For the sake of concreteness, let's say my low-tech conculture is living in a few villages on a smallish island in the middle of the ocean (Pitcairn Islands comes to mind).

Basically, this would mean that no adult ever has to learn their language, and that everyone knows everyone else to some extent.

Can one make predictions as to how the language would more likely look? Such as:

  • Would it have a "large" phoneme inventory?
  • Would it tend to be heavily inflected or analytical?
  • Would there be a large number of irregular inflections?
  • Would there be a well-developed system of expressing consanguinity?

Lastly, would the size of the settlement(s) matter much? The difference between a single village or a dozen in regular contact, say.

3 Answers 3


Derek Bickerton and John McWhorter both have studied pidgins and creoles. A general observation is that communities that have to deal with other communities who don't speak their language, but still have to communicate resort to using pidgins, creoles which are simplified, grammatically speaking. McWhorter says English lost it's complex grammar when Vikings arrived and couldn't deal with the complexity.

On the other hand, island communities that don't have to deal with other people can tolerate arbitrarily complex grammar since children have a spectacular skill for acquiring their first language as compared to adults. So as an isolated language accumulates difficulties, there is no pressure to make them go away, they just get added to the pile of obligatory complexities.

Another feature of Island speakers in specific is they are more likely to use a "towards the shore/away from the shore" as a grammatical marker, ref "When "North" Isn't Actually North: Geocentric Direction Systems"

EDIT: Large phoneme inventory. Chinese, a lingua franca has a small inventory and a small inventory of syllables. Rotokas has a small phonetic inventory. Someone would have to graph this to see if there is a weak relationship.

Inflections (really, any morphology), irregular forms (lexicalizations), culture-specific complexities-- I'd predict more of all of these for an isolated language. Proving it to satisfy skeptics would take a few academic papers. English's "2nd cousin twice removed" system, is complicated, but English is a lingua franca. Hard to say beyond generalities.

  • +1 for the link to Leah Velleman's blog post
    – Sir Cornflakes
    Mar 2, 2018 at 21:58

There are a lot of hypotheses and conjectures floating around the linguistic community regarding typological features (like phoneme inventories, inflecting or isolating type etc.) and size of the speech community.

However, almost none of these conjectures is currently backed up by real world data (and, on the other side, real world data are often unavailable to evaluate such conjectures).

The linguist David Nettle argues that language evolution is faster in small speech communities, but this is also not a generally accepted point of view.

And last, but not least: Never underestimate the influence of diachronics. Many linguistic features correlate very well with either the language family or with arealic features. So the starting language will have a long time influence on the language of the isolated group.


The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about languages spoken by a small community in isolated islands are the Polynesian languages, like Maori, Hawai'i and Rapa Nui. They have simple phonetic inventories and little to no inflexion, but have a huge array of particles that denote aspect, mood, tense, emotion, etc.

However, at the same time we can look at Papua New Guinea, where there are hundreds of languages spoken by isolated communities. PNG is a bit "problematic", though, because there are so many types of languages there, from analytical to polysynthetic, from small to very large phonemic inventories. It's kind of a linguistic hotspot, really.

My advice for you is to check out Polynesian languages but also take a look at some PNG cultures. They can offer some insight you won't get anywhere else.

Good luck.

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