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Indigenous languages of the Americas

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Yucatec Maya writing in the Dresden Codex, ca. 11–12th century, Chichen Itza

The Indigenous languages of the Americas are the languages that were used by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas before the arrival of non-Indigenous peoples. Over a thousand of these languages are still used today, while many more are now extinct. The Indigenous languages of the Americas are not all related to each other, instead they are classified into a hundred or so language families (including a large number of language isolates), as well as a number of extinct languages that are unclassified due to the lack of information on them.

Many proposals have been made to relate some or all of these languages to each other, with varying degrees of success. The most widely reported is Joseph Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis,[1] which, however, nearly all specialists reject because of severe methodological flaws; spurious data; and a failure to distinguish cognation, contact, and coincidence.[2]

According to UNESCO, most of the Indigenous languages of the Americas are critically endangered, and many are dormant (without native speakers but with a community of heritage-language users) or entirely extinct.[3][4] The most widely spoken Indigenous languages are Southern Quechua (spoken primarily in southern Peru and Bolivia) and Guarani (centered in Paraguay, where it shares national language status with Spanish), with perhaps six or seven million speakers apiece (including many of European descent in the case of Guarani). Only half a dozen others have more than a million speakers; these are Aymara of Bolivia and Nahuatl of Mexico, with almost two million each; the Mayan languages Kekchi, Quiché, and Yucatec of Guatemala and Mexico, with about 1 million apiece; and perhaps one or two additional Quechuan languages in Peru and Ecuador. In the United States, 372,000 people reported speaking an Indigenous language at home in the 2010 census.[5] In Canada, 133,000 people reported speaking an Indigenous language at home in the 2011 census.[6] In Greenland, about 90% of the population speaks Greenlandic, the most widely spoken Eskaleut language.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Indigenous Languages of the Americas: Do people speak them? // Liga Romanica Clips



Over a thousand known languages were spoken by various peoples in North and South America prior to their first contact with Europeans. These encounters occurred between the beginning of the 11th century (with the Nordic settlement of Greenland and failed efforts in Newfoundland and Labrador) and the end of the 15th century (the voyages of Christopher Columbus). Several Indigenous cultures of the Americas had also developed their own writing systems,[7] the best known being the Maya script.[8] The Indigenous languages of the Americas had widely varying demographics, from the Quechuan languages, Aymara, Guarani, and Nahuatl, which had millions of active speakers, to many languages with only several hundred speakers. After pre-Columbian times, several Indigenous creole languages developed in the Americas, based on European, Indigenous and African languages.

The European colonizing nations and their successor states had widely varying attitudes towards Native American languages. In Brazil, friars learned and promoted the Tupi language.[9] In many Spanish colonies, Spanish missionaries often learned local languages and culture in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue and relate the Christian message to their Indigenous religions. In the British American colonies, John Eliot of the Massachusetts Bay Colony translated the Bible into the Massachusett language, also called Wampanoag, or Natick (1661–1663); he published the first Bible printed in North America, the Eliot Indian Bible.

The Europeans also suppressed use of Indigenous languages, establishing their own languages for official communications, destroying texts in other languages, and insisting that Indigenous people learn European languages in schools. As a result, Indigenous languages suffered from cultural suppression and loss of speakers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, brought to the Americas by European settlers and administrators, had become the official or national languages of modern nation-states of the Americas.

Many Indigenous languages have become critically endangered, but others are vigorous and part of daily life for millions of people. Several Indigenous languages have been given official status in the countries where they occur, such as Guaraní in Paraguay. In other cases official status is limited to certain regions where the languages are most spoken. Although sometimes enshrined in constitutions as official, the languages may be used infrequently in de facto official use. Examples are Quechua in Peru and Aymara in Bolivia, where in practice, Spanish is dominant in all formal contexts.

In the North American Arctic region, Greenland in 2009 adopted Kalaallisut[10] as its sole official language. In the United States, the Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language, with more than 200,000 speakers in the Southwestern United States. The US Marine Corps recruited Navajo men, who were established as code talkers during World War II.


In American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (1997), Lyle Campbell lists several hypotheses for the historical origins of Amerindian languages.[11]

  • A single, one-language migration (not widely accepted)
  • A few linguistically distinct migrations (favored by Edward Sapir)
  • Multiple migrations
  • Multilingual migrations (single migration with multiple languages)
  • The influx of already diversified but related languages from the Old World
  • Extinction of Old World linguistic relatives (while the New World ones survived)
  • Migration along the Pacific coast instead of by the Bering Strait

Roger Blench (2008) has advocated the theory of multiple migrations along the Pacific coast of peoples from northeastern Asia, who already spoke diverse languages. These proliferated in the New World.[12]

Numbers of speakers and political recognition

Countries like Mexico, Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Guyana recognize all or most Indigenous languages native to their respective countries, with Bolivia and Venezuela elevating all Indigenous languages to official language status according to their constitutions. Colombia delegates local Indigenous language recognition to the department level according to the Colombian Constitution of 1991. Countries like Canada, Argentina, and the United States allow their respective provinces and states to determine their own language recognition policies. Indigenous language recognition in Brazil is limited to their localities.

  • Bullet points represent minority language status. Political entities with official language status are highlighted in bold.
List of Widely Spoken and Officially Recognized Languages
Language Number of speakers Official Recognition Area(s) Language is spoken Source
Guaraní 6,500,000 Paraguay (Official Language)


Corrientes, Argentina

Tacuru, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil


Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, Brazil [13]
Southern Quechua 5,000,000 (outdated figure) Bolivia (Official Language)

Peru (Official Language)

Jujuy, Argentina

  • Chile

Comunidad Andina

Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile [14]
Nahuatl 1,700,000 Mexico Mexico [15]
Aymara 1,700,000 Bolivia (Official Language)

Peru (Official Language)

  • Chile

Comunidad Andina

Bolivia, Peru, Chile [16]
Qʼeqchiʼ 1,100,000 Guatemala



Guatemala, Belize, Mexico [17]
Kʼicheʼ 1,100,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico [18]
Yucatec Maya 890,000 Mexico


Mexico & Belize [19]
Ancash Quechua 700,000 (outdated figure) Peru [20]
Mam 600,000 Guatemala


Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (De facto), Mexico

Guatemala & Mexico
Tzeltal 560,000 Mexico

Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (De facto), Mexico

Mexico [21]
Mixtec 520,000 Mexico Mexico [22]
Tzotzil 490,000 Mexico

Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (De facto), Mexico

Mexico [23]
Zapotec 480,000 Mexico Mexico [24]
Kichwa 450,000 Ecuador

Colombia (Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo)

Ecuador & Colombia (Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo) [25]
Wayuu (Guajiro) 420,000 Venezuela

La Guajira, Colombia

Venezuela & Colombia
Kaqchikel 410,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico [26]
Otomi 310,000 Mexico Mexico [27]
Totonac 270,000 Mexico Mexico [28]
Mapuche 260,000 Cautín Province, La Araucanía, Chile (Galvarino, Padre Las Casas) Cautín Province, La Araucanía, Chile (Galvarino, Padre Las Casas) [29]
Ch'ol 250,000 Mexico

Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (De facto), Mexico

Mexico [30]
Mazateco 240,000 Mexico Mexico [31]
Qʼanjobʼal 170,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico
Huasteco 170,000 Mexico Mexico [32]
Navajo 170,000 Navajo Nation, United States Southwestern United States [33]
Mazahua 150,000 Mexico Mexico [34]
Miskito 140,000 (outdated figure) North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua

Honduras (Gracias a Dios)

Nicaragua, Honduras
Chinanteco 140,000 Mexico Mexico [35]
Mixe 130,000 Mexico Mexico [36]
Tlapaneco 130,000 Mexico Mexico [37]
Poqomchiʼ 130,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Purepecha/Tarasco 120,000 Mexico Mexico [38]
Achí 120,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Ixil 120,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico
Yaru Quechua 100,000 (circa; outdated figure) Peru [39]
Cree 96,000 [incl. Naskapi, Montagnais] Northwest Territories, Canada Canada [40]
Tarahumara 74,000 Mexico Mexico
Tz’utujil 72,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Kuna 61,000 Colombia (Chocó & Antioquia) Colombia (Chocó & Antioquia)
Paez 60,000 Colombia (Cauca, Huila, Valle del Cauca) Colombia (Cauca, Huila, Valle del Cauca)
Chuj 59,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico
Kalaallisut (Greenlandic) 57,000 Greenland Greenland [41]
Amuzgo 55,588 Mexico Mexico
Tojolabʼal 51,733 Mexico

Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (De facto), Mexico

Garífuna 50,000 (circa; outdated figure) Guatemala


North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua

Honduras (Atlántida, Colón, Gracias a Dios)

Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras [42]
Ojibwe 48,000 Canada

United States

Canada & United States [43]
Tikuna 47,000 Colombia (Leticia, Puerto Nariño, Amazonas) Amazonas regions of Brazil and Colombia [44]
Chatino 45,000 Mexico Mexico
Huichol 44,800 Mexico Mexico
Mayo 39,600 Mexico Mexico
Inuktitut 39,475 Nunavut, Canada

Northwest Territories, Canada

Nunavut, Northwest Territories, Quebec and Labrador, Canada [45]
Chontal Maya 37,072 Mexico Mexico
Wichi 36,135 Chaco, Argentina Chaco, Argentina
Tepehuán 36,000 Mexico Mexico
Soteapanec 35,050 Mexico Mexico
Shuar 35,000 Ecuador Ecuador [46]
Blackfoot 34,394 Alberta, Canada & Montana, United States [47]
Sikuani 34,000 Colombia (Meta, Vichada, Arauca, Guainía, Guaviare) Colombia (Meta, Vichada, Arauca, Guainía, Guaviare)
Jakaltek 33,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Mexico
Kom 31,580 Chaco, Argentina Chaco, Argentina
Poqomam 30,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Ch'orti' 30,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Kaiwá 26,500 Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil [44]
Sioux 25,000 South Dakota, United States US [48]
Oʼodham 23,313 Tohono Oʼodham Nation, United States

Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, United States


Arizona, United States
Kaigang 22,000 Brazil [44]
Guambiano 21,000 Cauca Department, Colombia Cauca Department, Colombia
Cora 20,100 Mexico Mexico
Yanomamö 20,000 Venezuela Brazil & Venezuela [44]
Nheengatu 19,000 São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brazil


Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela [49]
Yup'ik (Central Alaskan) & (Siberian) 18,626 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Huave 17,900 Mexico Mexico [50]
Yaqui 17,546 Mexico Mexico
Piaroa 17,000 Vichada, Colombia Vichada, Colombia
Sakapultek 15,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Western Apache 14,012 San Carlos Apache Nation, United States

Fort Apache Indian Reservation, United States

Arizona, United States
Xavante 13,300 Mato Grosso, Brazil [44]
Keresan 13,073 New Mexico, United States
Cuicatec 13,000 Mexico Mexico
Awa Pit 13,000 Nariño Department, Colombia Nariño Department, Colombia
Cherokee 2,320 Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina, United States

Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, United States

US (Oklahoma & North Carolina)
Karu 12,000 Venezuela

Guaviare Department, Colombia

São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brazil, (Baníwa language)

Guaviare, Colombia & Amazonas, Brazil, (Baníwa language)
Awakatek 11,607 Guatemala




Chipewyan 11,325 Northwest Territories, Canada Northwest Territories, Canada [51]
Pame 11,000 Mexico Mexico
Wounaan 10,800 Colombia (Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca) Colombia (Chocó, Cauca, Valle del Cauca)
Choctaw 9,600 Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, United States Oklahoma & Mississippi, United States [52]
Moxo 10,000 Bolivia Bolivia
Kogi 9,900 Magdalena, Colombia Magdalena, Colombia
Zuni 9,620 New Mexico, United States [53]
Guajajara 9,500 Maranhão, Brazil [44]
Sumo 9,000 North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua
Mopán 9,000–12,000 Guatemala


Guatemala & Belize [54]
Tepehua 8,900 Mexico Mexico
Mawé 8,900 Brazil (Para & Amazonas) [44]
Terêna 8,200 Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil [44]
Sipakapense 8,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Ika 8,000 Colombia (Cesar & Magdalena) Colombia (Cesar & Magdalena)
Mi'kmaq 7,140 Canada and United States
Tukano 7,100 São Gabriel da Cachoeira, Amazonas, Brazil
Mitú, Vaupés, Colombia
Amazonas, Brazil & Vaupés, Colombia [47]
Minica Huitoto 6,800 Amazonas, Colombia Amazonas, Colombia
Hopi 6,780 Arizona, United States [55]
Piapoco 6,400 Colombia (Guainía, Vichada, Meta) Colombia (Guainía, Vichada, Meta)
Cubeo 6,300 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Kayapo 6,200 Brazil (Pará & Mato Grosso) [47]
Yukpa 6,000 Venezuela

Cesar, Colombia

Venezuela, Colombia
Chiquitano 5,900 Bolivia Brazil & Bolivia
Guarayu 5,900 Bolivia Bolivia
Macushi 5,800 Venezuela


Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana [47]
Chimané 5,300 Bolivia Bolivia
Tewa 5,123 New Mexico, United States
Timbira 5,100 Brazil (Maranhão, Tocantins, Pará) [56]
Sanumá 5,100 Venezuela Brazil & Venezuela [57]
Muscogee 5,072 Muscogee (Creek) Nation, OK, United States United States (Oklahoma, Alabama, Florida) [58]
Chontal of Oaxaca 5,039 Mexico Mexico [59]
Tektitek 5,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Barí 5,000 Colombia (Cesar & Norte de Santander) Colombia (Cesar & Norte de Santander)
Camsá 4,000 Putumayo, Colombia Putumayo, Colombia
Kulina 3,900 Brazil (Amazonas) & Peru [57]
Crow 3,862 Montana, United States
Mohawk 3,875 Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, Canada Canada (Ontario & Quebec) and United States (New York) [60][61]
Kashinawa 3,588 Brazil & Peru
Munduruku 3,563 Pará & Amazonas, Brazil [57]
Tunebo/Uwa 3,550 Boyacá, Colombia Boyacá, Colombia
Ayoreo 3,160 Bolivia Bolivia
Desano 3,160 Bolivia Bolivia
Wapishana 3,154 Bonfim, Roraima, Brazil


Bonfim, Roraima, Brazil


Yaminawa 3,129 Bolivia Bolivia
Mocoví 3,000 Chaco, Argentina Chaco, Argentina
Iñupiaq 3,000 Alaska, United States

Northwest Territories, Canada

Alaska, United States & Northwest Territories, Canada
Puinave 3,000 Guainía, Colombia


Guainía, Colombia & Venezuela
Cuiba 2,900 Colombia (Casanare, Vichada, Arauca) Colombia (Casanare, Vichada, Arauca)
Tupi-Mondé 2,886 Rondônia, Brazil [57]
Yuracaré 2,700 Bolivia Bolivia
Wanano 2,600 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Shoshoni 2,512 US
Bora 2,400 Amazonas, Colombia Amazonas, Colombia
Cofán 2,400 Colombia (Nariño, Putumayo) Colombia (Nariño, Putumayo)
Kanamari 2,298 Amazonas, Brazil [57]
Fox (Mesquakie-Sauk-Kickapoo) 2,288 Sac and Fox Nation, United States


US & Mexico
Waiwai 2,217 Guyana Brazil, Guyana
Karajá 2,137 Brazil [57]
Huarijio 2,136 Mexico Mexico
Slavey 2,120 Northwest Territories, Canada Northwest Territories, Canada
Chichimeca 2,100 Mexico Mexico
Koreguaje 2,100 Caquetá, Colombia Caquetá, Colombia
Tiriyó 2,100 Brazil, Suriname
Xerente 2,051 Tocantins, Brazil [57]
Uspanteko 2,000 Guatemala Guatemala
Fulniô 1,871 Pernambuco, Brazil [57]
Pakaásnovos (wari) 1,854 Rondônia, Brazil [57]
Wiwa 1,850 Cesar, Colombia Cesar, Colombia
Weenhayek 1,810 Bolivia Bolivia
Matlatzinca 1,800 Mexico Mexico
Tacana 1,800 Bolivia Bolivia
Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì 1,735 Northwest Territories, Canada Northwest Territories, Canada
Cavineña 1,700 Bolivia Bolivia
Jupda 1,700 Amazonas, Colombia Amazonas, Colombia
Zacatepec Mixtec 1,500 Mexico Mexico
Seneca 1,453 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, Canada Ontario, Canada [63]
Movima 1,400 Bolivia Bolivia
Tlingit 1,360 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Inuinnaqtun 1,310 Nunavut, Canada

Northwest Territories, Canada

Alaska, United States & Northwest Territories& Nunavut, Canada
Kiowa 1,274 Oklahoma, United States
Ka'apor 1,241 Maranhão, Brazil [57]
Aleut 1,236 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Gwichʼin 1,217 Alaska, United States

Northwest Territories, Canada

Alaska, United States & Northwest Territories, Canada
Inuvialuktun 1,150 Nunavut, Canada

Northwest Territories, Canada

Nunavut, Canada & Northwest Territories, Canada
Arapaho 1,087 US
Macuna 1,032 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Guayabero 1,000 Colombia (Meta, Guaviare) Colombia (Meta, Guaviare)
Comanche 963 US
Chocho 810 Mexico Mexico
Maricopa/Piipaash 800 Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, AZ, United States Arizona, United States
Rama 740 North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, Nicaragua
Seri 729 Mexico Mexico [64]
Ese Ejja 700 Bolivia Bolivia
Nukak 700 Guaviare, Colombia Guaviare, Colombia
Pima Bajo 650 Mexico Mexico
Cayuvava 650 Bolivia Bolivia
Chácobo-Pakawara 600 Bolivia Bolivia
Lacandon 600 Mexico Mexico
Oneida 574 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, Canada

Oneida Nation of the Thames, Ontario, Canada

Ontario, Canada [65][66][67]
Cocopah 515 Mexico Mexico [68]
Sirionó 500 Bolivia Bolivia
Siona 500 Putumayo, Colombia Putumayo, Colombia
Havasupai–Hualapai 445 Havasupai Indian Reservation, AZ, United States Arizona, United States [69]
Kumeyaay 427 (525 including Ipai and Tiipai languages) Mexico Baja California, Mexico & California, United States [70][71]
Tembé 420 Maranhão, Brazil [57]
Yurok 414 California, United States
Alutiiq/Sugpiaq 400 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Tatuyo 400 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Andoque 370 Caquetá, Colombia Caquetá, Colombia
Guajá 365 Maranhão, Brazil
Chimila 350 Magdalena, Colombia Magdalena, Colombia
Koyukon 300 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Hitnü 300 Arauca, Colombia Arauca, Colombia
Mikasuki 290 United States (Florida, Georgia (Historical), Alabama (Historical), Oklahoma (Historical) [72]
Quechan 290 California & Arizona, United States [73]
Cabiyari 270 Colombia (Mirití-Paraná & Amazonas) Colombia (Mirití-Paraná & Amazonas)
Reyesano 250 Bolivia Bolivia
Achagua 250 Meta, Colombia Meta, Colombia
Kakwa 250 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Yavapai 245 Arizona, United States [74]
Siriano 220 Vaupés, Colombia Vaupés, Colombia
Mojave 200 Arizona, United States [75]
Paipai 200 Mexico Mexico [76]
Toromono 200 Bolivia Bolivia
Ixcatec 190 Mexico Mexico
Ocaina 190 Amazonas, Colombia Amazonas, Colombia
Haida 168 Alaska, United States

Council of the Haida Nation, Canada

Alaska, United States and British Columbia, Canada
Muinane 150 Amazonas, Colombia Amazonas, Colombia
Deg Xinag 127 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Warázu 125 Bolivia Bolivia
Araona 110 Bolivia Bolivia
Upper Tanana 100 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Itene 90 Bolivia Bolivia
Ahtna 80 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Tsimshian 70 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Tanacross 65 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Cayuga 61 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, Canada

Cattaraugus Reservation, New York, United States

Ontario, Canada, and New York, United States [77]
Denaʼina 50 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Onondaga 50 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, ON, Canada Ontario, Canada [78]
Bauré 40 Bolivia Bolivia
Upper Kuskokwim 40 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Tanana 30 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Ayapaneco 24 Mexico Mexico [79]
Leco 20 Bolivia Bolivia
Xincan 16 Guatemala Guatemala
Hän 12 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Holikachuk 12 Alaska, United States Alaska, United States
Carijona 6 Colombia (Amazonas, Guaviare) Colombia (Amazonas, Guaviare)
Itonama 5 Bolivia Bolivia
Kiliwa 4 Mexico Mexico
Selk'nam 1 Tierra del Fuego, Chile/Argentina (Extinct) [80]
Nonuya 0 Amazonas, Colombia Colombia, Peru
Yahgan 0 Tierra del Fuego, Chile/Argentina (Extinct)
Taíno languages 0 Formerly all of the Caribbean
Cochimí 0 Mexico (Extinct, but retains recognition)
Kallawaya 0 Bolivia (Extinct, but retains recognition)
Eyak 0 Alaska, United States (Extinct, but retains recognition)
Tuscarora 0 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, Ontario, Canada
Tuscarora Reservation, New York, United States
Ontario, Canada, and New York, United States [81]

Language families and unclassified languages


  • Extinct languages or families are indicated by: .
  • The number of family members is indicated in parentheses (for example, Arauan (9) means the Arauan family consists of nine languages).
  • For convenience, the following list of language families is divided into three sections based on political boundaries of countries. These sections correspond roughly with the geographic regions (North, Central, and South America) but are not equivalent. This division cannot fully delineate Indigenous culture areas.

Northern America

Pre-contact: distribution of North American language families, including northern Mexico
Bilingual stop sign in English and the Cherokee syllabary (transcription: ᎠᎴᏫᏍᏗᎭ – "alehwisdiha"), Tahlequah, Oklahoma

There are approximately 296 spoken (or formerly spoken) Indigenous languages north of Mexico, 269 of which are grouped into 29 families (the remaining 27 languages are either isolates or unclassified).[citation needed] The Na-Dené, Algic, and Uto-Aztecan families are the largest in terms of number of languages. Uto-Aztecan has the most speakers (1.95 million) if the languages in Mexico are considered (mostly due to 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl); Na-Dené comes in second with approximately 200,000 speakers (nearly 180,000 of these are speakers of Navajo), and Algic in third with about 180,000 speakers (mainly Cree and Ojibwe). Na-Dené and Algic have the widest geographic distributions: Algic currently spans from northeastern Canada across much of the continent down to northeastern Mexico (due to later migrations of the Kickapoo) with two outliers in California (Yurok and Wiyot); Na-Dené spans from Alaska and western Canada through Washington, Oregon, and California to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico (with one outlier in the Plains). Several families consist of only 2 or 3 languages. Demonstrating genetic relationships has proved difficult due to the great linguistic diversity present in North America. Two large (super-) family proposals, Penutian and Hokan, look particularly promising. However, even after decades of research, a large number of families remain.

North America is notable for its linguistic diversity, especially in California. This area has 18 language families comprising 74 languages (compared to four families in Europe: Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic, and Afroasiatic and one isolate, Basque).[82]

Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeastern Woodlands;[citation needed] however, many of these languages became extinct from European contact and as a result they are, for the most part, absent from the historical record.[citation needed] This diversity has influenced the development of linguistic theories and practice in the US.

Due to the diversity of languages in North America, it is difficult to make generalizations for the region. Most North American languages have a relatively small number of vowels (i.e. three to five vowels). Languages of the western half of North America often have relatively large consonant inventories. The languages of the Pacific Northwest are notable for their complex phonotactics (for example, some languages have words that lack vowels entirely).[83] The languages of the Plateau area have relatively rare pharyngeals and epiglottals (they are otherwise restricted to Afroasiatic languages and the languages of the Caucasus). Ejective consonants are also common in western North America, although they are rare elsewhere (except, again, for the Caucasus region, parts of Africa, and the Mayan family).

Head-marking is found in many languages of North America (as well as in Central and South America), but outside of the Americas it is rare. Many languages throughout North America are polysynthetic (Eskimo–Aleut languages are extreme examples), although this is not characteristic of all North American languages (contrary to what was believed by 19th-century linguists). Several families have unique traits, such as the inverse number marking of the Tanoan languages, the lexical affixes of the Wakashan, Salishan and Chimakuan languages, and the unusual verb structure of Na-Dené.

The classification below is a composite of Goddard (1996), Campbell (1997), and Mithun (1999).

Central America and Mexico

The Indigenous languages of Mexico that have more than 100,000 speakers
The Mayan languages
The Chibchan languages

In Central America the Mayan languages are among those used today. Mayan languages are spoken by at least six million Indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name, and Mexico recognizes eight more. The Mayan language family is one of the best documented and most studied in the Americas. Modern Mayan languages descend from Proto-Mayan, a language thought to have been spoken at least 4,000 years ago; it has been partially reconstructed using the comparative method.

South America and the Caribbean

Some of the greater families of South America: dark spots are language isolates or quasi-isolate, grey spots unclassified languages or languages with doubtful classification. (Note that Quechua, the family with most speakers, is not displayed.)
A Urarina shaman, 1988

Although both North and Central America are very diverse areas, South America has a linguistic diversity rivalled by only a few other places in the world with approximately 350 languages still spoken and several hundred more spoken at first contact but now extinct. The situation of language documentation and classification into genetic families is not as advanced as in North America (which is relatively well studied in many areas). Kaufman (1994: 46) gives the following appraisal:

Since the mid 1950s, the amount of published material on SA [South America] has been gradually growing, but even so, the number of researchers is far smaller than the growing number of linguistic communities whose speech should be documented. Given the current employment opportunities, it is not likely that the number of specialists in SA Indian languages will increase fast enough to document most of the surviving SA languages before they go out of use, as most of them unavoidably will. More work languishes in personal files than is published, but this is a standard problem.

It is fair to say that SA and New Guinea are linguistically the poorest documented parts of the world. However, in the early 1960s fairly systematic efforts were launched in Papua New Guinea, and that area – much smaller than SA, to be sure – is in general much better documented than any part of Indigenous SA of comparable size.

As a result, many relationships between languages and language families have not been determined and some of those relationships that have been proposed are on somewhat shaky ground.

The list of language families, isolates, and unclassified languages below is a rather conservative one based on Campbell (1997). Many of the proposed (and often speculative) groupings of families can be seen in Campbell (1997), Gordon (2005), Kaufman (1990, 1994), Key (1979), Loukotka (1968), and in the Language stock proposals section below.

Language stock proposals

Hypothetical language-family proposals of American languages are often cited as uncontroversial in popular writing. However, many of these proposals have not been fully demonstrated, or even demonstrated at all. Some proposals are viewed by specialists in a favorable light, believing that genetic relationships are very likely to be established in the future (for example, the Penutian stock). Other proposals are more controversial with many linguists believing that some genetic relationships of a proposal may be demonstrated but much of it undemonstrated (for example, Hokan–Siouan, which, incidentally, Edward Sapir called his "wastepaper basket stock").[84] Still other proposals are almost unanimously rejected by specialists (for example, Amerind). Below is a (partial) list of some such proposals:

Good discussions of past proposals can be found in Campbell (1997) and Campbell & Mithun (1979).

Amerindian linguist Lyle Campbell also assigned different percentage values of probability and confidence for various proposals of macro-families and language relationships, depending on his views of the proposals' strengths.[85] For example, the Germanic language family would receive probability and confidence percentage values of +100% and 100%, respectively. However, if Turkish and Quechua were compared, the probability value might be −95%, while the confidence value might be 95%.[clarification needed] 0% probability or confidence would mean complete uncertainty.

Language Family Probability Confidence
Algonkian–Gulf −50% 50%
Almosan (and beyond) −75% 50%
Atakapa–Chitimacha −50% 60%
Aztec–Tanoan 0% 50%
Coahuiltecan −85% 80%
−25% 20%
Guaicurian–Hokan 0% 10%
Gulf −25% 40%
Hokan–Subtiaba −90% 75%
Jicaque–Hokan −30% 25%
Jicaque–Subtiaba −60% 80%
Jicaque–Tequistlatecan +65% 50%
Keresan and Uto-Aztecan 0% 60%
Keresan and Zuni −40% 40%
Macro-Mayan[87] +30% 25%
Macro-Siouan[88] −20% 75%
Maya–Chipaya −80% 95%
Maya–Chipaya–Yunga −90% 95%
Mexican Penutian −40% 60%
Misumalpan–Chibchan +20% 50%
Mosan −60% 65%
Na-Dene 0% 25%
Natchez–Muskogean +40% 20%
Nostratic–Amerind −90% 75%
Otomanguean–Huave +25% 25%
Purépecha–Quechua −90% 80%
Quechua as Hokan −85% 80%
Quechumaran +50% 50%
Sahaptian–Klamath–(Molala) +75% 50%
Sahaptian–Klamath–Tsimshian +10% 10%
Takelman[89] +80% 60%
Tlapanec–Subtiaba as Otomanguean +95% 90%
Tlingit–Eyak–Athabaskan +75% 40%
Tunican 0% 20%
Wakashan and Chimakuan 0% 25%
Yukian–Gulf −85% 70%
Yukian–Siouan −60% 75%
Zuni–Penutian −80% 50%


It has long been observed that a remarkable number of Native American languages have a pronominal pattern with first-person singular forms in n and second-person singular forms in m. (Compare first-person singular m and second-person singular t across much of northern Eurasia, as in English me and thee, Spanish me and te, and Hungarian -m and -d.) This pattern was first noted by Alfredo Trombetti in 1905. It caused Sapir to suggest that ultimately all Native American languages would turn out to be related. In a personal letter to A. L. Kroeber he wrote (Sapir 1918):[90]

Getting down to brass tacks, how in the Hell are you going to explain general American n- 'I' except genetically? It's disturbing, I know, but (more) non-committal conservatism is only dodging, after all, isn't it? Great simplifications are in store for us.

The supposed "n/m – I/you" pattern has attracted attention even from those linguists who are normally critical of such long-distance proposals. Johanna Nichols investigated the distribution of the languages that have an n/m pattern and found that they are mostly confined to the western coast of the Americas, and that similarly they exist in East Asia and northern New Guinea. She suggested that they had spread through diffusion.[91] This notion was rejected by Lyle Campbell, who argued that the frequency of the n/m pattern was not statistically elevated in either area compared to the rest of the world. Campbell also showed that several of the languages that have the contrast today did not have it historically and stated that the pattern was largely consistent with chance resemblance, especially when taking into consideration the statistic prevalence of nasal consonants in all the pronominal systems of the world.[92] Zamponi found that Nichols's findings were distorted by her small sample size, and that some n–m languages were recent developments (though also that some languages had lost an ancestral n–m pattern), but he did find a statistical excess of the n–m pattern in western North America only. Looking at families rather than individual languages, he found a rate of 30% of families/protolanguages in North America, all on the western flank, compared to 5% in South America and 7% of non-American languages – though the percentage in North America, and especially the even higher number in the Pacific Northwest, drops considerably if Hokan and Penutian, or parts of them, are accepted as language families. If all the proposed Penutian and Hokan languages in the table below are related, then the frequency drops to 9% of North American families, statistically indistinguishable from the world average.[93]

Below is a list of families with both 1sg n and 2sg m, though in some cases the evidence for one of the forms is weak.[93]

Proto-languages with 1sg n and 2sg m[93]
Family 1sg 2sg
Penutian families
Proto-Tsimshianic *nə *mə [but also *-n]
Proto-Chinookan *nai..., *n- *mai..., *m-
Klamath ni 'I', ni-s 'my' mi-s 'you' (object), mi 'your'
Molala in- 'my', n- 'me' im- 'your', m- 'you' (object)
Proto-Sahaptian *(ʔî·-)n 'I' *(ʔî·-)m 'you'
Takelma àn ~ -n, -àʔn ~ -ʔn ma ~ maː
Cayuse íniŋ, nǐs- mǐs-
Proto-Maiduan *ni 'I', *nik 'me', *nik-k’i 'my' *mi 'you', *min 'you' (obj), *min-k’i 'your'
Proto-Wintuan *ni 'I', *ni-s 'me', *ne-r 'my', *ne-t 'my' *mi 'you', *mi-s (obj.), *mar 'your', *ma-t 'your'
Proto-Yokutsan *naʔ 'I', *nan 'me', *nam ~ *nim 'my' *maʔ 'you', *man 'you' (obj), *mam ~ *min 'your'
Proto-Utian *ka·ni 'I', *ka(·)na 'my'[94] *mi·(n)
Proto-Huavean *nV *mɪ
Proto-Mixe-Zoquean *n-heʔ 'mine', *n- *mici, *min-
Hokan families
Chimariko noʔot mamot, m-, -m
Karok ná· 'I', nani- ~ nini- 'my' ʔí·m 'you', mi- 'your'
Coahuilteco n(ami), n- ~ na-, nak-, niw- mak-, may- ~ mi-
Proto-Yuman *ʔnʸaː 'I', *nʸ- *maː 'you', *m-
? Proto-Lencan [*u(nani)], *-on ~ u(na) *ama(nani), am-/ma-, -mi/-ma
Other North America
Karankawa na-, n- m-
Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan *ną *wįm
Proto-Uto-Aztecan *(i)nɨ 'I', *(i)nɨ- 'my' *ɨ(mɨ) 'you', *ɨ(mɨ) 'your'
Proto-Chibchan nasal *dã or *na nasal *bã or *ma
South America
Proto-Guahiboan *(xá-)ni, *-nV *(xá-)mi
Proto-Aymaran *na-ya 'I', *-Na 'my' *hu-ma 'you', *-ma 'you(r)'
Mapuche [iɲtʃé 'I'], -(ɨ)n 'I', nyi 'my' (also 'his/her') eymi 'you', mi 'your', -m
? Puelche nɨ-, -ɨn ~ -an[95] (kɨ-)ma-w, mu- ~ mɨ-
? Proto-Uru-Chipaya (Chipaya only) -n am
? Proto-Timotean Timote-Cuica an,
Mucuchí-Maripú unknown
Mucuchí-Maripú ma,
Timote-Cuica ih

Other scattered families may have one or the other but not both.

Besides Proto-Eskaleut and Proto-Na–Dene, the families in North America with neither 1sg n or 2sg m are Atakapan, Chitimacha, Cuitlatec, Haida, Kutenai, Proto-Caddoan, Proto-Chimakuan, Proto-Comecrudan, Proto-Iroquoian, Proto-Muskogean, Proto-Siouan-Catawba, Tonkawa, Waikuri, Yana, Yuchi, Zuni.

There are also a number of neighboring families in South America that have a tʃ–k pattern (the Duho proposal, plus possibly Arutani–Sape), or an i–a pattern (the Macro-Jê proposal, including Fulnio and Chiquitano, plus Matacoan,[96] Zamucoan and Payaguá).[93]

Linguistic areas

Unattested languages

Several languages are only known by mention in historical documents or from only a few names or words. It cannot be determined that these languages actually existed or that the few recorded words are actually of known or unknown languages. Some may simply be from a historian's errors. Others are of known people with no linguistic record (sometimes due to lost records). A short list is below.

Loukotka (1968) reports the names of hundreds of South American languages which do not have any linguistic documentation.

Pidgins and mixed languages

Various miscellaneous languages such as pidgins, mixed languages, trade languages, and sign languages are given below in alphabetical order.

  1. American Indian Pidgin English
  2. Algonquian-Basque pidgin (also known as Micmac-Basque Pidgin, Souriquois; spoken by the Basques, Micmacs, and Montagnais in eastern Canada)
  3. Broken Oghibbeway (also known as Broken Ojibwa)
  4. Broken Slavey
  5. Bungee (also known as Bungi, Bungie, Bungay, or the Red River Dialect)
  6. Callahuaya (also known as Machaj-Juyai, Kallawaya, Collahuaya, Pohena, Kolyawaya Jargon)
  7. Carib Pidgin (also known as Ndjuka-Amerindian Pidgin, Ndjuka-Trio)
  8. Carib Pidgin–Arawak Mixed Language
  9. Catalangu
  10. Chinook Jargon
  11. Delaware Jargon (also known as Pidgin Delaware)
  12. Eskimo Trade Jargon (also known as Herschel Island Eskimo Pidgin, Ship's Jargon)
  13. Greenlandic Pidgin (West Greenlandic Pidgin)
  14. Guajiro-Spanish
  15. Güegüence-Nicarao
  16. Haida Jargon
  17. Inuktitut-English Pidgin (Quebec)
  18. Jargonized Powhatan
  19. Keresan Sign Language
  20. Labrador Eskimo Pidgin (also known as Labrador Inuit Pidgin)
  21. Lingua Franca Apalachee
  22. Lingua Franca Creek
  23. Lingua Geral Amazônica (also known as Nheengatú, Lingua Boa, Lingua Brasílica, Lingua Geral do Norte)
  24. Lingua Geral do Sul (also known as Lingua Geral Paulista, Tupí Austral)
  25. Loucheux Jargon (also known as Jargon Loucheux)
  26. Media Lengua
  27. Mednyj Aleut (also known as Copper Island Aleut, Medniy Aleut, CIA)
  28. Michif (also known as French Cree, Métis, Metchif, Mitchif, Métchif)
  29. Mobilian Jargon (also known as Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw-Chocaw Trade Language, Yamá)
  30. Montagnais Pidgin Basque (also known as Pidgin Basque-Montagnais)
  31. Nootka Jargon (spoken during the 18th–19th centuries; later replaced by Chinook Jargon)
  32. Ocaneechi (also known as Occaneechee; spoken in Virginia and the Carolinas in early colonial times)
  33. Pidgin Massachusett
  34. Plains Indian Sign Language

Writing systems

While most Indigenous languages have adopted the Latin script as the written form of their languages, a few languages have their own unique writing systems after encountering the Latin script (often through missionaries) that are still in use. All pre-Columbian Indigenous writing systems are no longer used.

Indigenous Writing Systems of the Americas
Writing System Type Language(s) Region(s) Date in usage Status Inventor
Quipu N/A (string) Possibly Logogram? Aymara, Quechua, Puquina Andean civilizations (Western South America) 3rd millennium BCE – 17th century Extinct
Olmec hieroglyphs Logogram Mixe–Zoque languages Isthmus of Tehuantepec 1500 BCE – 400 BCE Extinct
Zapotec script Logogram Zapotecan languages Oaxaca 500 BCE – 700 CE Extinct
Epi-Olmec script Logogram Syllabogram Zoque languages Isthmus of Tehuantepec 400 BCE – 500 CE Extinct
Izapan scripts Logogram unknown Mixe–Zoquean language Southern Guatemala Late Preclassic Extinct
Maya script Logogram Syllabogram Mayan languages Maya civilization: Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala, & Belize 3rd century BCE – 17th century CE Extinct
Teotihua script Logogram Nahuatl, other Central Mexico 100 BCE – 750 CE Extinct
Mixtec script Logogram Mixtecan languages Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero 13th century – 17th century CE Extinct
Aztec script Logogram Syllabogram Nahuatl Central Mexico 14th century – 17th century CE Extinct
Komqwejwi'kasikl (Miꞌkmaw Hieroglyphs) Logogram Mi'kmaq Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, & New Brunswick 17th–19th century Extinct Father Le Clercq
Cherokee syllabary Syllabary Cherokee Cherokee Nation, United States 1820s–present Active Sequoyah ᏍᏏᏉᏯ
Canadian Aboriginal syllabics Abugida Algonquian languages (Cree, Naskapi, Ojibwe/Chippewa, & Blackfoot (Siksika))

Eskimo–Aleut languages (Inuktitut & Inuinnaqtun)

Athabaskan languages (Dane-zaa, Slavey, Chipewyan (Denesuline)/Sayisi, Carrier (Dakelh), & Sekani)

Canada 1840s–present Active James Evans ᒉᐃᒻᔅ ᐁᕙᓐᔅ
Yugtun script Syllabary Central Alaskan Yup'ik Alaska 1900–present Endangered Uyaquq
Afaka syllabary Syllabary Ndyuka Suriname, French Guiana 1910–present Endangered Afáka Atumisi
Osage script Alphabet Osage Osage Nation, United States 2006–present Active Herman Mongrain Lookout

See also


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  76. ^ INALI (2012) México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales
  77. ^ "Language Highlight Tables, 2016 Census – Aboriginal mother tongue, Aboriginal language spoken most often at home and Other Aboriginal language(s) spoken regularly at home for the population excluding institutional residents of Canada, provinces and territories, 2016 Census – 100% Data". Government of Canada. 2 August 2017. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  78. ^ Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  79. ^ "Estadística básica de la población hablante de lenguas indígenas nacionales 2015" (PDF). Retrieved 2020-06-11.
  80. ^ Thurman, Judith (23 March 2015). "A loss for words: Can a dying language be saved?". The New Yorker. Condé Nast. Retrieved 15 October 2022.
  81. ^ "UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in danger". Retrieved 2018-05-20.
  82. ^ If the Caucasus is considered to be a part of Europe, Northwest Caucasian and Northeast Caucasian would be included resulting in five language families within Europe. Other language families, such as the Turkic, Mongolic, Afroasiatic families have entered Europe in later migrations.
  83. ^ Nater 1984, pg. 5
  84. ^ Ruhlen, Merritt. (1991 [1987]). A Guide to the World's Languages Volume 1: Classification, p.216. Edward Arnold. Paperback: ISBN 0-340-56186-6.
  85. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Ch. 8 Distant Genetic Relationships, pp. 260–329. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  86. ^ American-Arctic–Paleosiberian Phylum, Luoravetlan – and beyond
  87. ^ Macro-Mayan includes Mayan, Totonacan, Mixe–Zoquean, and sometimes Huave.
  88. ^ Siouan–Iroquoian–Caddoan–[Yuchi]
  89. ^ Alternatively Takelma–Kalapuyan
  90. ^ See Sapir 1918
  91. ^ Nichols & Peterson 1996
  92. ^ Campbell 1997
  93. ^ a b c d Raoul Zamponi (2017) 'First-person n and second-person m in Native America: a fresh look'. Italian Journal of Linguistics, 29.2
  94. ^ possibly from *-ni and *-na
  95. ^ Proto-Chonan proper, sans Puelche, has only 2sg *maː
  96. ^ Guaicuruan has 1sg i only


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North America

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South America

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  • Debian North American Indigenous Languages Project

External links

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