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Native American languages

Languages of North America

The most widely accepted classification of Native American languages N of Mexico (although some included are also spoken in Mexico and Central America) is that made by Edward Sapir in 1929. Sapir arranged the numerous linguistic groups in six major unrelated linguistic stocks, or families. There are Eskimo-Aleut, Algonquian-Wakashan, Nadene, Penutian, Hokan-Siouan, and Aztec-Tanoan.

Algonquian-Wakashan

The Algonquian-Wakashan language family of North America was one of the most widespread of Native American linguistic stocks; in historical times, tribes speaking its languages extended from coast to coast. Today the surviving languages of the Algonquian-Wakashan family are spoken by about 130,000 people in Canada and a few thousand in the Great Lakes region, Montana, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and the NE United States. The Algonquian branch of the family once had some 50 distinct tongues, among them Algonquin, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Cree, Delaware, Kickapoo, Menomini, Micmac, Ojibwa (or Chippewa), Penobscot, Sac and Fox, Shawnee, and Yurok. Two other important branches of the Algonquian-Wakashan stock are Salishan and Wakashan. Among the tribes speaking Salishan languages are the Bella Coola, Klallam, Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Nisqualli, Okanogan, Pend d'Oreille, Puyallup, Salish or Flathead, Shuswap, Spokan, and Tillamook. The Salishan tongues are spoken in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Tribes speaking Wakashan languages (used along the Pacific Northwest coast) include the Nootka, Nitinat, Makah, Kwakiutl, Bella Bella, and Kitamat. Polysynthesism characterizes the Algonquian-Wakashan languages, which are inflected and make great use of suffixes. Prefixes are employed to a limited extent.

Nadene and Penutian

The Nadene languages form another linguistic family; its branches include Athabascan, Haida, and Tlingit. The Haida and Tlingit tongues are spoken in parts of Canada and Alaska. As a whole, the Nadene languages have tones that convey meaning and some degree of polysynthesism. The verb is characterized by a reliance on aspect and voice rather than on tense.

The Penutian linguistic stock includes several branches, such as the Maidu, Wintun, and Yokuts language groups, all of which are native to California. Probably also in the Penutian family are the Sahaptin, Chinook, and Tsimshian languages of the Pacific Northwest coast, as well as other tongues in Mexico and parts of Central America. Penutian languages resemble those of the Indo-European family in several ways (for example, they have true cases for the noun).

Hokan-Siouan

The Hokan-Siouan family is thought to include a number of linguistic groups, but the classification of some of them is still disputed. Among the groups generally considered branches of the Hokan-Siouan stock are Muskogean, whose languages include such tongues as Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole, which are spoken in Oklahoma and Florida; Caddoan, composed of the Caddo, Wichita, Pawnee, and Arikara languages found in Oklahoma and North Dakota; Yuman, with individual languages (such as Cocopa, Havasupai, Kamia, Maricopa, Mohave, Yavapaí, and Yuma) in Arizona and California; Iroquoian, to which belong the Seneca, Cayuga, Onandaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Wyandot, and Tuscarora languages spoken in New York, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma, as well as the Cherokee tongue found in Oklahoma and North Carolina; and Siouan, which includes Catawba (in South Carolina), Winnebago (in Wisconsin and Nebraska), Osage (in Nebraska and Oklahoma), Dakota and Assiniboin (in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska), and Crow (in Montana). Languages of the Hokan-Siouan stock are also found in Mexico and parts of Central America. These Hokan-Siouan languages tend to be agglutinative; various word elements, each having a fixed meaning and an independent existence, are merged to form a single word.

Aztec-Tanoan

The two principal branches of the Aztec-Tanoan linguistic stock are Uto-Aztecan and Tanoan, and their languages are spoken in areas extending from the NW United States to Mexico and Central America. Uto-Aztecan has such subdivisions, or groups, as Nahuatlan, whose languages are spoken in Mexico and parts of Central America, and Shoshonean, to which Comanche, Hopi, Paiute, Shoshone, and Ute belong. Ute and Paiute are found in Utah, Nevada, California, and Arizona; Comanche and Shoshone are spoken in Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, California, and Oklahoma; Hopi is found in Arizona. The languages of the Tanoan branch of Aztec-Tanoan are spoken in the Rio Grande valley, New Mexico, and Arizona. Zuñi (found in New Mexico) may be connected with Tanoan. The Aztec-Tanoan languages show a degree of polysynthesism.

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

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