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Native American languages

Influence and Survival

The Native American languages have contributed numerous place-names in the Western Hemisphere, especially in the United States, many of whose states have names of Native American origin. The European languages that are official today in countries of the New World, such as English, Spanish, and Portuguese, have borrowed a number of words from aboriginal languages. English, for example, has been enriched by such words as moccasin, moose, mukluk, raccoon, skunk, terrapin, tomahawk, totem, and wampum from indigenous North American languages; by chocolate, coyote, and tomato from indigenous Mexican tongues; by barbecue, cannibal, hurricane, maize, and potato from aboriginal languages of the West Indies; and by coca, condor, guano, jaguar, llama, maraca, pampa, puma, quinine, tapioca, and vicuña from indigenous South American languages. Some Native American languages, among them Navajo, Apache, and Cherokee, have been used for wartime communications by the U.S. military to evade enemy decipherment. Many Navajo participated in the American armed forces during World War II as the transmitters of vital messages in their native language.

The outlook for the future of the indigenous American languages is not good; most will probably die out. At present, the aboriginal languages of the Western Hemisphere are gradually being replaced by the Indo-European tongues of the European conquerors and settlers of the New World—English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch. The investigation of Native American languages contributes much to a scientific knowledge of language in general, since these tongues possess a number of linguistic features not otherwise known. Some native American groups in the United States are working to revitalize the languages of their peoples as a result of increased ethnic consciousness and feelings of cultural identity. By the end of the 20th cent. there was an increasing number of such language-learning facilities as tribal classes, language camps, and local college courses in indigenous languages.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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