The languages of the American








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   Chart of North, Central and South American families

Language family

Some member languages




Navajo, Apache, Chipewayan, Dogrib


Cheyenne, Shawnee, Cree, Ojibwa (Mohican)


Crow, Winnebago, Omaha


Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Cherokee


Caddo, Witchita, Pawnee


Makah, Nootka, Nitinat


Flathead, Spokan, Kalispel, Coeur d’Alene


Nezperce, Sahaptin, Klamath


Patwin, Wintu, Nomlaki


Choctaw, Koasati, Mikasuki


Diegueño, Yuma, Mohare


Comecrudo, Cotoname, Pakawa, Carrizo


Northern Painte, Snake, Comanche


Otomi, Pame,Pirinda, Mazahua


Huastecan, Cholan, Maya, Tzeltal, Tojolabal


Quechua, Aymara, Arawak, Guaraní


Carib, Bororo, Witoto, Mataco


Cuna, Cayapa, Epera, Warao, Talamanca



There were originally around 300 languages spoken by the indigenous American Indian (Amerindian) tribes, but this number had more than halved by the 1970s.  Many of the languages are now spoken by only a few old people.  Only about 50 of the languages have more than 10,000.  In the mid-1970s, the total number of speakers was estimated at around 300,000.

The Amerindian languages have been classified into over 50 families, showing many kinds and degrees of interrelationship.  However, this allows a great deal of scope for further classification, and Amerindian linguistics has thus proved to be a controversial field, generating many proposals about the links between and within families.  It is not known whether the languages have a common origin.  The people are thought to have migrated from Asia across the Bering Strait(白令海峽), perhaps in a series of waved, but the only North American languages which show any clear links with Asian languages are those belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut(愛斯基摩-阿留申語)family. 

Eskimo-Aleut is the name given to a small group of languages spoken in the far north, in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, and stretching along the Aleutian Islands(阿留申群島) into Siberia(西伯利亞).  Eskimo is the main languages, spoken in many dialects by around 90,000.  Its two main branches- Yupik in Alaska and Siberia, Inupiaq (Inuit, or Inuktitut) elsewhere – are sometimes classified as separate languages.  Greenlandic Eskimo has official status in Greenland, alongside Danish(丹麥).  A standard written form dates from the mid-19th century.  There are also a few hundred speakers remaining of Aleut.

Further south, the Na-Dené group consists of over 30 languages, spoken in two main areas: Alaska and north-west Canada, and south-west-central USA.  Most of the languages belong to the Athabaskan family, whose best-known member is Navaho(現住在北美西部的印地安人), with around 120,000 speakers – one of the few Amerindian languages which has actually increased in size in recent years.  The various dialects of Apache (照片) (阿帕契族:美國西南方,墨西哥北的印第安部族;阿帕契語) are closely related to Navaho.

The Algonquian family is geographically the most widespread, with over 30 languages covering a broad area across central and eastern Canada, and down through central and southern USA.  Many well-known tribes are represented – the Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree, Fox, Micmac, Mohican, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Shawnee – though only Cree and Ojibwa have substantial numbers of speakers (around 50,000).  Several other languages spoken mainly in the south-east USA have now been grouped along with Algonquian(亞爾岡京語系) into a Macro-Algonquian family – most notably the Muskogean group, which includes Choctaw(喬克托語) and Muskogee

The Macro-Siouan family consists of 26 languages, spoken in a broad swathe from Canada down through central USA, and in two areas further east.  The best-known members are Cherokee, Dakota (Sioux), Crow, Mohawk, and Pawnee, but only the first two have over10, 000 speakers. 



     The main linguistic bridge between North and South American is formed by the (Macro-) Penutian group, which in its broadest interpretation consists of over 60 languages (many of these grouped into smaller families), spoken from south-west Canada down through the western states of the USA, throughout Mexico and Central American, and into south-west South America.  In a narrower interpretation, only the 20 or so North American languages, none of which has many speakers, are subsumed under this heading.

     The languages with most speakers belong to the Mayan family, spoken in Mexico and Central America – notably Maya (or Yucatan), Mam, Kekchi, Cakchiquel, and Quiché, all of which have over a quarter of a million speakers.  In South America, the main candidate for membership is Araucanian (or Mapuche), spoken mainly in Chile(智利) by around 200,000.  Chipayan and Uru (spoken by a few hundred people in Bolivia玻利維亞) have also been proposed as belonging to Penutian

     The Hokan group of around 30 languages is spoken by small numbers in parts of western and south-west USA, and eastern Mexico.  Tlapanec is the only language with over 20,000 speakers.  Similarly, most of the 30 or so languages which belong to the Aztec-Tanoan group have few speakers today.  The group includes the languages of such well-known tribes as the Comanche, Paiute, Shoshone- and also the Hopi.  Three Mexican languages are still widely spoken: Aztec, or Nahua (around a million speakers), Tarahumar (over 50,000), and Pima-Papago (nearly 20,000).



     The indigenous languages of Central America are generally known as Meso-American (or Middle American) Indian languages.  In an area extending from Mexico to Nicaragua(尼加拉瓜), about 70 languages are spoken by around 6 million people.  Several of the languages belong to one of the North American families (Penutian, Hokan, Aztec-Tanoan); some belong to South American families (grouped under Macro-Chibchan).  The only group which is restricted to this region is Oto-Manguean.  Almost all Oto-Manguean langiages are spoken within a small area centred on the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.  The main languages are Otomí, Mixtec, and Zapotec, each spoken by around a quarter of a million people. 



     Indigenous Indian languages are used throughout the whole of the continent of South America, including the southern part of Central America and the Antilles group of islands.  They are spoken by over 11 million people.  In former times, as many as 2,000 languages may have been spoken in the area, but fewer than 600 of these have been attested.  Despite the considerable efforts of ethnographers and missionaries, especially in the present century, few languages have been completely described.  Many tribes consist of small numbers living in extremely remote jungle areas.  Even in the more accessible cases, there is considerable uncertainty over the identity of the languages, and what kind of language/ dialect boundaries operate.  Many are under threat of extinction as western civilization (in the linguistic shape of Spanish and Portuguese) opens up the area.  It seems likely that over 1,000 tribes have become extinct before their languages could be recorded. 

     In spite of this decline, South America remains one of the most linguistically diversified areas of the world.  Some accounts suggest that there are more than 100 language families on the continent.  However, because of the difficulties in obtaining accurate information, classifications of the languages have tended to be very general, and there are many differences among the sub-groupings which have been proposed.  At the most general level, three major groups have been suggested. 

1.      The Macro-Chibchan group is one of the most widespread, being found in Central America, Columbia, Venezuela (委內瑞拉), and south into Bolivia (玻利維亞) and Brazil.  There are around 50 languages in the group but only five (Guaymi, Cuna, Waica, Epera, Paez) have as many as 20,000 speakers, and several are in the verge of extinction. 

2.      The Ge-Pano-Carib group of nearly 200 languages is spoken east of the Andes(安地斯山脈) along most of the length of the continent and along the Brazilian Amazon basin.  It has a very small number of speakers (perhaps a million) for such a vast area.  The Carib family, within this group, is one of the largest in South America, containing over80 langeages spoken by tiny numbers throughout the whole northern region.  Only Carib itself has as many as 5,000 speakers.  Macro-Panoan, also within this group, is a family of about 70 languages spoken from Peru and Bolivia eastward to Brazil, and southward to Paraguay (巴拉圭)and Argentina.   Mataco, spoken mainly in northern Argentina and Paraguay, is the only language with more than 10,000 speakers. 

3.      The Andean-Equatorial group consists of about 250 languages, and contains many sub-divisions.  Within the Equatorial division, for example, there is the Arawakan group, which once extended into North America, and is still widespread, being spoken from Central America to Southern Brazil.  Goajiro (over 40,000) is its main member.  Within the Andean division, the Quechumaran group is preeminent in the Andes highlands between Colombia and Argentina.  Aymará was once a major language throughout the central Andes, but is now restricted to around 600,000 speakers in Bolivia and Peru.  Quechua, the official language of the Incas, is now spoken by over 6 million from Colombia to Chile.  It is widely used as a lingua franca, and its literary history dates from the 17th century.  In the south, in Paraguay, the Indian languages of Guaraní (a member of the Tupí family)is spoken by perhaps three million people (mainly non-Indians), and is the majority language to achieve such a status.  By contrast, over a dozen Tupian languages have become extinct in the first half of this century. 

     The South American Indians migrated from the north, but hardly any of the languages of the area are plausibly related to the language families of North and Middle America.  The only links which have attracted support are under the heading of Penutian, where some scholars have placed Araucanian, Chipayan, and Uru.  Others, however, see these languages as part of the Andean-Equatorial group.



     In a fresh classification presemted in 1985 by the American linguist Joseph Greenberg (1915- ), all the languages of the New World are brought together, and grouped into three main families:  Na-Dené, Eskimo-Aleut, and Amerind.  Eskimo-Aleut is seen as part of a ‘Euroasiatic’ family, whose other members include Indo-European, Altaic, Japanese, Korean, and several other alnguages.  Amerind is an extremely large family, comprising 11 sub-families and, at a lower level of classification, nearly 200 groups of languages.  It covers the whole of North, Central, and South America, and incorporates several languages previously thought to be isolates.



橢圓形圖說文字: ★    Isolates
There are over 30 languages whose relationship to the main language groups in North America has not so far been determined.  Over 20 of these are the Salish language, spoken along the Canadian/ USA Pacific coastline, and some way inland.  They include Bella Coola, Okanogan, Shuswap, and Squamish.  These days, the numbers of speakers are very small – mostly fewer than 1000 and in several cases fewer than 10.  Pentlach, spoken on Vancouver Island, was already extinct in the 1970s.  The six language of the Wakashan family, spoken on the British Columbia coast (notably, Nootka and Kwakiutl) constitute another isolated group.














      Adopted from The Cambridge encyclopedia of Language written by Crystal

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