Thursday, September 26, 2013

Language isolates in focus: P'urhépecha

Language isolates are languages without any other related languages on earth. Roughly a quarter of the world's language families are isolates. Probably the most famous language isolate is Basque, spoken in Spain and France,* but there is over a hundred other isolated languages in the world. Today we take a look at a language isolate, P'urhépecha, a language spoken in Michoacan, Mexico.

Mesoamerican languages tend to share similar features, forming a geographic clade where the languages tended to rub off on each other. The result is that the languages in Central America, even when genetically unrelated, resemble each other. We call this location of mutual feedback the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area (MLA).

Traditional folk: A P'urhépechan musician plays the Pirekua, a
folk style of music, on the violin.
Image credit: UNESCO
P'urhépecha is strange because it is centered in the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area yet it is clearly shares none of the features and is seemingly immune from outside influence. The language did not recently migrate to the region, so we know there was plenty of time for P'urhépecha to pick up the mutual features of the MLA.

Like the languages of northern Canada and Alaska, P'urhépecha is polysynthetic (I wrote more about what what polysynthesis is, and how the northern languages use polysynthesis, here), yet unlike those languages, P'urhépecha cannot compound nouns. P'urhépecha involves double marking like Spanish. Most languages use cases to modify the meaning of a noun (like the 's in the sentence Paul's house is a possessive genitive case marker) and many languages use positionals to do that task (such as prepositions in English), but P'urhépecha uses both case markings and postpositions simultaneously. The verbs of P'urhépecha can be suffixed according to shape, position, or body part.

The language is spoken by roughly 250,000 people in Mexico, so we are fortunate that this is one isolate not in immediate danger of extinction.

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* = Korean is often classified as a language isolate, easily making it the most famous isolate in the world, but its place is too controversial to casually classify in a post. First, some linguists include it in the Altaic language family and, second, some consider the Jeju dialect to be divergent enough to be a separate language, making two Korean languages under a Koreanic language family.

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