Native American Languages

Origins and pre-Columbian distribution

             The earliest immigrants seem to have come through the Western part of the present day United States.  Many probably settled there without moving on:  more than half the language families in North America were spoken on the Pacific coast, especially in California.  The northern and eastern regions of the present day United States seemed to have been settled later and have few families.  So the original Native American spread of population was the mirror opposite of the spread of Europeans many centuries later.

            California languages (Hokan, Penutian-Mayan)

            Pacific Northwest

            Uto-Aztecan (Mexica/Nahuatl/Hopi/Papago) and isolates of the SW

            the Siouan tribes (Sioux = Lakhota, Dakhota)

            the American South (Muskogean and isolates)

            Iroquois (Houdenasanee) and Cherokee (Tsalagi)

            Algonquin  (Lenni Lenape, Delaware, Wallam Olam) in California;  Beothuk, Yuchi

            Na-Dene (Navajo, Apache, Athabascan)

            Eskimo-Aleut (Inuit)

South American languages--greatest diversity in the rain forest--refuge area for the descendants of the first immigrants.

Quechua, Aymara, Guarani, Chibchan

Language isolates-in the Amazon

Carib, Arawak, Taino

      What accounts for the tremendous linguistic diversity of the aboriginal Americas?  There were dozens of language families each the equivalent of the Indo-European family.  If anything, your map presents an oversimplification of this language diversity.  In California languages as different as English and Chinese were spoken side by side.  Many linguists suspect that at least some of these separate families date back to separate migrations of different tribes from Asia who originally spoke unrelated languages.  Linguistic and archeological data hint at more than one migration from Asia into the Americas, all of them through Alaska.  These migrations began at least 14 thousand years ago.  By 9000 BC all habitable parts of the Americas from the Arctic to the tip of South America seem to have been populated by groups of hunter-gatherers.

            250 spoken in North America north of Mexico

            350 In Mexico and Central America (Mesoamerica)

            1450 in South America


            No proven relation to Siberian languages (mention the Paleo-Siberian languages, legends in the Wallam Olam)  There is no evidence of any substantial contact by other routes until 1492.  The Vikings visited the north Atlantic coast from the 10th century to the 14th century but left no lasting impact--linguistically or demographically.

Native American languages after contact

      Before the Europeans, the Aztecs and Incas had complex and powerful states with many millions of subjects.  In 1492 the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was larger than London, and only the Chinese Empire was larger and more powerful than the empire of the Incas (Tawatsinsusu).  In 1492 a substantial portion of the world's languages were native American languages.  It has been estimated that one out of every five human beings on earth spoke a Native American language at that time. 

      This is clearly not the case today.  Many Native American languages have become extint; of the ones that survive, only a small number are spoken by any sizeable number of people;  no native American language has ever been used to address the United Nations.  The Indians were so completely displaced by the Europeans that in the early part of this century many people thought the Indians and their languages were doomed to total extinction.

      The most spoken native languages are south of the United States:

Quechua--7 million

Mayan languages --over 1 million.

Nahuatl--over 1 million

      Today, perhaps one in every 250 American citizens speak a native American language.  The last reliable figures for speakers of native American languages were published in 1962. 

Navaho--150thou; Cherokee--15thou; Papago 20, Hopi--several thousand

Crow--8thou; Lakhota--4thou

Various Eskimo lang's--several thousand, Cree--a few thousand.

Impact of Native American Languages on English

    Let's now examine the impact of Native American languages on English.  Although the native languages as means of communication were pushed to oblivion or at best into obscurity, these languages have had a greater effect on the languages of the conquerors than is often realized.

    The most obvious effect is in the large number of place names that derive from native American languages:

    Fully half the states of the United States have names associated with aboriginal America; only a minority of state names come from European langauges.

Michigan (Alg) big water

Minnesota (Souian) water that reflects the sky

Missouri (Souian) water flowing along

Ohio (Ir) good river

Texas (Caddoan) Friends

Nebraska (Omaha) broad river

Kentucky (Ir) dark and bloody ground

    Many states are named after tribes who once lived there:  Mass, Conn, Illinois, Dakota

    Cities and Counties also:  Punksatony (bad air), Skagit, Snohomish, Okanogan. . . .

    Native names for rivers, bodies of water and mountains are even more common: Potomac, Allegheny, Monongahela, Lake Okeechobee, Okefenoke Swamp, Skagit, Samish, Wabash, Washatch mts. 

    Ironically, Native Americans usually didn't give a single name to an entire river or mountain.  Instead, they tended to give separate names to each individual feature such as the mouth of a river or a particular bend of a river.  They tended to name each peak or crag rather than the whole mountain.  Europeans often misunderstood this technique and applied native names to entire geographic units:

Tennessee (Cherokee) named after a village

Appalachian Mountains were named after a village in northern Florida, Appalachen

Canada (Ir) name of a small village applied by Jaques Cartier to the whole land.

    In keeping with the European practice of naming places in honor of individuals, Europeans often named places after notable Indians: Tammany, Pocatella (after a Bannock chief, Sacagewea (Shoshone bird woman), Whatcom, Seattle.   Ironically, the Indians themselves rarely named anything after the name of an individual.

    European naming practices also changed:  they adopted Indian custom of naming areas after animals rather than after individual people:  Buffalo, NY; Turkey Island (near Jamestown); Turtle Lake, Michigan, Deer Creek.  Ancient Europe had abandoned this practice after the acceptance of Christianity; as a rule only pre-Christian European toponyms are animalistic:  Berlin, Bern.

    In recent years there has been a push to rediscover and reuse old native names:  Denali, Kalaallit Nunaat, Kulshan, Tahoma.

    Thousands of native words also came into the general vocabulary of English.  This is no surprise, since the Americas contained such a tremendous array of new plants, animals, lifeways and environments that the Europeans had to find some way of expressing.

bayou (Choctaw); savanna (Taino); pampas ; jerky  (Quechua); potato (Taino); hurricane (Carib); tomato, chocolate (Aztec);

blizzard, shark are probably Native American

--many Native American words came to English through the Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay colonies, the first areas to witness extensive Indian-English contact: squash from 'asquatasquash = eaten raw, succotash = grain of corn'  Other Algonquin words include:  skunk, chipmunk, racoon, moose, opossum, persimmon, sassafras, hickory, wampum, toboggan, wigwam, tomahawk, papoose, squaw, powwow (holy man), caucus.   Also Yankee from the Algonquin pronunciation of English.

Podunk--(Algonquian) an isolated part of land.

muckamuck --(Chinook) important chief

honk--the sound of a goose, then of a car; honky-tonk music--honky.

    The effect of native languages on the English vocabulary goes deeper than merely the borrowing of individual words, however.  The very technique by which English makes words was enriched.  European languages are rich in nouns, but weaker in verbs;  consequently, they borrowed mostly nouns from the Native Americans.  But the Native American nouns were often whole verb-like complexes, not very different from an entire sentence.  Therefore, English speakers began to compound nouns together to try to capture the essence of a native term.  This resulted in hundreds of new noun compounds:   rattlesnake, june bug, red cedar, bloodroot, chokecherry, sugar maple, peanut, firewater, bullfrog, catfish.  Such types of compounds involving strange or antithetical elements of meaning had been rare in English until the colonial period.  The polysynthetic structure of native American languages thus influenced modern English, which continued making such semantically unusual compounds even after the initial influence of the Native American languages wore off:  bootleg

    Many new phrases and sayings also came into English:  going on the warpath, scalp hunting, paleface, burying the hatchet, smoking the peace pipe, Great Spirit, Happy Hunting Ground.

    What is the future of Native American languages?

    Some of them will definitely survive.  Greater efforts are being expended to value them and preserve them.  Some extinct or nearly extinct languages may be resurrected from the dead.  Lummis are involved in a language revitalization campaign.  Such an effort actually succeeded in resurrecting Hebrew in this century.