An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Overview. The many and very diverse indigenous tongues of the American continent are divided on a geographical and cultural basis into North American, Meso-American and South American languages. North American languages include those spoken in Canada and the United States while those of Mexico belong to Meso-America.

    When the Europeans arrived to North America there were perhaps 300 to 400 languages spoken by several million native people. Due to continuous wars, disease, forced displacement and cultural marginalization, only 250,000 native Americans were still alive in the territory of the United States at the end of the 19th century, and only about half or less of the indigenous languages of North America survive today. Most of them are endangered and many have only a few speakers left.

    North American native languages belong to several stocks which do not seem to share a common origin. It is believed that North America was populated by people ethno-linguistically different who migrated in several waves from Asia across the Bering Strait. The extinction of so many languages makes an accurate classification difficult but most scholars agree they are divided into around a dozen phyla.

  1. Map of North American languages distribution (click to enlarge it)

Note: The map reflects, mostly, the former language distribution before the arrival of the Europeans.

Classification (speaker numbers between brackets)

*Eskimo-Aleut (100,000): spreads across the Arctic coast and adjacent islands of Greenland, Canada, Alaska and eastern Siberia. The Aleut dialects are spoken on the Aleutian Islands, off the Alaska coast. Yupik, which belongs to the Eskimo subfamily, is spoken in Siberia and southwestern Alaska while the other Eskimo branch, Inuit, is spoken in Northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland. The Eskimo-Aleut languages are spoken by small communities of hunters and fishermen that have adapted to the extreme conditions of the harsh Arctic environment. Their speakers are supposed to have been part of the last large-scale migration from Asia across the Bering strait, around 5,000 years ago. After reaching Alaska they migrated southwesterly into the Aleutian islands, and northeasterly to the Arctic coasts of Canada and Greenland. Others migrated back to Siberia.

*Na-Dene (210,000): The largest group of North America, occupying three discontinuous territories in Alaska-Canada, US Pacific Coast, and southern US. It comprises the Athabaskan family plus Tlingit and Eyak, two contiguous languages of the northern Northwest coast. Athabaskan is divided into:

  1. a)Northern branch in interior Alaska and northwestern Canada (mainly in Yukon and  Northwestern Territories up to Hudson Bay).

  1. b)Pacific Coast branch in Oregon and northwesternmost California.

  1. c)Navajo-Apache branch in southwest USA (Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas). It includes Navajo which, with 170,000 speakers, is the largest North American indigenous language.

The Na-Dene homeland seems to have been in the north; the Pacific Coast and Navajo-Apache branches are likely the result of prehistoric migrations southward along opposite flanks of the Rocky Mountains.

*Wakashan (1,000): half a dozen languages in the Vancouver Island region.

*Salishan (3,500): two dozen languages along the Pacific coast from Oregon, through the southern half of British Columbia and inland into the Rocky Mountains. All languages are extinct or in the verge of extinction. They are distinguished by their numerous consonants and consonant clusters. Bella Coola permits syllables and sizable words with no vowels.

*Penutian (7,000): includes about thirty languages distributed in northern California, Oregon and southern Washington state. The Tsimshian languages in coastal northwest British Columbia and Zuni in western New Mexico might also be related to them. The phonology of these languages includes a rich array of laryngeal and pharyngeal phonemes.

*Algic or Algonquian (180,000): a well-studied family with over 30 languages spoken in the past along the eastern coast of North America, from North Carolina to Labrador, around the upper Great Lakes and to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Two thirds of these languages are extinct. Cree and Ojibwa have the most speakers.

*Iroquoian (21,000): is very well known from colonial times. It has two branches Northern and Southern, the latter including only one language, Cherokee, spoken in Oklahoma and North Carolina. The Northern branch was distributed in southeast Ontario and in the state of New York; Mohawk is now its most important language.

*Muskogean (17,000): was located entirely within the southeastern USA (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, NW Florida) before displacements to Oklahoma forced by the European immigrants. Choctaw and Creek are the main languages.

*Siouan and Caddoan (26,000): occupied the Great Plains north of Texas up to Wisconsin and Montana as well as portions of the southeast US. The Caddoan branch is almost extinct now. Crow and Stoney have the most speakers (3,000 and 3,200, respectively).

*Kiowa-Tanoan (6,000): Half a dozen languages. Kiowa is spoken in Oklahoma, the rest in north New Mexico.

*Keresan (11,000): comes from the pueblos of New Mexico. Includes just two languages, Eastern Keres and Western Keres, spoken in the vicinity of the Río Grande.

*Uto-Aztecan (25,000 in USA): is a large family divided into the northern languages of North America and the southern languages of Mexico and Central America. It extends from Oregon in the north to El Salvador in the south. Among the North American languages (concentrated in the Great Basin, southern California and southern Arizona) are Hopi, Comanche, Shoshone and Paiute. The best known Mexican language of this family is Nahuatl (or Aztec). 

*Hokan (4,000): in the western margin of the continent from northern California to Oaxaca. A problematic group with more than 20 languages. It includes the Yuman family of southern California, Arizona, and Baja California, and the almost extinct Pomo family on the coast north of San Francisco which have been well studied and seem to be related.

Speakers. There are about 600,000 speakers of North American indigenous languages of which 170,000 speak Navajo (one of the few languages that is prospering). According to the 2007 USA census, 371,000 people speak there an indigenous language, and according to the 2006 Canada census about  200,000 speak a native language in the country. In Greenland, about 50,000 speak an Eskimo-Aleut language. The approximate number of speakers per family is:































*Includes 50,000 speakers in Greenland.

**North American languages only.


Native North American languages are not radically different from those found in other parts of the world. They don't have unique traits but some features are more frequent among them than elsewhere.

-Polysynthesis is the capacity of building long and complex words by the successive addition to a root of several morphemes. As a result, a single word may function, sometimes, as a whole sentence. It is distinctive of, but not limited to, Eskimo-Aleut and Algonquian.

-Incorporation or the compounding of verb with its direct object is a phenomenon sometimes associated with polysynthesis but other times is independent of it. For example, in Oneida (an Iroquoian language):

  1. waʼ-ke-nakta-hninú

  2. PAST-I-bed-buy

  3. I bought a bed.

-In verbs, the person and number of the subject, and sometimes also the person and number of the object, are marked by prefixes in many languages.

-Possession in nouns is usually expressed by prefixes indicating the person and number of the possessor.

-First person plural pronouns frequently show a distinction between inclusive ("you and I”) and exclusive forms (“I and someone other than you”).

-Many languages indicate in their verbs the type or validity of the information reported (eye-witness, hearsay, reported event, general truth, etc). For example, in Eastern Pomo different evidential suffixes are added to the verbs:

  1. pha-békh-ink'e: "burned" (non-visual evidence, speaker felt the sensation)

  2. pha-békh-a: "burned" (direct evidence, probably visual)

  3. pha-békh-ine: "must have burned" (inferential)

  4. pha-békh-le: "burned, they say" (hearsay)


In contrast to Meso-America, indigenous languages of North America were not written before the European colonization. Later, the Cherokees developed an original syllabary to write their language. Other writing systems were invented by missionaries or scholars; some were syllabaries (Cree, Winnebago, Athabaskan) but most were alphabetic and based on the Latin script.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -The Languages of Native North America. M. Mithun. Cambridge University Press (1999).

  2. -Die Nordamerikanischen Indianersprachen. H-J. Pinnow. Harrassowitz (1964).

  3. -'North American Indian Languages'. W. O. Bright. In Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite (2011).

  4. -'Native American Languages'. E. P. Hamp. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 746-753. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  5. -Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality. E. Sapir. University of California Press (1949).

  6. -Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings. B. L. Whorf. MIT Press (1956).

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Native North American Languages

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