Native American Languages
A common misconception is that there was one Native American language. In
reality, there were perhaps a thousand languages spoken in the Americas
before the arrival of Europeans - about 250 in the present territory of the
United States alone. In addition, these languages showed tremendous variety
between one another. A trio of individuals from three areas a hundred miles
apart might very likely have been completely unable to communicate by
speech. There was, however, a sign language used in some areas to allow
communication between those of different tribes. This is described in detail
in William Clark's book, "The Indian Sign Language".
The spoken languages were neither primitive nor simple, and many had
grammars as complex as those of Russian and Latin. However, with the
exception of an ideographic system used by the Mayans and their neighbors
near the Yucatan peninsula, none of the native languages of America had a
writing system until the arrival of Europeans.
As is the case with the Eastern Hemisphere, linguists have found similarities between some languages of the Americas, and differences between others, and have grouped them into families. A family is a collection of languages with a common origin and which separated into different dialects and languages over the course of time. The process of language speciation can be seen to a small extent in the way that English has come to be acquire slight differences in the different places it is spoken. A more advanced demonstration of this is the case of the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and a few others) which all descended from Latin. The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, the dominant language family in the world today. English is a member of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family. Russian is a member of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European family. The Romance, Germanic and Slavic branches alone constitute the overwhelming majority of the languages spoken in Europe, while other Indo-European branches have their homes in Iran and India. Indo-European languages, in particular English, Spanish, Portuguese and French, have become the dominant language in many parts of the world in the last 500 years, including almost all of North and South America, and Australia. Only one other language family, the Ural-Altaic family, contains the national language of any country in Europe. Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian are all Ural-Altaic, as is Turkish, spoken on a small corner of the continent. The Basque language of Spain and France has no clear relatives anywhere in the world.
North America thus had much more linguistic variety than Europe at the time of Columbus. The present territory of the continental United States was home to several prevalent language families, in contrast to the two of Europe.
Indigenous Language Families of North America
There are nine important language families which existed in the present-day
territory of the United States before they were largely displaced by English over the last few centuries. These included Algic (Algonquin), Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Salishan and Eskimo-Aleut. In addition, there were many other smaller families, such as Sahaptian, Miwok-Costanoan, Kiowa-Tanoan and Caddoan. Some languages, such as Zuni, have no known relationship with any other language, and are known as isolates.
The maps on this page show those language families which had significant
presence in the territory of the continental United States, although nearly
all of them extended to either Canada or Mexico. There were many additional language families represented elsewhere in the Americas, and South America probably represented even more diversity than North America. The Mayan language family of Mexico and nearby countries is also indicated on the continental map. Many tribes and languages are indicated on the U.S. map,although there is not nearly enough space to show them all.
Creating such maps with any degree of precision is impaired by several
profound difficulties. Individual political and lingusitic entities were not
"countries" in the current sense of the term, and usually were spread out of
great distances while overlapping in territory with others. Sharp borders
such as we see on maps today rarely existed. Many populations moved
seasonally, as the lifestyle adapted to local climate. Almost all moved
permanent homelands from place to place as Europeans moved in, usually to
the west, but movement and resettlement also occured frequently before
colonization began. In addition, there is great uncertainty in many cases
about exactly which people were living in a given location at any given
point in time. Thus, the boundaries on the map are not to be taken too
seriously. They are meant to represent the approximate regions where each
language family was spoken at the time that European civilization reached
the areas in question.
It should be made clear that the areas shaded on the map were not political
regions where a central government ruled over a single race, maintaining
uniform control within specified borders. Instances of a large area under
one government were rare in pre-Columbian America. In addition, one needs to recall that the languages within a language family can be very diverse.
Although in some cases, an individual might be able to travel far away and
find people with whom communication was easy, this was exceptional. In most
cases, two different languages within the same language family will seem
very different and mutually incomprehensible to the speakers of those
languages. To fully appreciate this, simply consider that English is in the
same family, the Indo-European family, as Dutch, Polish and Hindi.
Survival of Native American Languages Today
The arrival of European culture was not kind to the indigenous cultures of
the Americas. The population of the native civilizations of the current
territory of the United States fell from about 20 million to the present
level of less than 2 million. Beyond the shrinking size of the ethnic
populations, the languages have also suffered due to the prevalence of
English among those of Native American ancestry. Most Native American
languages have ceased to exist, or are spoken only by older speakers, with
whom the language will die in the coming decades.
Only 8 indigenous languages of the area of the continental United States
currently have a population of speakers in the U.S. and Canada large enough
to populate a medium-sized town. Only Navajo still has a population of
greater than 25,000 within the U.S. Nahuatlan A 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. A descendant of the now extinct Aztec, the language of the ancient Aztec empire, Nahuatl is spoken today by approximately 1 million people, mainly in Mexico. Aztec is thought to have reached 5 million people in an area extending from Mexico to Panama. The Nahuatlan group also includes a number of other living languages, such as Pipil and Pochutla, and extinct tongues, among them Toltec, Chichimec, and Nahuatlato.
Language Family Locations Speakers
Navajo Athabaskan AZ, NM, UT 148,530
Cree Algic MT, Canada 60,000
Ojibwa Algic MN, ND, MT, MI, Canada 51,000
Cherokee Iroquoian OK, NC 22,500
Dakota Siouan NE, ND, SD, MN, MT, Canada 20,000
Apache Athabaskan NM, AZ, OK 15,000
Blackfoot Algic MT, Canada 10,000
Choctaw Muskogean OK, MS, LA 9,211
U.S. State names with native origins
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa,
Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri,
Nebraska, (New) Mexico, (North/South) Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming.