Unclassified language

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An unclassified language is a language whose genetic affiliation to other languages has not been established. Languages can be unclassified for a variety of reasons, mostly due to a lack of reliable data[1] but sometimes due to the confounding influence of language contact, if different layers of its vocabulary or morphology point in different directions and it is not clear which represents the ancestral form of the language.[2] Some poorly known extinct languages, such as Gutian and Cacán, are simply unclassifiable, and it is unlikely the situation will ever change.

A supposedly unclassified language may turn out not to be a language at all, or even a distinct dialect, but merely a family, tribal or village name, or an alternative name for a people or language that is classified.

If a language's genetic relationship has not been established after significant documentation of the language and comparison with other languages and families, as in the case of Basque in Europe, it is considered a language isolate – that is, it is classified as a language family of its own. An 'unclassified' language therefore is one which may still turn out to belong to an established family once better data is available or more thorough comparative research is done. Extinct unclassified languages for which little evidence has been preserved are likely to remain in limbo indefinitely, unless lost documents or a surviving speaking population are discovered.

Classification challenges[edit]

An example of a language that has caused multiple problems for classification is Mimi of Decorse in Chad. This language is only attested in a single word list collected ca. 1900. At first it was thought to be a Maban language, because of similarities to Maba, the first Maban language to be described. However, as other languages of the Maban family were described, it became clear that the similarities were solely with Maba itself, and the relationship was too distant for Mimi to be related specifically to Maba and not equally to the other Maban languages. The obvious similarities are therefore now thought to be due to borrowings from Maba, which is the socially dominant language in the area. When such loans are discounted, there is much less data to classify Mimi with, and what does remain is not particularly similar to any other language or language family. Mimi might therefore be a language isolate, or perhaps a member of some other family related to Maban in the proposed but as yet undemonstrated Nilo-Saharan phylum. It would be easier to address the problem with better data, but no-one has been able to find speakers of the language again.

It also happens that a language may be unclassified within an established family. That is, it may be obvious that it is, say, a Malayo-Polynesian language, but not clear in which branch of Malayo-Polynesian it belongs. When a family consists of many similar languages with great degree of confusing contact, a large number of languages may be effectively unclassified in this manner. Families where this is a substantial problem include Malayo-Polynesian, Bantu, Pama–Nyungan, and Arawakan.

Examples by reason[edit]

There are hundreds of unclassified languages, most of them extinct, although there are some, albeit relatively few, that are still spoken; in the following list, the extinct languages are labeled with a dagger (†).

Absence of data[edit]

These languages are unclassifiable, not just unclassified, because while there may be record of a language existing there may not be enough materials in it to analyze and classify, especially with now-extinct languages. (See, for example, a list of unclassified languages of South America.)

  • Sentinelese (Andaman Islands)[note 1] – a living presumed language of an uncontacted people
  • Weyto† (Ethiopia)
  • Nam† (Chinese–Tibetan border) – data remains undeciphered
  • Harappan† (Indus Valley civilisation 33rd–13th centuries BC)[note 2] – data remains undeciphered
  • Cypro-Minoan† (Cyprus 15th–10th centuries BC) – data remains undeciphered
  • Lullubi† (Iran)
  • Hamba† (Tanzania)[note 3]
  • Guale† and Yamasee† (US)
  • Himarimã (Brazil) – a living presumed language of an uncontacted people
  • Nagarchal† (India) – assumed to have been Dravidian

Scarcity of data[edit]

Many of these languages are also considered unclassifiable, as the amount of data may not be enough to reveal close relatives if there were some. For others there may be enough data to show the language belongs to a particular family, but not where within it, or to show the language has no close relatives, but not enough to conclude that it is a language isolate.

Unrelated to nearby languages and not commonly examined[edit]

Basic vocabulary unrelated to other languages[edit]

Not closely related to other languages and no academic consensus[edit]

Languages of dubious existence[edit]

  • Oropom (Uganda) (extinct, if it existed)
  • Imeraguen (Mauritania)
  • Nemadi (Mauritania)
  • Rer Bare (Ethiopia) (extinct, if it existed)
  • Wutana (Nigeria) (extinct, if it existed)
  • Trojan (Anatolia) (as yet unattested, possibly a Luwian dialect)

Some 'languages' turn out to be fabricated, as Kukurá of Brazil.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ There has been no successful interaction with North Sentinel Island for 300 years, and not a single word of the language is known.
  2. ^ The Harappan 'script' that decipherers rely on for identification is indecipherable so far, and is likely not actually a script.
  3. ^ According to Rupert Moser, "The Hamba were hunters and gatherers who were resettled and scattered in the 1950s, when their hunting-and-gathering area [located northwest of Nachingwea south of the Mbemkuru River] was planned to be used for ground-nut-plantations. Though that project failed for climatical reasons, the Hamba vanished or were assimilated by neighbouring groups [such as the Matumbi and Yao in addition to those listed next]. Already before parts of them had been assimilated by invading Mwera, Ndonde, Ndendeule and Ngindo."[3]
  4. ^ 'Okwa' is attested by one word collected in the 18th century, tschabee 'God' (in German orthography), which is not known whether is a native word rather than a loan. The language is not so much unclassified as unidentified.[4]


  1. ^ Hasnain, Imtiaz (2013-07-16). Alternative Voices: (Re)searching Language, Culture, Identity …. Cambridge Scholars Publishing. p. 314. ISBN 9781443849982.
  2. ^ Muysken, Pieter (2008). From Linguistic Areas to Areal Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing. p. 168. ISBN 978-9027231000.
  3. ^ Gabriele Sommer, 'A Survey on Language Death in Africa', in Brenzinger (2012) Language Death, p. 351.
    See Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Hamba". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.)
  4. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Okwa". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

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