I'm looking for a word to describe languages which are not easy to study or find books about in Western Europe or North America.

On example language, which I'm currently immersed in, is Georgian, with no major related languages and its own alphabet, most people have never heard of it though it is a national language with millions of speakers.

I'm looking for a word that can work OK everywhere, even in the countries where the languages are not in the minority. Georgians for instance are aware most people might not have heard of their language but it's certainly not a minority language in Georgia.

Is "exotic* the right word to use or is there a better one?

Here's some other languages I think of in the same way:

Albanian, Armenian, Burmese, Hungarian, Khmer, Kurdish, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, Persian, Sinhala, Tibetan.

(I used the tag "single word requests" because I couldn't find a better one. It doesn't have to be a single word.)

  • 7
    You might just say lesser-known. Words like exotic and arcane can be construed as mildly offensive.
    – user13141
    Nov 3, 2011 at 11:40
  • 1
    "Exotic" can also be construed as complimentary. (-: Nov 3, 2011 at 11:43
  • 2
    @onomatomaniak: I think you could make your comment an answer. Nov 3, 2011 at 12:17
  • your wish is my command
    – user13141
    Nov 3, 2011 at 12:24
  • 2
    Could you give us an exact context (a few sentences) where you want to use the term? I think that matters.
    – Unreason
    Nov 3, 2011 at 12:38

6 Answers 6


You might just say lesser-known. Words like exotic and arcane can be construed as mildly offensive.

Edit: For what it's worth, a quick search reveals that this is actually a category used by the US Library of Congress. I also ran into it on McGill's linguistics website.


Exotic, obscure, esoteric and, even the best suggestion imo so far, lesser-known1 all have one problem - they are intrinsically speaking from a western civilization perspective.

Objectively the language is isolated (have no proven connections to other languages), it is also an offspring of one of the world's primary language families.

1 lesser-know is the best since it does have an immediate connotation of: language we know little about. Exotic would be strange, unusual, rare. Obscure is not known and rare. Esoteric is rare and secretive. (Here I have emphasized unwanted connotations.)

  • 2
    I would argue that lesser-known is better because it isn't speaking from a western perspective; it's speaking from a numeric perspective.
    – user13141
    Nov 3, 2011 at 12:40
  • @onomatomaniak, I do think your suggestion is the best (pending some clarification from OP); however the question is also what other languages would you put in this category? Does it really describe what OP is after?
    – Unreason
    Nov 3, 2011 at 12:49
  • I'll put in a list of other languages I think of in the same way. Nov 3, 2011 at 12:53
  • Georgian is not an isolate; it just has no major relatives. It is a member of the Kartvelian family, though, which does contain other languages (Svan, Laz, etc.). And the other languages given as examples in the question likewise have genetic relations to other languages, too. Dec 2, 2013 at 10:47
  • It is'nt wrong for westerners to speak from a western perspective! What else can we do? Mar 11, 2016 at 14:02

They are sometimes called minority languages.

  • 3
    Hmm in Armenia or Greece or New York, Georgian might be a minority language. But in Georgia it is the majority language. Let me edit my question. Nov 3, 2011 at 11:39
  • In that case, I don't think there is any specific term. Nov 3, 2011 at 11:53
  • Yes I don't think there's a specific term so I'm just looking for one which will work best. I couldn't find a more appropriate tag than "single word request" though. Nov 3, 2011 at 11:56

Maybe 'Obscure' would work in your context. Or perhaps 'esoteric'. An old and obscure language might be deemed 'archaic'.

  • I wouldn't personally mind being described as "obscure" or "esoteric" but some people might take these terms negatively when applied to their language which they are proud of. Nov 3, 2011 at 12:16
  • Indeed they might. "[languages] that are little known and little studied but have many speakers?" Somewhat self-contradictory? If a language has many speakers surely it cannot be little known? Or do you mean outside of its native environs?
    – 5arx
    Nov 3, 2011 at 15:39
  • Yes obviously little known would not apply to the speakers themselves or even their neighbours, but to the wider world, or "in the west" for instance. Perhaps I'm looking for an antonym of "widely known". Nov 3, 2011 at 16:10

The definition of a world language is well defined, so I postulated "non-world language" and found lots of hits. It's not a great phrase, but it's understood.


Ethnologue has a list of language statuses from "International", "The language is widely used between nations in trade, knowledge exchange, and international policy." down to "Extinct", which is "The language is no longer used and no one retains a sense of ethnic identity associated with the language."

The closest match would be one down from "International", which is "National":

The language is used in education, work, mass media, and government at the national level.

with a further description below it:

EGIDS 2 (Provincial) and EGIDS 1 (National) focus on the level of recognition and use given to the language by government. Beyond purely official use, however, the focus includes the widespread use of the language in media and the workplace at either the provincial (sub-national) or national levels. EGIDS 0 (International) is a category reserved for those few languages that are used as the means of communication in many countries for the purposes of diplomacy and international commerce. Because the Ethnologue organizes the language entries by country, EGIDS 1 (National) is the strongest vitality level that we report.

Given that "National" may not convey the nuance that it's not going to appear on Duolingo any time soon, perhaps "Non-international" would be a good adjective.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.