American Indian languages

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American Indian languages:

see Native American languagesNative American languages,
languages of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere and their descendants. A number of the Native American languages that were spoken at the time of the European arrival in the New World in the late 15th cent.
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American Indian Languages


languages of the aboriginal inhabitants of America (except Eskimos and Aleuts). The estimates of the number of speakers of the languages range from 12 to 20 million. The languages have been studied unevenly with respect to genetic relationships.

Taking into account obvious or proved genetic relationships, the following principal American Indian language families (during the period of colonization) may be distinguished:

(1) Na-Dene, which includes the Athapaskan languages (interior Alaska and northwestern Canada, a large area in the southern USA and northern Mexico, and an area in California and Oregon) and Tlingit and Haida (southern Alaska).

(2) Algonquian-Ritwan, which includes the Algonquian languages (eastern and southern Canada, northeastern USA), the Ritwan languages (Wiyot and Yurok in California), and possibly the extinct Beothuk language (Newfoundland).

(3) Penutian, which includes the California Penutian languages (Miwok, Yokuts, and others in California) and, in the opinion of a number of scholars, the so-called Oregon Penutian languages—Takelma, Kalapuya, Coos, the Yakona group (in Oregon), and Chinook (in Oregon and Washington).

(4) Hokan (mainly in Mexico, California, and Arizona), including the Tlapanec (Guerrero State, Mexico) and Coa-huiltecan languages (Texas and Mexico).

(5) Iroquois-Caddoan, including the Iroquois languages (in the Appalachians, around Lakes Erie and Ontario and along the St. Lawrence River, and in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and Caddoan (mainly in Oklahoma, northern Texas and Louisiana, and Arkansas).

(6) Siouan (from Saskatchewan and eastern Montana southeast to Arkansas), which is grouped with the Yuchi languages (Georgia and South Carolina).

(7) Natchez-Muskogean (southeastern USA).

(8) Uto-Aztecan, mainly in the western USA (Nevada, Utah“, Colorado, and Texas), Mexico (in the northwestern part of the country and certain areas in central and southern Mexico), and Central America.

(9) Maya-Zoque (eastern and southeastern Mexico, all of Yucatán, and almost all of Guatemala), with which the Xinca (Guatemala) and Totonac (eastern Mexico) languages are also grouped.

(10) Otomian (Otomi, Mixteco-Popoloca, Zapotec, and Chorotega), in central and southern Mexico and in southern Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

(11) Chibchan (Costa Rica, Panama; parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru).

(12) Arawak (the Greater Antilles, eastern Colombia, northern Venezuela, Guiana, the middle and upper Amazon, and certain areas in western South America).

(13) Carib (Colombia, Venezuela, the Antilles, Guiana, and northern Brazil).

(14) Quechuamaran, including Quechua (southern Ecuador, western Peru and Bolivia, and northern Chile) and Aymará (Bolivia and southeastern Peru).

(15) Ge (eastern, southern, and central Brazil).

(16) Tupi-Guarani (eastern, northern, and western Brazil; Paraguay; northern Argentina; and Uruguay).

Smaller language families include the Wakashan and Tsim-shian languages in British Columbia; Salish and Kutenai in British Columbia and the northwestern USA; Chemakuan in the state of Washington; Sahaptin (the Sahaptin, Waiilatpuan, and Lutuamian groups) in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho; Yukian in California; the isolated Keres and Zuni languages in New Mexico; the Tanoan-Kiowa family in New Mexico and to the northeast; Tunica in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas; Tarascan in central Mexico (mainly Michoacán State); Huave and Cuitlatec in southern Mexico; Miskito-Matagalpan, Paya, Lenca, and Jicaque in Central America; Cuicatec-Timotean, Guahibo, Guarayú, Jirajara, and Puinavean in Venezuela and Colombia; Shiriana on the border of Venezuela and Brazil; Witotoan and Zaparoan groups (possibly related to Tupi-Guarani), Tucano, Jíbaro, and the extinct Atalán and Yunca-Puruhá languages in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador; the Panoan, Chapacuran, Zamuco, Bororo-Otukian, Catuquina, Mura, and Nambicuara families in western Brazil and the neighboring regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia; the Caingang, Camacán, Patasho, Botocudo, and Machaca (possibly related to Ge), Carajá, and the extinct families of the Coroado, Cariri, and Cucurá groups in central and eastern Brazil; the Mascoi, Mataco-Macá, Guaicuruan, Chiquitoan, Mosetene, and Lule-Vilela families in Bolivia, Paraguay, northern Argentina and southwestern Brazil; Puelche, Huarpean, Comechingón, Alakuluf, Araucanian, Chono (Tehuelche and Ona) in Argentina and Chile; Yahgan in Tierra del Fuego; and dozens of other small groups and languages in South America whose genetic relationships have not yet been established.

Among the many attempts to determine the genetic interrelationships of the North American Indian languages, the best-known is the unproved hypothesis of E. Sapir (1929), who grouped the Algonquian-Ritwan languages together with the Wakashan, Salish, Kutenai, and Chemakuan languages (the hypothesis of the “Algonquian-Wakashan” family); Penutian with Tsimshian, Sahaptin, Mixe-Zoque (now related to Maya-Zoque) and Huave (the hypothesis of the “Macro-Penutian” family); and the Hokan languages with Iroquois-Caddoan, Siouan, Yuchi, Natchez-Muskogean, Yuchi, Keres, and Tunica (the “Hokan-Siouan” family).

The American scholar J. Greenberg has proposed the following genetic classification of the languages of Central and South America:

(1) Macro-Chibchan

(a) Chibcha, Shiriana, Misumalpan, Paya, and Xinca;

(b) Paezan family (Paezan, Mura, Jirajara, and Yuncan).

(2) Andean Equatorial macrofamily

(a) Andean family, including the Quechuamaran group, the southern group (Yahgan, Alacalufan, Chono, Puelche, and Araucanian), the Zaparoan-Cahuapanana group, the Leco-Sec-Xibito group, and Simacú;

(b) Jíbaro, Esmeralda, Cofán, and Yaruro;

(c) Tucanoan family (mainly Tucano and Catuquinean) and Puinavean;

(d) Equatorial family (Arawak, Tupi-Guarani, Timotean, Cariri, Zamuco, and Saliva).

(3) Ge-Pano-Carib macrofamily

(a) Ge family (Ge, Caingang, Botocudo, Chiquita, and Guato), Bororo, and Carajá;

(b) Panoan family (Pano-Tacanan, Mosetene, Mataco-Macá, Lule, Vilela, Mascot, Charrua, and Guaicuruan);

(c) Nambicuara;

(d) Huarpean;

(e) Carib, Peba, and Witotoan languages.

(4) Otomanguean macrofamily.

(5) Tarascan.

(6) Macro-Hokan, including Hokan, Jicaque, and Yurumangui.

(7) Macro-Penutian, including Huave, Maya-Zoque, and Totonac.

(8) Uto-Aztec-Tanoan macrofamily.

American Indian languages are grammatically very diverse. There are many incorporating languages (Iroquois-Caddoan, numerous Uto-Aztecan languages, Tsimshian and, in part, Algonquian), agglutinating languages with well-developed affixation and compounding (Otomí and others), and inflectional languages (Takelma of the Oregon Penutian family, Yuma, and Salinan of the Hc-kan family). Most American Indian languages lack a writing system. Ancient hieroglyphic writing systems were used by the Maya, Zapotec, Olmec (people who spoke an unknown language in Mexico), Cuna (of the Chibchan family in Panama), Quechua, and Aymará. After the European conquest, Tupi (in Brazil), Aztec, Quechua, and several other languages received a Roman alphabet and became Christian and secular literary languages. At present, only Guarani (in Paraguay), Quechua and, in part, Aymara are literary languages of national significance.


Handbook of American Indian Languages, parts 1–2. Washington, D.C., 1911–22.
Hoijer, H. [et al.]. “Linguistic Structures of Native America.” Viking Fund Publications in Anthropology, 1946, vol. 6.
Handbook of South American Indians, vols. 5–6. Washington, D.C., 1949–50.
Greenberg, J. “The General Classification of Central and South American Languages.” In the collection Men and Cultures: Selected Papers of the 5th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.Philadelphia, 1960.
Pinnow, H. J. Die nordamerikanischen Indianersprachen. Wiesbaden, 1964.


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