When reading about rare or antique languages I often came across statements like "the most widespread / widely accepted theory is that it is an isolated language". You can read that for example in wikipedia for Basque, Korean or maybe Albanian. The reasons given are often like: "there are no clear evidences for the contrary" My question is, if it is really a valid zero-hypotheses to assume a language isolate? To me it seems that such a reasoning is rather subject to scientific "fashions" and that at the moment its quite fashionable to claim isolates, rather then relation. Any educated opinion on that?

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    Well, logically, "non-isolate" is equivalent to "belongs to a language family", where the "family", obviously, have some other members (probably, extinct so far). The language in question should, logically, have short Linguistic Distance to at least one another language. If one is not found, this can count as a valid zero-hypothese. Make sense? Apr 21, 2016 at 18:37
  • This is as far as I can see the line of arguments often to be encountered in modern linguistic texts. At the same time for (almost) all of the cases there seem to be claims of evidence of the contrary (any judgment about correctness is far above my competence). And then looking at the evolution of languages it seems to me more far stretched to really find evidence for isolation than for the "normal" case of "belongs to a language family". The question is if there is dissent on the evaluation of linguistic distance or if there is prejudice on the linguistic distance in general (the community). Apr 21, 2016 at 18:50
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    The problem with saying "it's not an isolate" is the null hypothesis is that this isn't actually a single hypothesis. It could be related to various other languages in a variety of ways. If we don't know which one or how they are related, it makes sense to fall back to "isolate" as the default option. Apr 21, 2016 at 20:11
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    BTW, Albanian (the language spoken in Albania, there may be others with the same or similar name) is Indogermanic. Apr 22, 2016 at 10:05

2 Answers 2


It's not at all clear what the term "language isolate" means: one could think it means that the language is not related to any other known language. People mistakenly say "not related" when they mean "I can't show that it is related", in other words people sometimes confuse lack of evidence and knowledge of non-relationship. As long as you understand "language isolate" to mean "insufficient evidence to justify a claim of relatedness", then it's obviously the only valid null hypothesis, until one gains evidence to support a claim of relationship.

  • Yes, that makes sense! At the same time I (as an utter layman) would question such a close association of "no evidence" and "no relation", since it is in my (probably poor) understanding not clear what in the end really is the most "un-guilty" null-hypotheses. Apr 21, 2016 at 18:57
  • Somewhere I saw the example given of whether there is a chocolate covered football in the asteroid belt, which no evidence rules out, yet many people would say about it that, no, there isn't one. I gather that you would be among those very few who would say of the chocolate football, well, we don't know for sure -- we'll just have to wait and see.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 21, 2016 at 19:14
  • Greg, I'm not one of those people who thinks that existence is determined by belief of knowledge. Are you? I don't give any consideration to arbitrary claims.
    – user6726
    Apr 21, 2016 at 20:45

A more complete argument would read: We compared Basque to the Indogermanic, Semitic, Finno-Ugric, and the Caucasian language families as well as to the Etrucsan language and found no provable connections.

A "famous" language like Basque was probably also compared to Dravidian, Athabascan, Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dene (with no provable connection), but somewhere comparison always stops. Usually, "isolated" languages are compared to the geographically plausible neighbours, not to all known language families and isolate languages of the world.

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