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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?

3 Answers 3

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Yes.

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.

List

See also Wikipedia's partial list.

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    @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. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 3:03
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    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. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 4:45
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    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). Commented Mar 4, 2013 at 8:29
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    @Anixx: Plenty of linguists doubt this. Check Koreo-Japonica by Vovin, A.
    – jogloran
    Commented Mar 14, 2013 at 6:48
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    Hi @hippietrail in 2014 I was in Okinawa with native Japanese speakers who were hearing Okinawan for the first time... they had no idea what was being said! Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 0:02
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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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  • Another interesting one I came across is Bai. They haven't been able to decide if it's a Sinitic language or the Sino-Tibetan language most closely related to the Sinitic languages. Being so similar to Sinitic languages and having lots of loanwords makes it difficult to untangle. Definitely not an isolate but reading your answer again reminded me of it. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 8:13
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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. Commented Mar 3, 2013 at 23:24
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    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." thefreedictionary.com/language+isolate Commented Mar 8, 2013 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
    Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:29
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    @Anixx: I don't see how conjectured affiliations would somehow make the concept of a language isolate, a language with no known affiliations, vague. Please explain. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:38
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    @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. Commented Mar 8, 2013 at 4:41

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