Native American Languages
- Native Languages of the U.S.
- Native Languages
- Language Families of the World
- Endangered Languages
- The Conservation of Endangered Languages
- Communications (Language and Literature)
- The Human-Languages Page
- Onieda Language Project
- Native Languages of Canada
History and Discussion of Native American Languages
At the time of first European contact, probably close to 1,000 American Indian languages were spoken in North, Central, and South America. Although the number of languages in daily use has steadily declined because of persecution and pressures on the Indians to adopt English, Spanish, and other originally European languages, well over 700 different American Indian--or, as they are sometimes called, Amerindian or Native American--languages are spoken today.
In the United States many of the most famous linguists of the early 20th century--among them Franz BOAS, Leonard BLOOMFIELD, and Edward SAPIR--transcribed and analyzed North American Indian languages. Many descriptions of Indian languages are important in the literature of the linguistic school known as American structuralism.
Today interest in Native American Indian languages is increasing, and Americanists, as those who study the languages are called, hold regular meetings to report on their findings. Current research on the native languages of the Americas is published in several periodicals, notably the International Journal of American Linguistics.
The great diversity of Indian languages, however, has thus far prevented proof of common origin, and most Americanists favor more conservative classifications of the languages into a number of distinct groups.
Only a few Native American Indian languages have a written history; therefore, comparative study must be based upon quite recent sources. Following the traditional principles of historical linguistics, words from Indian languages believed to be related are subjected to minute comparison, in a search for regular correspondences of sound and meaning.
Regularity is the key: thus, while Luiseno paa-la, Papago wa-, and Aztec a-tl, all meaning "water," do not immediately appear similar, the words are seen to be cognate (derived from the same word in the ancestor language) when other sets such as Luiseno pe-t, Papago woog, and Aztec o-tli, all meaning "road," are considered, since Luiseno initial p and Papago initial w regularly correspond to the lack of any initial consonant sound in Aztec.
When such correspondences are discovered, the languages being compared are judged to have a historical connection, either genetic--because of descent from a common ancestor--or through language contact and the consequent "borrowing" of words. As genetic relationships are discovered, languages are grouped into families, which then are often compared themselves. Related families can be classified in turn into larger groups called phyla (singular, phylum) or stocks, or into even broader groupings known as macrophyla or superstocks.
On the basis of the Luiseno, Papago, and Aztec words cited above, linguists have proposed the reconstruction of initial p sound in the words for "water" and "road" in the Proto-Uto-Aztecan ancestor of the three languages in question. The sounds systems and vocabulary of the ancestors of a number of different American Indian language families have been partially reconstructed through similarly detailed analysis by linguists. Comparison of these reconstructed protolanguages leads to more informed conjecture about earlier connections between the ancestor languages and the peoples who spoke them.
Names for Native American Indian languages can be confusing. Some names are chosen politically rather than linguistically: for instance, Creek and Seminole are mutually intelligible Muskogean languages but are traditionally treated as separate because the tribes who use them are different. Many Native American Indian tribes use the word for "people" as the meaning of their nation.
Often Indian groups come to be known by a foreign term, such as the English names Dogrib and Yellowknife for Athabascan tribes in the Northwest or the naming of most Coastal California languages for the nearest Spanish mission (Luiseno was the Uto-Aztecan language spoken around Mission San Luis Rey, for example, and the Chumash language Obispeno was named for Mission San Luis Obispo). Some other designations, occasionally derogatory, originated with other Indians--the name Comanche, for example, is from Southern Paiute kimantsi, "stranger." Both languages are Uto-Aztecan.
In some cases the same name has been used for two or more distinct languages. For instance, there are two languages in Central America called "Chontal," one Hokan and one Mayan.
The names of linguistic families and stocks are usually coined by linguists, often by adding -an to the name of a representative language. The Yuman family, for example, is named for the language Yuma.
Languages of Canada and the United States
Perhaps 300 languages were spoken in Canada and the United States when the first Europeans arrived, and about 200 are still spoken by some 300,000 people. The American explorer and ethnologist John Wesley POWELL presented the first comprehensive classification of the languages north of Mexico in 1891, dividing them into 58 families. Various scholars have subsequently proposed consolidation of Powell's families into a smaller number of phyla, with the most influential of these classifications credited to Edward Sapir. C.F. and F.M. Voegelin introduced the most widely accepted modern classification of American Indian languages, grouping most of the languages of the United States and Canada into seven macrophyla, with a few families and language isolates left unclassified (Table 1).
One phylum, American Arctic-Paleosiberian, includes both Eskimo-Aleut, spoken from Alaska to Greenland, and the Chukchi-Kamchatkan family of Siberia. This phylum is the only American language family to have an accepted connection with a non-American language group.
Recent estimates place the number of Meso American Indian languages at about 70, with at least 5 million speakers. Of course, language boundaries and political boundaries do not coincide. The Hokan and Aztec-Tanoan phyla of North America also include a number of Central or Meso-American languages, and some South American groups have outlying representatives in Central America. Many of the groupings in Table 2 are still highly controversial.
South American Languages
Linguistic diversity is greatest in South America, where many languages spoken in remote jungle and mountain regions remain unrecorded and unclassified. There are probably over 500 different languages still spoken, with perhaps 14 million speakers. The various languages of the Quechua group alone have 5 million speakers.
Broader classifications of the more than 80 South American language families into a smaller number of macrophyla have been proposed by Joseph Greenberg, Morris Swadesh, Cestmir Loukotka, and others. Because these South American stocks have not as yet been fully documented with lists of cognate sets, they are not accepted by all specialists.
Current scholarly approaches to Native American Indian language classification are polarized. Most Americanists accept only certain parts of the Voegelin classification, while rejecting others, with the Macro-Penutian and Hokan phyla of North America receiving most challenges. Joseph Greenberg recently proposed a new classification, with just three groups of languages: Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, and a third stock, Amerind, which includes all the other languages of North, Central, and South America. Although some mainstream Americanists find this proposal intriguing, they have criticized Greenberg's research for its methodology and data, and the theory is not widely accepted.
The grammatical structure--phonology, or sound system; morphology, or word structure; and syntax, or sentence structure--of Native American Indian languages varies considerably, but none of the languages can be called primitive.
Phonology Though some Indian languages have a simple phonological structure (the Arawakan language Campa, for instance, has only 17 contrastive speech sounds, or phonemes), the phonology of others is very complex. Certain sounds, many of which are articulated toward the back of the vocal tract, have been cited as characteristic of the American Indian languages, but none of these occur in all the languages. The glottal stop, made by briefly closing the vocal cords, as in the middle of the English word uh-oh, is a common sound. Many languages have glottalized consonants, made with a glottal stop produced simultaneously with another consonant sound. For instance, Navajo ts'in, meaning "bone," has a glottalized ts sound (represented by ts'), while tsin, "tree" has a plain ts. Another common sound is a back k sound, normally written q, articulated not at the velum, as is English k, but rather in the postvelar or uvular region. Many languages contrast k and q in words like Cahuilla (Uto-Aztecan) neki, "my house," versus neqi, "by myself."
Vowel systems also vary considerably. Quite a few American Indian languages have nasalized vowels. Nasalization is represented by a tilde symbol in Chickasaw, for example. The use of pitch accent or tonal systems (as in Chinese) to differentiate words is more common in the Americas than the use of contrastive stress like that found, for example, in English import, pronounced im-port' as a verb and im'-port as a noun.
Morphology and Syntax
The most commonly cited trait of American Indian languages is polysynthesis--the expression of complicated ideas within a single word containing many separate meaningful elements, or morphemes. The use of verbs with attached subject and object indicators (most often prefixes) is common; in many languages adverbial and other elements may also be attached to the verb, forming complex single-word sentences, like the Lakota (Siouan) wica-yuzaza-ma-ya-khiya-pi-kte, "you all will make me wash them," which includes the component morphemes them + wash + me + you + make + plural + future.
While most languages have accusative case systems like that of English (opposing grammatical categories of subject and object), active systems in which the same morpheme is used to indicate the object of a transitive verb and the subject of a stative verb are not uncommon. For example, the prefix ma-, "me" in the Lakota example just presented means "I" in a sentence like ma-s'amna, "I stink. "
Many languages use unmarked verbs for the third person. Thus Chickasaw hita can mean either "to dance" or "he dances." Possessive and locational indicators are often attached to nouns, as in Yup'ik Eskimo anya-a-ni (boat + his + in), which means "in his boat." Gender distinctions like those of the Indo-European languages are found in only a few languages, such as Garifuna (Arawakan), in which halau, "chair," is masculine, but muna, "house," feminine. More languages make a grammatically comparable distinction between animate, or living, and inanimate nouns. Alienable possession or ownership is often indicated differently from inalienable possession of items such as kinship terms and body parts. Reduplication--the doubling of all or part of a word, usually to indicate plurality or intensity--is common, as in Barbareno Chumash ma, "jackrabbit," ma ma, "jackrabbits."
The arrangement of words into sentences also varies from language to language. While the most common basic word order is Subject-Object-Verb, Subject-Verb-Object is used in many languages, and the rarer word orders Verb-Subject-Object, Verb-Object-Subject, and Object-Verb-Subject are also found.
Many Native American Indian languages make use of special syntactic patterns to distinguish among third-person participants in a sentence. Obviation (in the Algonquian languages) and the use of the so-called fourth person (in Athabascan) allow one participant to be coded as more important or interesting than another. Switch-reference is the name given to an unusual grammatical device that allows a speaker to specify whether the subject of one clause is the same as or different from that of another clause. The English sentence "he knows he's fat" is ambiguous. If the first "he" is known to refer to Tom, for instance, the sentence has one meaning. If the second "he" also refers to Tom ("Tom is fat and he knows it") and another if the second "he" refers to, say, Bill ("Bill is fat and Tom knows it"). Although the Mojave (Yuman) sentences isay-k suupaw-pc (fat + same know + perfective) and isay-m suupaw-pc (fat + different know + perfective) both translate as "he knows he's fat," they are not ambiguous: the first implies that the knower is fat, while the second means that someone else is.
The Whorfian Hypothesis
Because of different cultural needs, American Indian vocabulary structure varies greatly, and some of the semantic concepts and sentence patterns often seem unfamiliar to those who have not grown up speaking the languages. The American linguist Benjamin Lee WHORF argued that the differences in semantic and syntactic organization of languages as diverse as English and Hopi were correlated with differences in thought processes. The so-called Whorfian (sometimes Whorf-Sapir) hypothesis that grammatical structure reflects cognitive structure is not widely accepted among linguists but has been influential in other social sciences.
Unrelated languages whose speakers are in daily contact often come to share various grammatical traits, which can then be called areal features of the region. In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, there are several unrelated genetic groups with strikingly similar, unusually complex consonant systems. Many languages of the Tupian family of South America have nasalization as an attribute, not just of vowels or consonants, but of whole syllables, and this feature has been borrowed by some unrelated neighboring languages.
Loanwords can reveal the prior history of a linguistic group. Alaskan languages and some as far south as California have Russian loans, for instance, dating from the time of extensive trade with Russia, and borrowings from Spanish are common throughout California, the Southwest, and, of course, Latin America. Borrowed words are often changed to fit the structure of the borrowing language--Spanish caballo ("horse") was borrowed into Tubatulabal (Uto-Aztecan) as kawaayu, for example, because all Tubatulabal words have final stress and the language has no bilabial v or b sound. Indian words have also been borrowed into English and and other European languages. The words moccasin, squash, squaw, and toboggan, like the majority of Indian loans into English, are from Algonquian languages; chocolate, from Aztec, tobacco, from Taino, and condor, from Quechua, are examples of words that were borrowed first into Spanish and then into English. The names of thousands of places throughout the Americas are of Indian origin.
When the National Museum of the American Indian opened a decade ago this month, the tone, design and scholarship of the exhibitions were unlike anything else in Washington. Disgusted with ham-handed and often condescending treatment from traditional anthropologists, and determined to be the author of their own self-representation in the nation’s capital, the leaders of the NMAI allowed individual tribes extraordinary input and power over what viewers saw in the museum’s galleries. The results were controversial: It was, in many ways, the ultimate postmodern museum experience, with no central narrative, no omniscient voice and no absolute appeals to the voice of science and history. But from the visitor’s point of view, it was also bewildering.
With a new exhibition on the history of treaties between the U.S. government and native communities, the Smithsonian franchise has done a museological volte-face. “Nation to Nation,” which opened Sunday, falls squarely in the mainstream of exhibition design: a chronological walk through history, supported by documents, artifacts, photographs and other images, leading to a clear and compelling argument. The history of treaties, like the history of native people on this continent, is a troubled one, full of sincere promise and wretched betrayal; but treaties are ongoing, and just as there are still dynamic native communities all across the country, there are still treaties in force that give them autonomy, dignity and hope for the future.
Judged side by side with other Smithsonian exhibitions, this first foray into a more mainstream presentation is successful. There are small gaffes, but these are easily remedied. In the future, the designers need to attend more diligently to the control and leakage of sound; it can be difficult to read wall texts over the pervasive noise of the videos. They might also reconsider the placement of specially designed lectern-like introductory stations, which weren’t the obvious first stop for visitors entering new rooms or thematic groupings. In a few cases, one also wished for a bit more identifying material: The 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, an attempt to secure peace with the Iroquois (or the Haudenosaunee, as they are referred to in the exhibition), includes beautiful photographs of a northern lake, but a map would have helped locate it (Canandaigua is on the northern end of one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York).
But those are things to be tweaked, not greatly regretted. Otherwise, the presentation is clear, comprehensive and full of the intriguing and often maddening details of history. The exhibition is divided into three large chapters: the optimism and apparent goodwill of the early treaties, made by the young republic to secure peace, security and coexistence; the “bad paper” treaties of the 19th century, which were often little more than formalized theft; and the 20th-century legacy, in which native political and cultural leaders used existing treaties to negotiate and secure greater autonomy and independence from federal and state control.
Throughout this larger structure is a consistent use of contrasting “viewpoint” panels, with the Native understanding juxtaposed with the official U.S. or prevailing non-Native view. It’s an effective strategy that allows both for dispassionate presentation and considerable historical complexity. Before learning about individual treaties, visitors are introduced to two radically different worldviews, including leadership styles, different understandings of land and ownership, preferences for spoken or written language and attitudes to diplomacy and promises. Native Americans were deeply connected to land and had a broad sense of territorial possession, but this wasn’t formalized in European terms on paper, or through deeds; oral agreements weren’t just a lesser or less formal version of the written contract, but more substantial, more binding than the sealed promise; and leadership was highly devolved and decentralized, not concentrated in a single leader or his delegated representative.
It wasn’t, of course, just a matter of cultural difference or miscommunication that led to the 19th-century eviction, dispossession and genocide of native people. It was greed and the deeply embedded American conviction, abetted by the Christian religion and enforced with military might, that the white man had a superior right to the land because he was more civilized and could make better use of it.
After a room detailing the earliest treaties, enacted in the naive belief that perhaps two very different modes of life could be made compatible, a video helps visitors segue to the much darker chapters of Manifest Destiny, the villainous Andrew Jackson (author of so much misery), the recurring tension between the states (always greedy for more land) and the federal government (technically and ethically obliged to honor existing treaties). Negotiation gave way to intimidation, bribery, trickery and lying. Treaties were merely a fig leaf: “They wanted all of it, they wanted everything,” says Suzan Shown Harjo, guest curator of the exhibition.
And so we learn that the Cherokee Trail of Tears (another Andrew Jackson production) wasn’t exceptional; the 1838 Potawatomi Trail of Death, one of the more egregious and effective campaigns of “removal” that defined 19th-century relations between the U.S. and the Native nations, was just as criminal. Beginning in 1816, the Potawatomi of the Great Lakes region made dozens of new agreements, ceding large amounts of land in exchange for smaller reserves; but by the 1830s they were simply being forced out wholesale, at the point of muskets by armed militias.
The early decades of the 20th century weren’t much better. A haunting 1900 photograph, reproduced at large scale, shows Native school girls praying beside their beds at an Indian school in Phoenix. For those who had survived the removals, the forced migrations beset by disease and death, the re-concentration on often desperately inhospitable new lands, and the further encroachment of efforts to privatize reservation lands, there was yet more: religious and cultural extermination. Greed and expansionism were not enough; God’s gentle people wanted souls, minds and memory, too. And by the middle decades of the last century came another appalling chapter: “Termination,” an effort by Congress to eliminate the independent status of Native tribes altogether.
Reaction against termination, the curators argue, was the turning point, the beginning of a newly sophisticated Native awareness and resistance, and an embrace of historical treaties as a bulwark against the decimation of culture. By insisting on the treaties’ ongoing validity, they also laid the logical groundwork for a new era of economic self-
sufficiency, and the legalized gaming that has been so prevalent and lucrative. The inclusion, among the artifacts, of poker chips and playing cards from the Agua Caliente casino in Southern California feels a bit like a joke; but it’s a joke rich with sweet revenge, as greed and stupidity become something to harvest rather than fear.
The “feel-good” flavor of the last chapter, the celebration of resurgent Native communities after so much darkness, is a holdover, perhaps, from the earlier presentation, which stressed the ongoing presence of Indians in American life. But there is something celebratory about the tone, and the celebratory is always suspect in a museum; it’s too easy to convert history into cheap narrative uplift.
Perhaps it’s justified in this case, though it might have been tempered by more directly posing the obvious hard questions that non-Native visitors should contemplate: Has the long history of wrongs been expiated? How do those of us who benefited from the genocide make sense of our own claims to land and property?
For people who have followed the evolution of the National Museum of the American Indian, there will also be a few moments of dissonance. Although the exhibition incorporates multiple viewpoints and understandings, the fundamental perspective is now much closer to the master-narrative style of Western intellectual discourse; the spoken word gives way to text-dense written panels. With the introduction of a standard museological approach into the NMAI, one begins to miss the old multivalent style of the exhibitions a decade ago.
But museums need audiences, and the NMAI was struggling to find them. So of course it had to move toward a more traditional exhibition style, toward a more Western discourse, toward a more non-Native centralization and control over the message. It couldn’t really have happened any other way. Which is the same, frustrating and deeply unsatisfying answer some of us give to the foundational historic tragedy of the United States.Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United Statesand American Indian Nations
Through fall 2018. National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW. Call 202-633-1000 or visit nmai.si.edu. Free.