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Native American Languages

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A series about the diversity and beauty of human languages would be incomplete if the entire Western Hemisphere were left out, which is why Tongues of the World will be devoting its next two articles to some of the most widely spoken Native American languages. Because of the decimation of indigenous civilizations through contact with Europeans starting in the fifteenth century, all of these languages are now extinct or threatened, meaning that they tend to have fewer total speakers than many of the other languages presented in this series. All the same, they are more than worthy of consideration.

The difficulty in summarizing the languages of the American continents comes from the fact that there was not only an enormous variety of them, but many have already died out, and less study has been devoted to them as compared other language families in the world. This has resulted both in unclear categorizations and a lack of academic consensus on the theories that do exist. According to our current understanding, the Americas probably once had a greater amount of linguistic diversity than any other region in the world, but the majority of native tongues are dying out more rapidly than modern-day scholars can study them. The problem is especially pronounced in South America, even though it contains the lion’s share of today’s indigenous American language speakers.

Theories about the origins of indigenous American languages are necessarily tied in with theories about human migration to the New World. The dominant line of thought suggests that humans first came from Asia to North America across the Bering Strait, as many as 50,000 or as few as 14,000 years ago (anthropologists are not even close to agreeing on exactly when this time might have been). From their entry point in modern-day Alaska, so the theory goes, Paleoamericans spread to the south and east all the way to the southern point of South America, following the migrations of prehistoric megafauna.
Almost nothing is known about the languages of people as ancient as the Paleoamericans, but modern comparisons of indigenous American languages with Old World languages have yielded a few interesting clues. Studies of indigenous languages have upheld the notion that they stemmed from an archaic Central Asian root, and they also support the idea that there was a separate, more recent migration from Northeast Asia into North America that created the Na-Dené language family (including the languages of the Inuit and the Navajo peoples). All of this evidence is best taken with a grain of salt, however, as so much still remains unknown about the history of indigenous American languages.

It is unfortunate that we don’t have the space to cover everything about the amazing world of Native American cultures and dialects, but we’re going to explore it a little further over the next couple of days. To join us in scratching the surface of this fascinating topic, look for our upcoming articles on the Nahuatl languages of Mexico and the Quechua languages of the Andes region, some of the most robust descendants of the indigenous American languages.

Last Updated : April 20, 2015



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