Native American languages

Native 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. have become extinct, but many of them are still in use today. The classification "Native American languages" is geographical rather than linguistic, since those languages do not belong to a single linguistic family, or stock, as the Indo-European or Afroasiatic languages do. There is no part of the world with as many distinctly different native languages as the Western Hemisphere. Because the number of indigenous American tongues is so large, it is convenient to discuss them under three geographical divisions: North America (excluding Mexico), Mexico and Central America, and South America and the West Indies.

It is not possible to determine exactly how many languages were spoken in the New World before the arrival of Europeans or how many people spoke these languages. Some scholars estimate that the Western Hemisphere at the time of the first European contact was inhabited by 40 million people who spoke 1,800 different tongues. Another widely accepted estimate suggests that at the time of Columbus more than 15 million speakers throughout the Western Hemisphere used more than 2,000 languages; the geographic divisions within that estimate are 300 separate tongues native to some 1.5 million Native Americans N of Mexico, 300 different languages spoken by roughly 5 million people in Mexico and Central America, and more than 1,400 distinct tongues used by 9 million Native Americans in South America and the West Indies.

By the middle of the 20th cent., as a result of European conquest and settlement in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps two thirds of the many indigenous American languages had already died out or were dying out, but others flourished. Still other aboriginal languages are only now being discovered and investigated by researchers. Some authorities suggest that about one half of the Native American languages N of Mexico have become extinct. Of the tongues still in use, more than half are spoken by fewer than 1,000 persons per language; most of the speakers are bilingual. Only a few tongues, like Navajo and Cherokee, can claim more than 50,000 speakers; Navajo, spoken by about 150,000 people, is the most widely used Native American language in the United States. By the end of the 20th cent. 175 Native American languages were spoken in the United States, but only 20 of these were widely known, and 55 were spoken by only a few elderly tribal members; 100 other languages were somewhere between these extremes. Mexico and Central America, however, have large aboriginal populations employing a number of indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl (spoken by about 1.5 million people) and the Mayan tongues (native to about 4 million people). In South America, the surviving Quechuan linguistic family, which includes far more native speakers than any other aboriginal language group in the Americas, accounts for some 12 million speakers. Another flourishing language stock of indigenous South Americans is Tupí-Guaraní, with about 4 million speakers.


A language family consists of two or more tongues that are distinct and yet related historically in that they are all descended from a single ancestor language, either known or assumed to have existed. The languages of a family are closely related in phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary. The attempts made to classify Native American languages into such families have encountered various obstacles. One is the absence of written records of these languages except in the case of Aztec and Maya. Even there the texts are comparatively few in number; the Spanish conquerors destroyed almost all the texts they found. Another problem is that most records of any linguistic value were made after 1850. Also, there are at present insufficient numbers of trained persons able to record many of the indigenous American languages and collect data, especially in Mexico and Central and South America. The absence of grammars handed down from the past, owing to either the dearth of writing or the destruction of written texts, has further hampered the study of the Native American tongues. Linguistic scholars, therefore, have to turn to native informants to gain material for the analysis of these languages.

Native American languages cannot be differentiated as a linguistic unit from other languages of the world but are grouped into a number of separate linguistic stocks having significantly different phonetics, vocabularies, and grammars. Asia is generally accepted as the original home of the Native Americans, although linguistic investigations have not yet established any definite link between the Native American languages and those spoken in Asia or elsewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere. Some scholars postulate a connection between the Eskimo-Aleut family and several other families or subfamilies (among them Altaic, Paleosiberian, Finno-Ugric, and Sino-Tibetan). Others have posited a relationship between members of the Nadene stock (to which Navajo and Apache belong) and Sino-Tibetan, to which Chinese belongs, or between Nadene and the Yeniseian languages of central Siberia.


The languages in America N of Mexico are best known; those of Mexico and Central America are less so, and those of South America and the West Indies are the least studied. Systematic investigation has shown the Native American languages to be highly developed in their phonology and grammar, whether they are the tongues of the Aztecs and Incas or the Eskimos or Paiutes. There is great diversity among the indigenous American languages with respect to phonology and grammar. The tongue of the Greenland Eskimos, for example, has only 17 phonemes, whereas that of the Navajos has 47 phonemes. Some languages have nasalized vowels similar to those of French. Many have the consonant known as the glottal stop. Some Native American languages have a stress accent reminiscent of English, and others have a pitch accent of rising and falling tones similar to that of Chinese. Still others have both stress and pitch accents.

A grammatical characteristic of widespread occurrence in Native American languages is polysynthesism. A polysynthetic language is one in which a number of word elements are joined together to form a composite word that functions as the sentence does in Indo-European languages. Thus, a sentence or phrase is expressed by one long word unit, each element of which has meaning usually only as part of the sentence or phrase and not as a separate item. In a polysynthetic language, no clear distinction is made between a word and a sentence. For example, a series of words expressing several connected ideas, such as "I am searching for my lost horse," would be merged to form a single word or meaning unit. Edward SapirSapir, Edward
, 1884–1939, American linguist and anthropologist, b. Pomerania. Sapir was brought to the United States in 1889. After teaching at the Univ. of California and the Univ.
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, a major scholar in the field of Native American languages, first presented the following, much-quoted word unit from Southern Paiute: wiitokuchumpunkurüganiyugwivantümü, meaning "they-who-are-going-to-sit-and-cut-up-with-a-knife-a-black-female- (or male-) buffalo." It is thought that the numerous aboriginal tongues showing polysynthesism may originally have been the offshoots of a single parent language.

The existence of gender as found in Indo-European languages is encountered infrequently in indigenous American tongues. In the Algonquian languages, nouns are classified as animate and inanimate. Noun cases like those of Latin occur in some languages, but a lack of case distinction similar to English usage is more common (at least N of Mexico). A number of Native American tongues have a form for the plural of the noun that differs from the singular form, but many others have the same form for both, as in the English noun sheep.

Languages of North America

The most widely accepted classification of Native American languages N of Mexico (although some included are also spoken in Mexico and Central America) is that made by Edward Sapir in 1929. Sapir arranged the numerous linguistic groups in six major unrelated linguistic stocks, or families. There are Eskimo-AleutEskimo-Aleut,
family of Native American languages consisting of Aleut (spoken on the Aleutian Islands and the Kodiak Peninsula) and Eskimo or Inuktitut (spoken in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia).
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, Algonquian-Wakashan, Nadene, Penutian, Hokan-Siouan, and Aztec-Tanoan.


The Algonquian-Wakashan language family of North America was one of the most widespread of Native American linguistic stocks; in historical times, tribes speaking its languages extended from coast to coast. Today the surviving languages of the Algonquian-Wakashan family are spoken by about 130,000 people in Canada and a few thousand in the Great Lakes region, Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and the NE United States. The Algonquian branch of the family once had some 50 distinct tongues, among them Algonquin, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree, Delaware, Kickapoo, Menomini, Mi'kmaq, Ojibwa (or Chippewa), Penobscot, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, and Yurok. Two other important branches of the Algonquian-Wakashan stock are Salishan and Wakashan. Among the tribes speaking Salishan languages are the Bella Coola, Klallam, Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Nisqualli, Okanogan, Pend d'Oreille, Puyallup, Salish or Flathead, Shuswap, Spokan, and Tillamook. The Salishan tongues are spoken in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Tribes speaking Wakashan languages (used along the Pacific Northwest coast) include the Nootka, Nitinat, Makah, Kwakiutl, Bella Bella, and Kitamat. Polysynthesism characterizes the Algonquian-Wakashan languages, which are inflected and make great use of suffixes. Prefixes are employed to a limited extent.

Nadene and Penutian

The Nadene languages form another linguistic family; its branches include AthabascanAthabascan
, Athapascan,
or Athapaskan
, group of related Native American languages forming a branch of the Nadene linguistic family or stock. In the preconquest period, Athabascan was a large and extensive group of tongues.
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, Haida, and Tlingit. The Haida and Tlingit tongues are spoken in parts of Canada and Alaska. As a whole, the Nadene languages have tones that convey meaning and some degree of polysynthesism. The verb is characterized by a reliance on aspect and voice rather than on tense.

The Penutian linguistic stock includes several branches, such as the Maidu, Wintun, and Yokuts language groups, all of which are native to California. Probably also in the Penutian family are the Sahaptin, Chinook, and Tsimshian languages of the Pacific Northwest coast, as well as other tongues in Mexico and parts of Central America. Penutian languages resemble those of the Indo-European family in several ways (for example, they have true cases for the noun).


The Hokan-Siouan family is thought to include a number of linguistic groups, but the classification of some of them is still disputed. Among the groups generally considered branches of the Hokan-Siouan stock are Muskogean, whose languages include such tongues as Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, which are spoken in Oklahoma and Florida; Caddoan, composed of the Caddo, Wichita, Pawnee, and Arikara languages found in Oklahoma and North Dakota; Yuman, with individual languages (such as Cocopa, Havasupai, Kamia, Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapaí, and Yuma) in Arizona and California; Iroquoian, to which belong the Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Wyandot, and Tuscarora languages spoken in New York, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, as well as the Cherokee tongue found in Oklahoma and North Carolina; and Siouan, which includes Catawba (in South Carolina), Winnebago (in Wisconsin and Nebraska), Osage (in Nebraska and Oklahoma), Dakota and Assiniboin (in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska), and Crow (in Montana). Languages of the Hokan-Siouan stock are also found in Mexico and parts of Central America. These Hokan-Siouan languages tend to be agglutinative; various word elements, each having a fixed meaning and an independent existence, are merged to form a single word.


The two principal branches of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock are Uto-Aztecan and Tanoan, and their languages are spoken in areas extending from the NW United States to Mexico and Central America. Uto-Aztecan has such subdivisions, or groups, as NahuatlanNahuatlan
, group of languages of the Uto-Aztecan branch of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock of North and Central America. A Nahuatlan language of great historical importance is Nahuatl, or Aztec.
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, whose languages are spoken in Mexico and parts of Central America, and Shoshonean, to which Comanche, Hopi, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute belong. Ute and Paiute are found in Utah, Nevada, California, and Arizona; Comanche and Shoshone are spoken in Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, California, and Oklahoma; Hopi is found in Arizona. The languages of the Tanoan branch of Aztec-Tanoan are spoken in the Rio Grande valley, New Mexico, and Arizona. Zuñi (found in New Mexico) may be connected with Tanoan. The Aztec-Tanoan languages show a degree of polysynthesism.

Languages of Mexico and Central America

Of the languages of Mexico and Central America, about 24 linguistic groups, or stocks, have been identified; it is still not clear which of these can be classified together to reduce the number of groups. Among these groups is Yuman, whose tongues are spoken in Baja California and are related to the Yuman languages found in the United States. In both, Yuman falls within the larger Hokan-Siouan classification, which, in Mexico and parts of Central America, also includes the Coahuiltecan, Guaycuran, and Jicaque stocks, or groups. The Otomian stock (current in central Mexico and including the Otomí language) forms part of the larger Macro-Otomanguean division, in which the Mixtecan and Zapotecan stocks of Mexico are often placed. The Nahuatlan group, as indicated earlier, is classified under Uto-Aztecan, some of whose languages are found in Mexico and parts of Central America. Uto-Aztecan is itself a branch of the greater Aztec-Tanoan stock. Nahuatl, or Aztec, is a language of the Nahuatlan group. Mayan, which is found in Yucatán and parts of Central America and to which the language Maya belongs, is part of the larger Penutian linguistic stock. The Penutian stock also has as members the Huave, Mixe-Zoque, and Totonacan branches, whose languages are spoken in Mexico and Guatemala. In Mexico and parts of Central America, there are still about 4 million speakers of the modern dialects of Maya proper, which was the official language of the ancient Mayan empire before the Spanish conquest of the New World. The languages of two South American stocks, Cariban and Chibchan, can also be found in Central America.

Languages of South America and the West Indies

More than 100 distinct linguistic stocks have been proposed for South America, and more than 1,000 separate languages have been discovered on that continent and in the West Indies. The latter had two aboriginal stocks, Arawakan and Cariban, which are also found in South America. When more is known about the indigenous South American languages, some of the stocks may turn out to be sufficiently closely related so as to allow linguists to group them together and thus reduce the number of basic stocks. The principal linguistic groups of South America and the West Indies are usually said to be eight: Chibchan, Cariban, Gê, QuechuaQuechua,
, or Quichua
, linguistic family belonging to the Andean branch of the Andean-Equatorial stock of Native American languages (mainly in South America).
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, Aymara, Araucanian, Arawakan, and Tupí-Guaraní.

Before the European conquest, Chibchan flourished in the areas now designated as Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. It belongs to the larger Macro-Chibchan stock. Some Chibchan languages still survive in Colombia and Central America. Cariban and Gê are families of the greater Gê-Pano-Carib linguistic stock. In the aboriginal period the Cariban languages were important in the West Indies, Brazil, Peru, the Guianas, Venezuela, and Colombia. Today a number of them are still found in N South America and in some of the West Indian islands. Gê languages were spoken in E Brazil in preconquest times. About 50 of them are still in use in that country. Quechua (also called Kechua or Quichua), Aymara, and Araucanian are linguistic families assigned to the Andean branch of the larger Andean-Equatorial stock. Aymara today consists of 14 languages native to about 2 million people in Peru and parts of Bolivia, where those languages were also spoken in preconquest times. A number of languages, the most important of which is Mapuche, make up the Araucanian family, which thrives in Chile and Argentina.

The Arawakan and Tupí-Guaraní families belong to the Equatorial branch of the Andean-Equatorial languages. Arawakan is considered the most extensive South American linguistic stock. In the aboriginal period (before 1500), Arawakan tongues were spoken in the West Indies and S Brazil and along the eastern side of the Andes. Some Arawakan languages have died out, particularly in the West Indies, but others still survive there and in South America, especially in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, the Guianas, Peru, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The Tupí-Guaraní family of languages is next to the Arawakan in geographical extent. The Tupian subdivision reaches from the coast of E Brazil along the Amazon River to the Andes. The Guaranian subdivision is found in Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Some 120 Tupí-Guaraní languages have survived. The two dominant members of this large family are Tupí and Guaraní. Tupí serves as a lingua franca for the indigenous population in Brazil. Guaraní is co-official with Spanish in Paraguay, and it is spoken by close to 4 million people in Paraguay and Brazil. The linguistic diversity of South America is great. There are many other families and hundreds of additional languages that have yet to be researched and definitely classified.

Writing and Sign Language

Written literature in the usual sense does not exist in the indigenous American languages; however, there are folk literatures. Communication by writing among the Native Americans in the aboriginal period was limited to the Maya and the Aztecs. Both cultures used a form of picture writing to represent their ideas. About 800 of the Maya hieroglyphs, or symbols, are known, and in recent years substantial progress has been made in deciphering them. Not many texts of the Maya survive, the most numerous being inscriptions on buildings.

The Incas of Peru used a system of knotted cords, ropes, or strings to communicate. Called the quipu, it is considered a form of writing. The color and shape of the knotted cords were the clues to meaning. For instance, green cords signified grain, and red cords, soldiers. One knot stood for the number 10; two knots, 20; a double knot, 100. Among Native Americans of E North America, beaded wampum belts often contained pictographic symbols for communication.

Another means of nonlinguistic communication among many of the indigenous North Americans was sign languagesign language,
gestural communication used as an alternative or replacement for speech. Sign languages resemble oral languages in every way other than their modality. As with oral languages, sign languages are acquired spontaneously and have highly intricate, rule-governed
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, consisting of gestures with the hands and arms. One advantage of sign language was that it made communication possible among Native American groups having different languages. In addition, smoke signals were used by some Native Americans to convey information, but they were capable only of giving simple messages, such as "enemies in the area" or some previously agreed-upon message.

Influence and Survival

The Native American languages have contributed numerous place-names in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the United States, many of whose states have names of Native American origin. The European languages that are official today in countries of the New World, such as English, Spanish, and Portuguese, have borrowed a number of words from aboriginal languages. English, for example, has been enriched by such words as moccasin, moose, mukluk, raccoon, skunk, terrapin, tomahawk, totem, and wampum from indigenous North American languages; by chocolate, coyote, and tomato from indigenous Mexican tongues; by barbecue, cannibal, hurricane, maize, and potato from aboriginal languages of the West Indies; and by coca, condor, guano, jaguar, llama, maraca, pampa, puma, quinine, tapioca, and vicuña from indigenous South American languages. Some Native American languages, among them Navajo, Apache, and Cherokee, have been used for wartime communications by the U.S. military to evade enemy decipherment. Many Navajo participated in the American armed forces during World War II as the transmitters of vital messages in their native language.

The outlook for the future of the indigenous American languages is not good; most will probably die out. At present, the aboriginal languages of the Western Hemisphere are gradually being replaced by the Indo-European tongues of the European conquerors and settlers of the New World—English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch. The investigation of Native American languages contributes much to a scientific knowledge of language in general, since these tongues possess a number of linguistic features not otherwise known. Some native American groups in the United States are working to revitalize the languages of their peoples as a result of increased ethnic consciousness and feelings of cultural identity. By the end of the 20th cent. there was an increasing number of such language-learning facilities as tribal classes, language camps, and local college courses in indigenous languages.


See E. Sapir in Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality, ed. by D. G. Mandelbaum (1949); J. A. Mason in Handbook of South American Indians, ed. by J. H. Stewart (Vol. 6, 1950); F. Boas, Handbook of American Indian Languages (1911–38, repr. 1969); J. Sawyer, ed., Studies in American Indian Languages (1971); E. Matteson et al., Comparative Studies in Amerindian Languages (1972); L. and M. Campbell, The Languages of Native America (1979); J. Greenberg, Language in the Americas (1987).

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