Indigenous languages of the Americas are spoken by indigenous peoples from Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland to the southern tip of South America, encompassing the land masses that constitute the Americas. These indigenous languages consist of dozens of distinct language families, as well as many language isolates and unclassified languages.
Many proposals to group these into higher-level families have been made, such as Joseph Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis. This scheme is rejected by nearly all specialists, due to the fact that some of the languages differ too significantly to draw any connections between them.
According to UNESCO, most of the indigenous American languages are critically endangered, and many are already extinct. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Southern Quechua, with about 6 to 7 million speakers, primarily in South America.
Thousands of languages were spoken by various peoples in North and South America prior to their first contact with Europeans. These encounters occurred between the beginning of the 11th century (with the Nordic settlement of Greenland and failed efforts in Newfoundland and Labrador) and the end of the 15th century (the voyages of Christopher Columbus). Several indigenous cultures of the Americas had also developed their own writing systems, the best known being the Maya script. The indigenous languages of the Americas had widely varying demographics, from the Quechuan languages, Aymara, Guarani, and Nahuatl, which had millions of active speakers, to many languages with only several hundred speakers. After pre-Columbian times, several indigenous creole languages developed in the Americas, based on European, indigenous and African languages.
The European colonizers and their successor states had widely varying attitudes towards Native American languages. In Brazil, friars learned and promoted the Tupi language. In many Latin American colonies, Spanish missionaries often learned local languages and culture in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue and relate the Christian message to their indigenous religions. In the British American colonies, John Eliot of the Massachusetts Bay Colony translated the Bible into the Massachusett language, also called Wampanoag, or Natick (1661–1663; he published the first Bible printed in North America, the Eliot Indian Bible.
The Europeans also suppressed use of indigenous American languages, establishing their own languages for official communications, destroying texts in other languages, and insisting that indigenous people learn European languages in schools. As a result, indigenous American languages suffered from cultural suppression and loss of speakers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, brought to the Americas by European settlers and administrators, had become the official or national languages of modern nation-states of the Americas.
Many indigenous languages have become critically endangered, but others are vigorous and part of daily life for millions of people. Several indigenous languages have been given official status in the countries where they occur, such as Guaraní in Paraguay. In other cases official status is limited to certain regions where the languages are most spoken. Although sometimes enshrined in constitutions as official, the languages may be used infrequently in de facto official use. Examples are Quechua in Peru and Aymara in Bolivia, where in practice, Spanish is dominant in all formal contexts.
In North America and the Arctic region, Greenland in 2009 adopted Kalaallisut as its sole official language. In the United States, the Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language, with more than 200,000 speakers in the Southwestern United States. The US Marine Corps recruited Navajo men, who were established as code talkers during World War II, to transmit secret US military messages. Neither the Germans nor Japanese ever deciphered the Navajo code, which was a code using the Navajo language. Today, governments, universities, and indigenous peoples are continuing to work for the preservation and revitalization of indigenous American languages.
Roger Blench (2008) has advocated the theory of multiple migrations along the Pacific coast of peoples from northeastern Asia, who already spoke diverse languages. These proliferated in the New World.
There are approximately 296 spoken (or formerly spoken) indigenous languages north of Mexico, 269 of which are grouped into 29 families (the remaining 27 languages are either isolates or unclassified). The Na-Dené, Algic, and Uto-Aztecan families are the largest in terms of number of languages. Uto-Aztecan has the most speakers (1.95 million) if the languages in Mexico are considered (mostly due to 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl); Na-Dené comes in second with approximately 200,000 speakers (nearly 180,000 of these are speakers of Navajo), and Algic in third with about 180,000 speakers (mainly Cree and Ojibwe). Na-Dené and Algic have the widest geographic distributions: Algic currently spans from northeastern Canada across much of the continent down to northeastern Mexico (due to later migrations of the Kickapoo) with two outliers in California (Yurok and Wiyot); Na-Dené spans from Alaska and western Canada through Washington, Oregon, and California to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico (with one outlier in the Plains). Several families consist of only 2 or 3 languages. Demonstrating genetic relationships has proved difficult due to the great linguistic diversity present in North America. Two large (super-) family proposals, Penutian and Hokan, look particularly promising. However, even after decades of research, a large number of families remain.
North America is notable for its linguistic diversity, especially in California. This area has 18 language families comprising 74 languages (compared to four families in Europe: Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic, and Afroasiatic and one isolate: Basque).
Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeastern United States; however, many of these languages became extinct from European contact and as a result they are, for the most part, absent from the historical record. This diversity has influenced the development of linguistic theories and practice in the US.
Due to the diversity of languages in North America, it is difficult to make generalizations for the region. Most North American languages have a relatively small number of vowels (i.e. three to five vowels). Languages of the western half of North America often have relatively large consonant inventories. The languages of the Pacific Northwest are notable for their complex phonotactics (for example, some languages have words that lack vowels entirely). The languages of the Plateau area have relatively rare pharyngeals and epiglottals (they are otherwise restricted to Afroasiatic languages and the languages of the Caucasus). Ejective consonants are also common in western North America, although they are rare elsewhere (except, again, for the Caucasus region, parts of Africa, and the Mayan family).
Head-marking is found in many languages of North America (as well as in Central and South America), but outside of the Americas it is rare. Many languages throughout North America are polysynthetic (Eskimo–Aleut languages are extreme examples), although this is not characteristic of all North American languages (contrary to what was believed by 19th-century linguists). Several families have unique traits, such as the inverse number marking of the Tanoan languages, the lexical affixes of the Wakashan, Salishan and Chimakuan languages, and the unusual verb structure of Na-Dené.
The classification below is a composite of Goddard (1996), Campbell (1997), and Mithun (1999).
In Central America the Mayan languages are among those used today. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name, and Mexico recognizes eight more. The Mayan language family is one of the best documented and most studied in the Americas. Modern Mayan languages descend from Proto-Mayan, a language thought to have been spoken at least 4,000 years ago; it has been partially reconstructed using the comparative method.
Although both North and Central America are very diverse areas, South America has a linguistic diversity rivalled by only a few other places in the world with approximately 350 languages still spoken and an estimated 1,500 languages at first European contact. The situation of language documentation and classification into genetic families is not as advanced as in North America (which is relatively well studied in many areas). Kaufman (1994: 46) gives the following appraisal:
Since the mid 1950s, the amount of published material on SA [South America] has been gradually growing, but even so, the number of researchers is far smaller than the growing number of linguistic communities whose speech should be documented. Given the current employment opportunities, it is not likely that the number of specialists in SA Indian languages will increase fast enough to document most of the surviving SA languages before they go out of use, as most of them unavoidably will. More work languishes in personal files than is published, but this is a standard problem.
It is fair to say that SA and New Guinea are linguistically the poorest documented parts of the world. However, in the early 1960s fairly systematic efforts were launched in Papua New Guinea, and that area – much smaller than SA, to be sure – is in general much better documented than any part of indigenous SA of comparable size.
As a result, many relationships between languages and language families have not been determined and some of those relationships that have been proposed are on somewhat shaky ground.
The list of language families, isolates, and unclassified languages below is a rather conservative one based on Campbell (1997). Many of the proposed (and often speculative) groupings of families can be seen in Campbell (1997), Gordon (2005), Kaufman (1990, 1994), Key (1979), Loukotka (1968), and in the Language stock proposals section below.
Hypothetical language-family proposals of American languages are often cited as uncontroversial in popular writing. However, many of these proposals have not been fully demonstrated, or even demonstrated at all. Some proposals are viewed by specialists in a favorable light, believing that genetic relationships are very likely to be established in the future (for example, the Penutian stock). Other proposals are more controversial with many linguists believing that some genetic relationships of a proposal may be demonstrated but much of it undemonstrated (for example, Hokan–Siouan, which, incidentally, Edward Sapir called his "wastepaper basket stock"). Still other proposals are almost unanimously rejected by specialists (for example, Amerind). Below is a (partial) list of some such proposals:
Good discussions of past proposals can be found in Campbell (1997) and Campbell & Mithun (1979).
Amerindian linguist Lyle Campbell also assigned different percentage values of probability and confidence for various proposals of macro-families and language relationships, depending on his views of the proposals' strengths. For example, the Germanic language family would receive probability and confidence percentage values of +100% and 100%, respectively. However, if Turkish and Quechua were compared, the probability value might be −95%, while the confidence value might be 95%. 0% probability or confidence would mean complete uncertainty.
|Almosan (and beyond)||−75%||50%|
|Keresan and Uto-Aztecan||0%||60%|
|Keresan and Zuni||−40%||40%|
|Quechua as Hokan||−85%||80%|
|Tlapanec–Subtiaba as Otomanguean||+95%||90%|
|Wakashan and Chimakuan||0%||25%|
Several languages are only known by mention in historical documents or from only a few names or words. It cannot be determined that these languages actually existed or that the few recorded words are actually of known or unknown languages. Some may simply be from a historian's errors. Others are of known people with no linguistic record (sometimes due to lost records). A short list is below.
Loukotka (1968) reports the names of hundreds of South American languages which do not have any linguistic documentation.
The Alacalufan languages or Kawesqaran languages are a small language family of South America. They have not been definitely linked to any other American language family.Araucanian languages
The Araucanian languages, a small language family of indigenous languages of the Americas, is located in central Chile and neighboring areas of Argentina. The living representatives of this family are Mapudungu (ISO 639-3: arn) and Huilliche (ISO 639-3: huh). These are sometimes considered divergent dialects of a single language isolate.
It is estimated that there are approximately 200,000 Mapudungu-speakers in Chile and 40,000 speakers in Argentina. Huilliche is the native language of a few thousands of Chileans.Arutani–Sape languages
The Arutani–Sape, also known as Awake–Kaliana or Kalianan, are a proposed language family that includes two of the most poorly documented languages in South America, both of which are nearly extinct. They are at best only distantly related, but Kaufman (1990) finds the connection convincing. However, Migliazza & Campbell (1988) maintain that there is no evidence for linking them. The two languages are,
Arutani (also known as Aoaqui, Auake, Auaque, Awake, Oewaku, Orotani, Uruak, Urutani)
Sape (also known as Caliana, Chirichano, Kaliana, Kariana)Kaufman (1990) states that a further connection with Maku of Roraima is "promising".Cahuapanan languages
The Cahuapanan languages are a language family spoken in the Amazon basin of northern Peru. They include two languages, Chayahuita and Jebero, which are spoken by more than 11,300 people. Chayahuita is spoken by most of that number, but Jebero is almost extinct.
Chayahuita or Chawi (also known or rendered as Balsapuertino, Cahuapa, Chayabita, Chayawita, Chayhuita, Tshaahui, Paranapura, Shayabit)
Jebero (also known or rendered as Chebero, Xebero, Xihuila)Glottolog classifies the extinct language Maynas as close to Chawi.Harákmbut–Katukinan languages
Harákmbut–Katukinan is a proposal linking two language families, Harákmbut and Katukinan. There is reasonably good evidence that the two are related.Hodï language
The Hodï (Jodï, Jotí, Hoti) language, also known as Yuwana (Yoana), Waruwaru, or Chikano (Chicano), is a small unclassified language of Venezuela. Very little is known of it; its several hundred speakers are monolingual hunter-gatherers.Itonama language
Itonama is a moribund language isolate spoken in the Amazonian lowlands of north-eastern Bolivia. Greenberg’s (1987) classification of Itonama as Paezan, a sub-branch of Macro-Chibchan, remains unsupported and Itonama continues to be considered an isolate or unclassified language.Krenak language
The Krenak language, or Botocudo, is the moribund sole surviving language of a small family believed to be part of the Macro-Gê languages. It was once spoken by the Botocudo people in Minas Gerais, but is known primarily by older women today.Nomlaki language
Nomlaki (Noamlakee), or Wintun, is a moribund Wintuan language of Northern California. It was not extensively documented, however, some recordings exist of speaker Andrew Freeman and Sylvester Simmons.There is at least one partial speaker left per Golla (2011).Northern Sierra Miwok
Northern Sierra Miwok is a Miwok language spoken in California, in the upper Mokelumne and Calaveras valleys.Ofayé language
The Ofayé or Opaye language, also Ofaié-Xavante, Opaié-Shavante, forms its own branch of the Macro-Jê languages. It is spoken by only a couple of the small Ofayé people, though language revitalization efforts are underway.Otomákoan languages
Otomaco and Taparita are two long-extinct languages of the Amazon.Rikbaktsa language
The Rikbaktsa language, also spelled Aripaktsa, Erikbatsa, Erikpatsa and known ambiguously as Canoeiro, is a language spoken by the Rikbaktsa people of the Mato Grosso, Brazil, that forms its own branch of the Macro-Gê languages.
As in other languages of the area, word endings indicate the gender of the speaker. Rikbaktsa is a subject-object-verb language.Most Rikbaktsa can speak both Rikbaktsa and Portuguese. Younger individuals tend to speak Portuguese more frequently and fluently than their elders, but older individuals generally struggle with Portuguese and use it only with non-indigenous Brazilians.Tequiraca–Canichana languages
Tequiraca–Canichana is a possible language family proposed in Kaufman (1994) uniting two erstwhile language isolates, Canichana of Bolivia and Tequiraca of Peru, both of which are either extinct or nearly so. The proposal is not included in Campbell & Grondona (2012).Tequistlatecan languages
The Tequistlatecan languages, also called Chontal of Oaxaca, are three close but distinct languages spoken or once spoken by the Chontal people of Oaxaca State, Mexico.
They were spoken by 4,400 people in 2010.Timotean languages
The Timotean languages were spoken in the Venezuelan Andes around what is now Mérida. It is assumed that they are extinct. However, Timote may survive in the so-far unattested Mutú (Loco) language, as this occupies a mountain village (Mutús) within the old Timote state.There is no apparent connection to the Chibchan, Arawakan, or Cariban families, apart from sporadic resemblances with Paez and some divergent Chibchan languages, so Timotean appears to be an independent family.
There were two closely related languages, each a pair of dialects:
Timote–Cuica (Miguri, Cuica, "Cicua", spoken by the Timoto–Cuica people)
Mucuchí–Maripú (Mocochí, Mirripú)Traditionally, Mucuchí and Mirripú have been classified as dialects of Timote, with Cuica as a distinct language, but the data in Loukotka (1968) indicates that Cuica is a dialect of Timote, and that Mucuchí–Mirripú are a separate language (Kaufman 2007; Campbell 1997, 2012).Tiniguan languages
The Tiniwan languages are two extinct and one nearly extinct language of Colombia that form a small family,
MajiguaNothing is known about Majigua (Campbell & Grondona 2012).Waorani language
The Waorani (Huaorani) language, commonly known as Sabela (also Wao, Huao, Auishiri, Aushiri, Ssabela ; autonym: Wao Terero; pejorative: Auka, Auca) is a vulnerable language isolate spoken by the Huaorani people, an indigenous group living in the Amazon Rainforest between the Napo and Curaray Rivers in Ecuador. A small number of speakers with so-called uncontacted groups may live in Peru.Yabutian languages
The Yabutian or Jabutian languages are two similar moribund languages of Brazil. They are members of the Macro-Je language family.
|Pidgins, creoles and mixed|
Languages in italics are extinct.
(number of speakers
in 2010 in millions)