Native American languages

Published on September 21, 2010 by Aquarius

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The Native American languages predate European settlement of the New World. In a few parts of the U.S. (mostly on Indian reservations), they continue to be spoken fluently. Most of these languages are endangered, although there are efforts to revive them. Normally the fewer the speakers of a language the greater the degree of endangerment, but there are many small Native American language communities in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) which continue to thrive despite their small size. In 1929, speaking of indigenous Native American languages, linguist Edward Sapir observed:

“Few people realize that within the confines of the United States there is spoken today a far greater variety of languages … than in the whole of Europe. We may go further. We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe.”

According to the 2000 Census and other language surveys, the largest Native American language-speaking community by far is the Navajo. The largest communities are:

178,000 speakers. Navajo is one of the Athabascan languages of the Na-Dené family.

Dakota has 18,000 speakers (22,000 including speakers in Canada), not counting 6,000 speakers of the closely related Lakota. Dakota is a member of the Siouan language family. However, if you refer to the Wikipedia page on the Dakota language, it claims there are only 1,000 Dakota speakers in the world.

Central Alaskan Yup’ik
Central Alaskan Yup’ik has 16,000 speakers. The Yup’ik are part of the Eskimo-Aleut language family but are not Inuit.

Cherokee belongs to the Iroquoian language family, and had about 22,000 speakers as of 2005. The Cherokee have the largest tribal affiliation in the U.S., but most are of mixed ancestry and do not speak the language. Recent efforts to preserve and increase the Cherokee language in Oklahoma and the Cherokee Indian reservation in North Carolina have been productive.

Western Apache
Western Apache, with 12,500 speakers, is a Southern Athabaskan language closely related to Navajo, but not mutually intelligible with it.

Piman dialects (Pima and Tohono O’odham) have more than 12,000 speakers. Piman is one of the Uto-Aztecan languages along with Hopi, Comanche, Huichol, and Aztec.

Choctaw has 11,000 speakers. One of the Muskogean language family, like Seminole and Alabama.

Keres has 11,000 speakers. A language isolate, the Keres are the largest of the Pueblo nations. The Keres pueblo of Acoma is the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States.

Zuni has 10,000 speakers. Zuni is a language isolate mostly spoken in a single pueblo, Zuni, the largest in the U.S.

Ojibwe has 7,000 speakers (about 55,000 including speakers in Canada). The Algonquian language family includes populous languages like Cree in Canada.

Other languages
Many other languages have been spoken within the current borders of the United States. The following is a list of 28 language families (groups of demonstrably related languages) indigenous to the territory of the continental United States.
• Algic
• Alsean
• Athabaskan
• Caddoan
• Chimakuan
• Chinookan
• Chumashan
• Coosan
• Comecrudan
• Eskimo-Aleut
• Iroquoian
• Kalapuyan
• Kiowa-Tanoan
• Maiduan
• Muskogean
• Palaihnihan
• Plateau Penutian
• Pomoan
• Salishan
• Shastan
• Siouan
• Tsimshian
• Utian
• Uto-Aztecan
• Wakashan
• Wintuan
• Yokutsan
• Yuman-Cochimí

In addition to the above list of families, there are many languages in the United States that are sufficiently well-known to attempt to classify but which have not been shown to be related to any other language in the world. These 25 language isolates are listed below. With further study, some of these will likely prove to be related to each other or to one of the established families. There are also larger and more contentious proposals such as Penutian and Hokan.
• Adai
• Atakapa
• Cayuse
• Chimariko
• Chitimacha
• Coahuilteco
• Esselen
• Haida
• Karankawa
• Karok
• Keres
• Kootenai
• Natchez
• Salinan
• Siuslaw
• Takelma
• Timucua
• Tonkawa
• Tunica
• Washo
• Yana
• Yuchi
• Yuki
• Wappo
• Zuni

Since the languages in the Americas have a history stretching for about 17,000 to 12,000 years, current knowledge of American languages is limited. There are doubtless a number of languages that were spoken in the United States that are missing from historical record.

Source: Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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