What is the process of proving a new language is in fact a language -- and that it is a "new" unclaimed language within linguistics?

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    "Unclaimed"? Who exactly is claiming languages? What for? Oct 15, 2011 at 16:59
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    @JSBᾶngs: For example, it's my understanding that linguist Judy Shepard-Kegl discovered Nicaraguan Sign Language. To discover a new language one must be able to make the claim it is new, or previously unclaimed language.
    – blunders
    Oct 15, 2011 at 17:16
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    @blunders The SIL isn't the authority - there is no official authority on this - but they're certainly a good place to start asking, since they do an awful lot of fieldwork in remote places where new languages are likely to turn up. Oct 15, 2011 at 22:46
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    SIL do produce the Ethnologue, which attempts to catalogue all known living languages. It fails to do this impossible task of course, but it's a good reference. Oct 15, 2011 at 23:24
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    @blunders, while the Ethnologue is useful for checking if a language has been 'discovered', many languages listed there are not yet documented - they are know OF, but not known ABOUT. But, the Ethnologue generally only lists works by SIL authors, so it's hard to gauge the extent of prior work from that. You are better off checking something like OLAC, the Open Language Archives Community, to see if any work has been done on a particular language. Linguists don't really care about being the first to 'discover' that a language exists - it's much more exciting to actually start working on it! Oct 16, 2011 at 4:01

1 Answer 1


There are two parts to your question:

  1. Proving a newly-discovered language is in fact a language.
  2. Proving a newly-discovered language is in fact newly-discovered.

Let's look at each of these in turn.

It's Actually a Language

Proving that what you've discovered is actually a language isn't something that comes up often. Generally, when you've found that people somewhere are using some method of communicating, you can assume it's actually language. If you're not sure whether this method you've found is a full language or not, see if it can communicate any arbitrary meaning.

If what you've found isn't a full language, you'll discover that it can't communicate any arbitrary meaning, just those few meanings that it's already equipped for.

For example, if you're dealing with the beginnings of a trade pigin, you might find that it only has words for concepts related to trade, and that there's no way to say something like "My mother's foot is hurting.". Or if you're looking at a form of proto-writing, you might find that it only has a limited set of symbols that can't encode the whole spoken language of the community.

But if what you're dealing with is a full language (in any medium), it will be able to communicate any concept. Some concepts might have to be explained at length, but the language will have the tools to be able to communicate them.

It's Newly Discovered

Proving that a language is newly-discovered is essentially the same as proving that no one else has ever documented it. All it takes is one example of someone else documenting it previously, and then you're not the discoverer.

The easiest way to do this is to publish your findings on this new language, saying that you're unaware of any previous work on the subject. If others deserve credit for documenting this language before you, I imagine they'll speak up.

But there's no sure way to prove that no one has documented the language before. There's no one worldwide repository of language documentation. You could be writing on some language in the Himalayas, only to find many years later some forgotten Russian journal from the 1800s with documentation of the same language.

The best you can say is that as far as you know, you're the first person to actually document this language.

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    Good answer. I'd add one more step, though: proving that the language is distinct enough from its known relatives to be treated as a separate language. This comes up pretty often in fieldwork -- you start working in a new village, you discover that people don't speak quite the same way in this village as in the next one over, and then the question is "Are these separate languages or dialects of the same language?" Oct 15, 2011 at 22:45
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    I'd add that you would also check with linguists who are familiar with the area and/or language family. Oct 15, 2011 at 23:29

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