Native American Language
Native American Languages, the indigenous languages of the native peoples of North,
Middle, and South America. The precise number of Native American languages is
unknown; estimates are that about 200 distinct languages are still spoken in North
America (that is, north of Mexico). Perhaps 300 to 400 more were spoken at the time of
first European contact. In Middle America (Mexico and Central America) about 350
languages are known. South America has been the least studied, linguistically. About 450
languages are in use there today; information survives for 120 extinct languages, and
another 1500 to 2000 languages are mentioned in documents.
For the number of past and present speakers of these languages, only rough estimates can
be given, useful for comparison. It is believed that when Europeans arrived in the
Americas, about 1.5 million people spoke Native American languages in North America
(down to about 200,000 today), about 5 million in Middle America (up to about 6 million
today), and about 10 to 20 million in South America (about 11 to 12 million
In present-day North America the indigenous languages with the most speakers are
Navajo (about 80,000), Ojibwa (about 40,000), and Inupiaq, or Inuktitut.
Inupiaq has more than 60,000 speakers and its Greenlandic variety serves as a national
language. In Middle America, Nahuatl (Aztec) is spoken by more than 1 million people,
the various Mayan languages by about 2 million, and a number of other languages by
several hundred thousand each. In South America, Quechua, with more than 8 million
speakers, is the most widely used of all Native American tongues today. Guaraní is the
only Native American language to have become a national and literary language spoken by
large numbers of non-Native Americans (half of its 2 million speakers are Paraguayans of
European descent). In the Andes, Aymara has about 800,000 speakers, and in Chile,
Araucanian has about 200,000. The vast majority of Native American languages, however,
have from a few hundred to a few thousand speakers; many have fewer than 50 or 100
speakers; still many other languages have only 2 or 3 surviving speakers.
Native American and European colonial languages have borrowed words from one
another; Native American languages have taken words from Dutch (in the Antilles),
English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian (in Alaska), and French (in Canada and Louisiana).
In turn, many of the European languages took over Native American place names and
terms for plants and animals; examples include Alaska, from the Aleut name for the
Alaskan Peninsula; Connecticut, from Mohegan (Algonquian-Ritwan), “long river”;
Minnesota, from Dakota, or Sioux, “cloudy water”; Mexico and Guatemala, from
Nahuatl; and Nicaragua, from an Aztec dialect, Pipil. English has many loanwords from
Native American languages, among them kayak (Eskimo); chipmunk, opossum, raccoon,
tomahawk, moccasin, squash (Algonquian); abalone (Costanoan); tomato, coyote, chili,
chocolate, peyote (Nahuatl); puma, condor, jerky (beef), pampa, llama, alpaca (Quechua);
canoe, maize, tobacco, potato (Taino—Arawakan stock; see chart). In Latin America, the
Spanish language has influenced and been influenced by Quechua, Guaraní, and Nahuatl,
The classification of Native AmericanNative Americanguages into families is not without
controversy. By the mid-20th century, many scholars classified the North American
languages into roughly 60 different language families, recognizing no demonstrable
genetic relationships among them. In Middle America they proposed 19 different families,
and in South America, perhaps 80 families. Other scholars proposed fewer families,
claiming to see genetic relationships among most of the Native American languages.
Although it is believed that the original population of the Americas came from Asia via the
Bering Strait, the great genetic diversity of American languages suggests that the New
World may have been populated by multiple migrations.
A major aim of linguistic work with Native American languages is their genetic
classification—the organization of this vast diversity into manageable family schemes. The
immensity of the body of data, coupled with the steady disappearance of language after
language, makes the task awesome. In 1891 the American ethnographer, geologist, and
linguist John Wesley Powell proposed 58 families for North America, mainly on the basis
of superficial resemblances. About the same time, the American linguist Daniel Brinton
proposed 80 families for South America. Although methods of classification have since
become more rigorous, these two schemes form the basis of all subsequent classifications.
In 1929 the American anthropologist Edward Sapir grouped the families into 6
superstocks, or phyla, in North America and 15 in Middle America. Recently, however,
areal studies—investigations of the borrowings of grammatical and other traits from one
family to another, within a given geographic area—have shown that many remote
relationships proposed earlier must now be reconsidered. The United States linguist
Joseph Greenberg and others have proposed that the native languages of the Americas can
be classified into just three families—Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind (with 11
branches). The classification presented in the accompanying chart, however, is
conservative; in most cases, families have not been assigned to superstocks (the names of
rejected superstock groupings are shown in footnotes), nor are Greenberg's families
Given their extreme genetic diversity, it is not surprising that Native American languages
differ greatly from one another in their phonology (sound systems) and grammar. No
linguistic trait exists, however, that is the exclusive property of Native American
languages. This diversity is illustrated by the broad range of traits listed below, which
show the structural characteristics of Native American languages.
Native American languages show great variety in their sound systems.
Glottalized consonants are produced by closing the vocal cords while articulating the
sound under increased pressure. Such sounds are found in North America in the
Athabascan, Siouan, and Salishan languages, among others; in Middle America in Mayan
and other languages; and in South America in Quechua, Aymara, and others.
Aspirated consonants are produced with a puff of air after the release of the consonant
(the t in English tip, for example). The Siouan, Pomoan, and Yuman families have such
sounds in North America, as do Tarascan and the Otomanguean languages in Middle
America and Island Carib (Arawakan stock), Quechua, and others in South America.
Retroflexed consonants are produced by curling the tip of the tongue up and back toward
the hard palate; examples include certain d and t sounds heard in the English spoken by
natives of India. Pomoan, Yuman, and various California languages have such consonants
in North America; they also occur in the Mamean and Kanjobalan branches of Mayan in
Middle America and in the Panoan and Tacanan families, Araucanian, and other languages
in South America.
Uvular consonants are produced even farther back in the mouth than k or g; they are also
found in Hebrew and Arabic (the stop transliterated as q). They occur in the Eskimo-Aleut
family, the northern Uto-Aztecan languages, and California Athabascan in North America;
in Totonacan and Mayan in Middle America; and in Toba (Opayé-Guaicurú family),
Quechua, and Aymara in South America.
The velar nasal consonant is the ng sound of English song. It occurs in Eskimo, Haida,
Yuman, the California Athabascan languages, and the northern Uto-Aztecan languages in
North America; in Mayan and Zoque in Middle America; and in Araucanian, Jívaro, and
other languages in South America.
Voiceless nasals and glides are sounds similar to whispered m, n, w, and y. In North
America they occur in eastern Pomo dialects and in Tuscarora (Iroquoian); in Middle
America in Nahuatl, in the Otomanguean languages, and as final consonants in Quiché
Maya and Totonac; and in South America as final consonants in Toba and as nasals in
Voiceless I (like a whispered I) is found in some Yupik Eskimo, in various California
languages, and in the Athabascan, Salishan, and Muskogean families in North America; in
Tequistlatec in Middle America; and in Araucanian, Itonama, and others in South
Lateral affricates resemble a forcefully aspirated tl sound. The Athabascan, Sahaptian, and
Wakashan families have such sounds in North America, as do Nahuatl and Totonac in
Voiceless, or whispered, vowels are found in North America in Zuñi, Hopi, and Keresan
(all spoken by Pueblo peoples), in the Plateau Shoshone languages (Uto-Aztecan), and in
Cheyenne (Algonquian-Ritwan); in Middle America in Totonacan and some Otomanguean
languages; and in South America in the Ticuna and others.
Nasalized vowels (as in French bon) occur in North America in the Athabascan, eastern
Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan, Muskogean, and Kiowa-Tanoan groups. They are also
found in Middle America in the Otomanguean languages and in South America in various
languages, notably in the Macro-Gê, Tupian, and Panoan groups.
The vowel i, a high, central, unrounded sound, occurs in North America in Comanche
(Plateau Shoshone) and Coast Tsimshian, and in Middle America in the Mixe-Zoquean
family, Cholan and Yucatecan Mayan, Otomí (Otomanguean), and others. It is common in
South America, occurring in Araucanian, Guaraní, Guaymí (Chibchan), the Panoan and
Tucanoan families, and Elsewhere.
In tonal or pitch accent, a difference in pitch distinguishes words that would otherwise
sound the same. Tonal accent is found in North America in the Athabascan languages;
Mohawk and Cherokee (Iroquoian); Crow (Siouan); Cheyenne, Arapaho, Penobscot
(Algonquian-Ritwan); and some Pomo dialects. In Middle America it occurs in Yucatec
and Uspantec Mayan, the Otomanguean languages, and others, and in South America in
Tucano and in the Panoan, Chibchan, and Huitotoan families.
Native American languages display striking differences in grammatical structure.
Following are some common grammatical traits.
Languages are often classified into basic word-order types because word order often
correlates with other grammatical characteristics. For example, languages with the basic
order subject-verb-object (as in English) also tend to have the orders adjective-noun and
preposition-noun. On the other hand, languages having the basic order subject-object-verb
tend to place the modifiers after nouns, for example, noun-adjective and noun-
Although the role of word order may vary in its importance and function from one
language to another, the following Native American languages have distinguishable word
orders. The subject-verb-object word order occurs in Totonac and Tarascan in Middle
America. The subject-object-verb order is found in Zapotec in Middle America, the
Panoan languages in South America, and several California languages. Still other word
orders occur: verb-subject-object in Guaraní, verb-object-subject in Quiché Mayan,
object-subject-verb in Haida.
The concept of ergative typology refers to a case system that is different from the
nominative-accusative system found in English, German, and most familiar languages. In
such familiar languages, the subject of the sentence is in the nominative case—that is, the
subject has the same form and function, whether the sentence is transitive (has a direct
object) or intransitive (lacks an object). In ergative-absolutive languages, however, the
subject of a transitive verb has one form (called the ergative case), but the subject of an
intransitive verb has a different form—the same form as the object of a transitive verb (the
absolutive case). In North America, ergative-absolutive case distinctions are made in
eastern Pomo, Tsimshian, and a few other languages. The system is found in Mayan and
Mixe-Zoquean languages in Middle America and in a few languages in South
Languages that have switch reference indicate whether a subject or object of a clause is
the same as or different from the subject or object of an earlier clause. In English, for
example, if someone says “Sam met John coming out of his house,” the listener does not
know who was coming or whose house was involved, because English lacks switch
reference. Algonquian, southern Paiute, Papago, and Yuman have this trait in North
America, Jicaque in Middle America, and Ecuadorian Quechua in South
Various grammatical distinctions that are marked (indicated) on a certain word category
(such as nouns) in one language may be marked on another category (such as verbs) in
Languages such as Russian and Latin, which distinguish the role of a noun (such as
subject, direct object, or indirect object) by case marking are said to have nominal case
systems. Eskimo makes this distinction, as do Yuman, Nez Percé (Sahaptian), and various
California languages in North America, and the Uto-Aztecan languages in North America
and Middle America.
In some languages certain nouns occur only in possessed form. Usually they are kinship
terms and names of body parts. This distinction, called inalienable possession, occurs in
Eskimo and in the Algonquian, Wakashan, Salishan, Iroquoian, and Siouan language
families in North America, in Uto-Aztecan, Mayan, and most other languages in Middle
America, and in a few languages in South America.
In languages with dual number, singular (one) is contrasted with dual (two) and with
plural (more than two). Dual number is found in Eskimo and in the Athabascan, Siouan,
Iroquoian, Muskogean, and Plateau Shoshone groups in North America, and Araucanian
and others in South America. Some languages have dual constructions only with
pronouns, as in Tehuelche ma, “you” (sing.), makma, “you two,” and mešma, “you” (pl.).
Languages with inclusive/exclusive we have different terms for we, according to whether
the listener is included. In Quechua, for example, ñuquayku means “we” in the sense of
“he, she, or they and I,” and ñuquancis means “we” in the sense of “you and I.” In North
America this distinction occurs in the Plateau Shoshone, Iroquoian, and some Siouan
languages, in Blackfoot and Cheyenne (Algonquian-Ritwan), and other languages. It is
found in Middle America in Cholan Mayan and some Otomanguean languages, and in
South America in the Cariban family, Quechua, and other languages.
Masculine and feminine gender are distinguished in South America in the Arawakan,
Huitotoan, and Tucanoan languages, in North America in Coast Salishan and a few other
languages, and—for pronouns only—in Pomo and Iroquoian. Animate and inanimate
gender are distinguished in Algonquian, Dakota, Kowa, Comanche, and other languages in
North America, and in a few languages in South America.
Numeral classifiers are forms occurring with counted nouns to indicate what kind of object
is being counted. They are somewhat akin to English “four loaves of bread.” They occur
in North America in Menominee and Ojibwa (Algonquian-Ritwan), Wakashan, Salishan,
Tlingit, and Tsimshian; in Middle America in Mayan, Tarascan, Nahuatl, and Totonac; and
in South America in Auca (Peba-Zápara).
In noun incorporation, some nouns, such as the receiver of an action, are incorporated
directly into the verb, as in English to babysit or in Nahuatl ni-tlaškal-ciwa, “I-tortillas-
make.” In North America noun incorporation occurs in northern Athabascan, Tsimshian,
some Caddoan, the Iroquoian, Uto-Aztecan, and Tanoan families, and other languages; it
is found in Nahuatl, Mayan, and Totonac in Middle America and is common in South
A verbal directional is an element incorporated into the verb to indicate the direction of
the action (usually toward or away from the speaker or hearer). In Mohawk, for example,
tasatáweya’t means “come in,” but ya’satáweya’t means “go in.” Verbal directionals are
found in North America in the Uto-Aztecan, Algonquian, Athabascan, Iorquoian, Siouan,
and other families; in Middle America in Mayan, Uto-Aztecan, Otomanguean, Tarascan,
and Totonacan languages; and in South America in Quechua, Itonama, Toba, and Záparo.
Languages with classificatory verb systems use different verbs for nouns representing
different shapes or other characteristics (roughly akin to the English use of to drink for
liquids and to eat for solids). Classificatory verbs occur in North America in Muskogean,
Siouan, Athabascan, Iroquoian, and other families; in Middle America in Mayan and
Tarascan; and in South America in the Chibchan and Tucanoan families and elsewhere.
In many languages, verbal aspect (distinguishing, for example, the duration, repetition, or
completion of an event) is relatively more important than verbal tense (the time of the
event). Verbal aspect is stressed in Tsimshian and the Salishan, Athabascan, and Iroquoian
families in North America, in most Mayan languages in Middle America, and in Jébero
(Jívaroan family) and other languages in South America. In many Native American
languages, however, tense is relatively more important than aspect.
Instrumental verb affixes (prefixes, suffixes, infixes) are attached to verbs to indicate the
instrument or means by which an action is performed. In Karok, for example, the prefix
pa- indicates use of the mouth. Thus pácup means “to kiss” and paxut means “to hold in
the mouth.” Such prefixes occur in Haida, Tlingit, and other languages in North America,
in Uto-Aztecan, Totonac, and other languages in Middle America, and in Jébero in South
Social and Cultural Traits
In some Native American languages, distinct forms of
speech are used by or for women as opposed to men. Such distinctions occur in North
America in Yana, Muskogean, and Atsina, and in South America in several languages,
including Island and Black Carib (Arawakan), Cocoma (Tupian), and Tacaná. Ritual
languages—special forms of speech for ceremonies—exist within Zuñi, Iroquoian, Mayan,
Nahuatl, Quechua, and some other languages. In a few multilingual regions, trade jargons
emerged (). These reduced, simplified languages include Chinook jargon, Mobilian, and
Delaware trade jargon in North America. A few languages developed forms of whistle
speech, in which the melody of the whistling parallels the tones of the language. Whistle
languages are used for purposes such as courtship. Such languages occur in Kickapoo
(Algonquian-Ritwan) in Mexico near Texas; several Otomanguean languages, Nahuatl
dialects, and the Totonacan languages in Middle America; and the Aguaruna (Jívaroan)
and the Sirionó (Tupian) in South America.
The Incas, speakers of Quechua, employed the quipu (a knotted cord used for numerical
calculations) as a device for recording information; they also painted some sort of
communication on beans and wove iconographic symbols into textiles. All these
communicate information, but none approaches true writing. In North America, due to
stimulus from—or, in most cases, direct study of—European writing, several groups
developed interesting forms of writing. Examples include the syllabaries (writing systems
in which each symbol represents the sound of a different syllable) of the Cherokee,
Micmac, Cree, and Inuit.
True pre-Columbian writing systems developed only in Middle America. Hieroglyphic
writing was used at least by the Aztecs, the Mixtecs, the Zapotec of Oaxaca, the Mixe-
Zoque speakers, and the Maya. Most Middle American hieroglyphs are based on
morpheme signs; that is, they are logograms, in which the sign represents a whole word.
These signs were augmented by the rebus principle (pictorial punning), in which the sign
for one word is used to represent another word that sounds the same (for example, in
English, using a picture of an eye to represent both eye and I). In classic Mayan, in
addition, phonetic signs were developed that had the syllabic value of a consonant plus a
vowel (CV). The typically one-syllable Mayan roots (consisting of a vowel between two
consonants) could be “spelled” with two signs (CV-CV), with the last vowel understood
to be silent.
The study of Native American languages has provided rich insights for linguistic theory,
language change, the prehistory of the Americas, and the relation of language to culture as
well as to modes of thought and perception. Many of these languages will soon become
extinct and therefore deserve urgent attention. It is encouraging that, in the 20th century,
more and more native speakers have become involved with the formal study of their own