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Native American Languages: Past, Present & Future

written by: Renae Haug•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 11/15/2012
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Who has not heard the famous tales of Crazy Horse, Geronimo, and Chief Joseph? These prominent Native American leaders, while chiefs of different tribes, all three were involved in a struggle to resist and defend their people against the encroachment of the of the US government. While their effort

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    Native Americans are people often grossly misrepresented throughout the centuries as violent and merciless. However, numerous records demonstrate most tribes as hospitable people with a love and respect for their land--having a unique connection with it.

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    The Many Languages of Native American Tribes

    There is no question about the amazing role Native Americans have played in history. One general misunderstanding was there were few Native American languages spoken prior to the arrival of the Europeans. On the contrary, it has now been estimated that the Native American languages spoken in the Western Hemisphere were well over a thousand, perhaps close to two thousand. Tribes of the Indian nations were estimated to be in the hundreds in North America alone.

    The number of Native American languages are immense in variety and typically categorized by geographical divisions. The three primary divisions are North America, Central America and South America. Evidence also confirms that Native American languages were highly developed in North America.

    Due to the immense variety of tribes and languages spoken by Native Americans, it would be virtually impossible to provide even a brief description of them all. So I will mention only a few who lived in times past, and a few currently residing in the Americas still speaking their native tongues.

    The Quechuan languages are a family of languages with numerous dialects spoken in South America. It is a language family still spoken there today. An ancient requisite was that all learn Quechua, the language of the Incas. Hence, the Incas made their language, Quechua, the tongue of the Inca Empire. “Quechua,“ says the book Quechua, Within the Reach of Everyone, is considered “the most comprehensive, most varied, as well as the most elegant of the dialects of South America.” Quechua is spoken today by millions in countries having connections to the Inca Empire, particularly in the mountains of Peru.

    The Algonquin Indians of North America are the most populous and widespread of North American native groups and speak several different dialects. The Comanche Indians were an offshoot of the Eastern Shoshoni Indians. The Mohawk Indian tribe is part of the Iroquoian linguistic group, a language family that includes Cherokee. After the American Revolution many of the Mohawk tribes relocated to Canada and are currently living there today; many are also living in the US, and reservations span both countries.

    Central America has a large number of natives speaking indigenous languages such as Mayan, spoken in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize. Mexico is only second to Peru in the number of indigenous languages spoken. A few of them are Nahuatl, Mazatec and Trique.

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    Classification

    There is some debate regarding the classification of language families spoken by Native Americans. A number of scholars agreed that there were approximately 60 different language families in North America, in Central America 19 different families, and the greatest number in South America with about 80 language families. Those scholars concluded that the groupings had no definite genetic links among them, whereas other scholars assert that there were genetic links among many of the Native American languages, and hence, fewer language families.

    The vast variety in Native American Languages caused the inability of many Natives Americans to communicate with one another--even for those living within relatively close proximity of each other. Instead, they had what appears to be a universal language understood among different tribes--Sign Language.

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    Languages Today

    Displacement, pestilence and abandonment resulted in great numbers of the indigenous American languages dying out. Despite this fact, there are some Native American languages that have actually flourished. One such widely spoken is today is Navajo.

    Today many of the Native Americans are taking on the challenge to revive languages that have faded with time or virtually died out. If you have an interest in learning a Native American language you’ll be fascinated to know that Rosetta Stone has recently produced language learning software for endangered languages. They are working in conjunction with Native American teams on this program. The initial software features the Mohawk language, Inupiaq, of the Eskimo language family spoken in Labrador, Canada, and Inuttitut, the native tongue of the Chitimach people, which was a language thought to have vanished forever.

    The knowledge we possess from Native Americans are not just allegorical tales, but the life history and culture of Native America. The extraordinary knowledge they have of nature they’ve shared with others has been instrumental in areas such as farming and medicine. There is no doubt that the efforts made by the tribal leaders to preserve their way of life was rewarding.

    For more information on Native American languages please visit the links below:

    memory.loc.gov/ammem/award98/ienhtml/tribes.html

    http://www.doi.gov/bia/