Language Isolates in the New Guinea Region

Authored by: Harald Hammarström

Language Isolates

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138821057
eBook ISBN: 9781315750026
Adobe ISBN:


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The Greater New Guinea area holds a large number of language isolates, belonging to the most diverse and isolate regions of the world (Table 11.1, using figures from Hammarström et al. 2015). In the present understanding, as many as 55 languages in this region are not demonstrably related to any other language. A much lower number of isolates for New Guinea emerges from the overviews of Foley (2000), Ross (2006), Wurm (1982) since these authors tend to give the benefit of the doubt in the opposite direction, or, in the case of Wurm (1982), have far more generous criteria for considering languages to be genealogically related (cf. Shafer 1965). Taking such, more ‘lumping’, views on the grouping of the languages of the New Guinea area is not without reason. New Guinea is the least studied region both in terms of documentation and genealogical relations (Hammarström and Nordhoff 2012), and there is therefore the expectation that languages which are not obviously related to their neighbours will prove to be so, once they are better documented and their potential relations are studied more intensively. However, empirical evidence from the Americas (Hammarström 2014) suggest that increased documentation and study does not necessarily lead to a drastically different understanding of genealogical relations than that of an initial assessment based on the comparison of basic vocabulary. For this reason we have chosen to adopt a rather strict criterion in the present survey, whereby a language has to have a bone-fide demonstration of relatedness (cf. Campbell and Poser 2008) with other language(s) for it not to be considered an isolate. Every entry, however, does have an individual explanation of why is it considered an isolate as well as a commentary on the possible genealogical links.

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