What Are Language Isolates, And Does India Have Any?

What Are Language Isolates, And Does India Have Any?
Language isolates are often disputed due to lack of data. But India has strong contenders, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

We all know that India is a melting pot of cultures. But are you only looking at the cream on top?

Nayanika Mukherjee
September 30 , 2021
07 Min Read

India’s 2011 Census recognised 1369 ‘rationalised mother tongues’ that were a part of the country’s cultural fabric. Out of this 1,369, 121 were declared as legitimate languages, with over 10,000 native speakers. But did you know that an additional 1,474 names were left as ‘unclassified’? They were relegated to ‘other’ mother tongue status, devoid of further research. We don’t blame the surveyors for this. It’s just one of the many administrative upheavals when trying to map out the framework of a staggeringly diverse country. 

The original dataset recorded by the census had revealed 19,569 ‘raw’ mother tongue affiliates, which had then been narrowed down to a more manageable 1369. Given how wide the historical (and thus, linguistic) influences are in our country—we borrow from roughly six, widely-accepted language families—as well as our complex geography, the presence of a language isolate—a tongue with no connection to other known languages—seems quite probable. But how are they created?

The Basics

Language isolates are naturally-developed speech forms that have no strong genetic link or common ancestry with other languages. In the way certain species in the animal kingdom are the only members of their genus, language isolates can also be considered the only members of a very exclusive family. If there’s only one surviving member of a once-large family, they become an isolate. Greek, Albanian, Armenian are common 'survivor' examples of Indo-European isolates. Japanese and Korean were also considered language isolates, but are today linked with older regional dialects to form the Japonic and Koreanic families respectively. Korean also has a suspiciously large vocabulary in common with Tamil

Korean, once considered a language isolate, now stars in the Koreanic language family along with regional dialects and extinct relatives

Do experts agree with identifying dialects as languages, just to find something in common and create a family? Not always. But establishing some form of genetic commonality does help further research that either proves it or debunks it once and for all. 

Alternatively, language isolates can also form as a thief's argot—a secret language created for private communication within a mixed community. They also can develop when a community is geographically cut off from the outside world. And finally, language isolates are often synonymous with ‘unclassified’ languages: ones that ended up as unidentified despite multiple research attempts. This can happen when a language split off from a cousin so long ago, that there’s no way to trace back the lineage. 

Can you imagine then, how many isolates might be lurking in the 1,474 ‘other’s from our census?

Indian Language Isolates

Nihali (also known as Nahali or Nehali) is the only widely-accepted language isolate from India. Spoken by the Nihal tribe, who live along the Tapti river in northeastern Maharashtra and southwestern Madhya Pradesh, it has between 2,000 to 2,500 speakers today. The community numbers about 5,000 and is mostly found in villages in the Jalgaon Jamod division of Buldhana district. 

An endangered tongue, Nihali was often confused with Korku, a neighbouring tribal language with a strong influence, but is now clearly recognised as an isolate. Many of its tribesmen do speak Korku, but use Hindi used as a contact language, and Nihali as a secret anti-language.

Research is underway to create a Devanagari-based script for Nihali, but interpreting its grammar has been the difficulty. According to the Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Nihali is one of 42 critically-endangered languages in India. As the only isolate in that list, documentation might prove doubly difficult—it’s not a strong suit in our country anyway.

Burushaski (also known as Khajuna) is another language for which linguists can’t find links to other families. Spoken by the Burusho people, who are a Scheduled Tribe under the Government of India, this makes the language an isolate until further notice. 

Burusho women in Hunza Valley, Pakistan

As of 2019, Burushaski had 100,000 speakers in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, with linguist Sadaf Munshi noting about 350 speakers in Jammu and Kashmir. Indian Burushos speak a different dialect, on which Munshi has written a book. A small settlement of Burushaski speakers can be found near Batamaloo and Botraj Mohalla, near the Hari Parbat fort that overlooks Srinagar. 

Sentinelese is an Andamanese language speculated to be an isolate, as it falls in the ‘unclassified’ category. Spoken by the indigenous tribe of North Sentinel Island, not much is known about its linguistic framework, since the islanders—numbering up to 100, according to the government—are hostile towards outsiders.

Sentinelese is presumed to be linked to the Ongan group of languages, which includes the famous Jarawa tribe. However, when an Onge speaker was actually taken to North Sentinel Island for an attempt at communication, the two languages were found to be unintelligible to each other. 

Aerial view of North Sentinel Island. Current (and verified) images that can speak for the Sentinelese tribe's numbers, are almost non-existent

Great Andamanese is a language family different from the Ongan group. In the 1700s, the family had 10 closely-linked subdivisions—one for each tribe—but the number reduced to three due to the arrival of the British, immigrant settlers, and indentured labourers in the Great Andaman archipelago. A new, mixed language called Aka-Jero (based off the Aka-Jeru language, one of the original 10) is spoken by some of the islanders today. 

Some scholars call this new tongue ‘Present Great Andamanese’. Anvita Abbi, a linguistics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, noted seven speakers for it in 2006, observing that Aka-Jero came out only with a ‘great amount of coaxing’ or when needed as a secret language, with those under 40 preferring to talk in Hindi, Bengali and Tamil. If Aka-Jero as a creole tongue is the only surviving member of the Great Andamanese family—the other 10 are extinct—then it should also qualify as a language isolate.   

If whistled languages can be considered isolates—since they mostly develop in societies cut off by hilly terrain from the outside world—then the jingrwai ïawbei is somewhat of a contender. Found in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya, its whistled melodies are unique, with every villager in the Khat-ar Shnong area having his own tune from birth. These faint hums can be up to a minute long, vary with households, and are not repeated after a villager’s death. The Khat-ar Shnong region has 23 villages housing 12 Khasi clans, of which Kongthong village is the most famous.

What is the future for language isolates?

While the likes of Nihali and Burushaski aren’t at risk of extinction yet, India still has 197 endangered languages that need preservation. As has been pointed out in the past, our government’s refusal to recognise speech forms with less than 10,000 speakers as languages strips several communities of dignity, economy and prioritised research opportunities. Without an empowered seat at the table, speakers of language isolates can then be forced into a compromise, having to invest their energy in learning an ‘accepted’ language instead of their mother tongue.

As any language fades, so does its oral knowledge, contextual flavours and community heritage. We’ve seen it in the 10 tribes of the Great Andaman. Here’s hoping there won’t be a repeat.

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