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.

More on the Mayan system of writing.

Language Families

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

The maps on this page show 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.

NavajoAthabaskanAZ, NM, UT148,530
CreeAlgicMT, Canada60,000
OjibwaAlgicMN, ND, MT, MI, Canada51,000
CherokeeIroquoianOK, NC22,500
DakotaSiouanNE, ND, SD, MN, MT, Canada20,000
ApacheAthabaskanNM, AZ, OK15,000
BlackfootAlgicMT, Canada10,000
ChoctawMuskogeanOK, MS, LA9,211

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.


Native American Languages


Maps drawn based on maps in American Indian Languages : The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 4) and in Collier's Encyclopedia.

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