Basque & Sumerian dopers: How can there be a true language isolate?

Some have said (wikipedia) that some languages, like Basque or Sumerian, are linguistical isolates, that have no known related language.

This fascinates me in a twllight zone kind of way.

Are these isolates really isolated and without relative? How could they be so? Did the Basque people move into their country before the invention of language, and while evolving, make everything up? Wouldn’t their language be even more different to non-speakers?

I ask because it is hard for me to believe that there would have been any people so isolated that in the dawn of humanity, they would be free to make their language alone.

So how much of an isolate is a language isolate?

My guess would be that they settled into their original regions in a relatively early wave of settlement, and that originally, they did speak a related language to their neighbors. But then, another wave of settlers came, speaking a different language, and wiped out almost all of the original settlers. Only the few who lived in particularly well-defended places survived and kept the Old Tongue, while surrounded by the New Lingo invaders.

“invaders ate my lingo!”

It’s not that Basque originated by itself, it’s that it’s the only survivor of a language group all the rest of whose members are now extinct. This language group originated so long ago that it’s relationships with other modern language groups can no longer be identified.

I think language isolates are without living relative, rather than just without relative. The standard hypothesis is that Basque (say) had many relatives at some point in the prehistorical past, but due to migrations and large influxes of people to the area (in this case, the Indo-Aryan migration), all of the languages that were related to Basque died out, either via out-competition, assimilation, or outright warfare. If these migrations predated the adoption of a writing system, we wouldn’t have any evidence of Basque’s long-lost relatives.

Sumerian hasn’t been spoken since before the writing of the Bible. It’s been reconstructed by archaeologists. (Interestingly, the last pre-Persian king of Babylonia, Nabonidus, was interested in antiquities, and much of what we know about Sumeria derives from what his people found.)

That said, ‘language isolates’ is not a descriptor of fact so much as it is a lack of knowledge. If there is a connection between the Basque dialects and some other group (I’ve seen Kartvelian [‘Caucasian’ languages such as Georgian] and Dravidian [non-Indo-European languages mostly from South India] mentioned as possible relatives), it is so far back, and the languages have evolved in their own isolated directions so much since then, that it’s not easily provable if at all.

Bottom line is that a language isolate is simply a language that is sufficiently different from other known languages that there is no consensus that it is related to them. When I first ran into the so-called ‘Paleosiberian languages’, Ket, spoken on the Yenesei River, was considered an isolate, with only extinct relatives. With further study, it’s now considered a distant relative of the Athabascan languages, otherwise mostly Native American.

Our current ability to trace language connections is limited to about 5,000 - 10,000 years in the past. Although some (the late Joseph Greenberg of Stanford, for one) claimed to have linked all known language families together, that work is highly controversial.

But it is quite likely that all language are related, it’s just that we don’t know how to prove it. Yet.

How ancient must it have necessarily been? The Basque region is surrounded on one side by France and the other by Spain, which now speak languages descended from Latin, obviously a result of the Roman conquest of Gaul and Iberia. All that’s necessary is that it pre-dated the Roman conquest and its speakers were passed over or ignored by the Romans, I’d imagine.

It’s not just different from its neighbors, it’s not even Indo-European. It’s much more different from French or Spanish than Hindi is. Since Proto-Indo-European had broken up into the precursors of its various branches by 4500 years ago, Basque must have diverged considerably before that.

The roots of the Basque may be traced as far back as the Artenacian culture, c. 2500 B.C., who (along with much of what is now western France and the Iberian peninsula) may have spoken some kind of pre-proto-Basque, which later evolved into Aquitani, then to Basque.

The Artenacians were archers and, despite Marija Gimbutas’s assertion that these “Old Europeans” were not warlike, they seem to have halted the advance of the PIE speakers. For centuries, these people held their own during the Celtic expansions. Later, during Roman times, their descendants were largely ignored while other presumably non-IE languages like Etruscan died out. So now we have Basque.

The evidence for much of the above is scant, but it does agree with what we know of the historical record, and it provides a path for how a language might become an isolate.

There’s speculation that Basque may have been related to the language(s) of the “Iberian” peoples who inhabited the Iberian Peninsula before the Celts moved in, and remained extant in part of it when Greek, Roman, and Punic explorers arrived. But iittle is known of what they spoke. Likewise, the language of the city called Tartesssos in Greek records and Tarshish in the Bible, located on the estuary of the Guadalquivir River at the opposite extreme of the country from the Basque Provinces, which did have a written language (not yet deciphered).

Others have suggested a connection to the Etruscans, on what grounds I do not know.

But in the absence of factual information about the Iberians and the Tartessians, this can only be speculative.

For those playing along at home, this isn’t a terrible map of the area and of the languages known to have been spoken there around 200 B.C.

I read years ago that the ancient migrations followed predictable patterns, along the paths of least resistance as determined by the landscape. Each eventually just petering out, sooner or later. As it happens, the ancestors of the Basques settled at an end point in that natural migration pattern, and apparently all of the later migrations either didn’t reach that far, or weren’t strong enough to destroy them when it did. So yes, that seems to be what happened; although being someplace that most of the migrations never even got as far as probably helped as much as defensibility.


I thought it was generally accepted the Biblical Tarshish was Carthage, which is in modern Libya, nowhere near the Basques.

Another thing that needs to be emphasized is that there is no such thing as a true language isolate. All languages are related if you go far back enough (or at least that’s the standard assumption). All current languages are descended from some first language perhaps 100,000 years ago (or at least that’s the standard assumption). What is called a language isolate is one that has no common ancestor with another current language from which they are both descended less than about 10,000 years ago. Any two languages with a common ancestor from less than about 10,000 years ago are probably close enough that we could find a relationship between them and put them in the same language family.

There’s a Jewish tradition that Tarshish is Carthage, but there’s another popular theory that Tarshish is Tartessos, which was major city in what’s now southern Spain.

I thought the date of 100,000 years ago was attributed to Greenberg, whose hypothesis is not generally accepted. Can you give more details about who comes up with that date and how well accepted it is?

I’m wondering if it’s something “grounds up” (tracing existing languages backwards) or just “tops down” (starting with the assumption that full articulate speech appeared about 100,000 years ago based on archeological data).

This Wikipedia entry says 100,000 to 150,000 years ago:

The precise date isn’t important to the point I was making, so I don’t feel like discussing it.

Soulfrost, that shows the Vascones (ancestral Basques) as ethnic relatives of the Aquitani. Is that proven? Big news paleo-ethnically if it is.

DT, as I understand it, the Basques were not so much at the end of a migration route as they were ensconsed in an easily defensible mountain-and-valley stronghold area, which fostered their survival (and their isolation from assimilation by the other cultures).

I have to say that’s a very weak, defensive response to an honest question in GQ.

If it’s “the standard assumption”, you should be able to support it with more than a link to a 10 page wikipedia page w/o a quote to the actual part that applies to the question. BTW, I did a search for “150,000” on that page and didn’t get any results.