Isolates: The unique, vanishing languages that hold secrets about how we think

Isolates: The unique, vanishing languages that hold secrets about how we think

The Chimané individuals have supplied insights into the facility of quantity phrases

REUTERS/David Mercado

LAST February, amid the fjords of southern Chile, an aged girl died – and a language fell silent. Cristina CalderÓn, a much-loved 93-year-old, was the final recognized native speaker of Yaghan, which might at one time be heard throughout the Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Hearth – that types the jagged tip of South America. The lack of any tongue is a tragedy, however Yaghan’s extinction can be felt significantly keenly as a result of this was no strange language. It was an “isolate”: a language completely distinct from these used anyplace else on the earth.

Language isolates comprise about 200 of the estimated 7400 languages in use immediately and plenty of are dangerously near following Yaghan into oblivion. Estimates recommend that 30 per cent of all languages can have vanished by the tip of the century. Isolates – some utilized by just some hundred individuals – are significantly weak.

However as their vulnerability has risen, so has an consciousness that isolates can inform us so much about human communication and cognition. Prior to now few years alone, they’ve supplied us contemporary perception into the interaction between cultural and linguistic evolution and supplied assist for a controversial speculation that hyperlinks our understanding of actuality with the language we use. “Every of those isolates is a… entire completely different window on the thoughts,” says Lyle Campbell on the College of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

What’s extra, there’s new hope that the analysis may additionally establish higher methods to assist us save them from extinction. …

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