the Buddhist period. There is also an old Kuznetsov's theory (1988) of Tibet having some links with Sumerian culture, and since Sumerian is considered by most linguists to be an isolate, the idea of possible discoveries/researches suggests itself.

Second, there are Nungish languages spoken in Yunnan province and forming 'a poorly described family of uncertain affiliation within the Tibeto-Burman languages'. Given the vast propensity of any nations to be sinoficated within the Han borders (consider e.g. the history and background of Hui muzlims an Jews in China), it is unclear whether these languages are related to the Sino-Tibetan stock or just represent a local language union.

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"Language isolate" is a vague term. For nearly all languages in the world there are conjectured affiliations. For example, Etruscan is supposed to be Eurasiatic, Basque is supposed to belong to Dene-Caucasian and so on.

For all languages in China it is known that they are either Dene-Caucasian or Nostratic. The same can be said about Russia and Europe.

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I think "supposed" is a much more vague term. The consensus among linguists is that Dene-Caucasian and Nostratic have no basis. – hippietrail Mar 3 '13 at 23:24
I don't see what's so vague about the notion of a language isolate: "A language that has no known linguistic affiliation with any other language, such as Basque or Tarascan." – James Grossmann Mar 8 '13 at 0:39
@hippietrail in that case you should provive a list of macrofamilies that you accept or not. For Nostratic there is consensus that it has basis. – Anixx Mar 8 '13 at 4:29
@James Grossmann I already said that for Basque there are conjectured affiliations. For Purepecha there are indeed no known affiliations. – Anixx Mar 8 '13 at 4:34
@Anixx: I would defer to the consensus of the linguistics community. As for the difference between a conjectured X and a known X, I thinks it's pretty clear in the light of common sense. – James Grossmann Mar 8 '13 at 4:41

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