Indian Languages

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


INDIAN LANGUAGES. Language is central to Indian identity. Although there are exceptions, in general, aboriginal group identity corresponded to the language that its members spoke. This tradition continues in that tribal designations often refer to language, even though in some cases few if any of its members may know the language.

At the time of the European contact, some 300 languages are estimated to have been in use among the indigenous habitants of the area north of Mexico and a surprisingly large number of these survive to the present day. In the 1990 U.S. census, 136 such languages were identified as household languages by respondents. Although census figures may involve overreporting and underreporting of both languages and their numbers of speakers, by adding in a conservative additional figure for languages found only in Canada, it can be asserted that perhaps half of the estimated number at the European contact are still in use.

Classification and History

The starting point for discussions of Indian languages is usually their relationships to one another or their classification. The primacy of this concern grows out of the tradition of historical and comparative linguistics, particularly with respect to many European languages in the Indo-European family. The success of the Indo-European tradition is based to some extent on the availability of data over time (as much as four thousand years) in some of the languages. Since no comparable record exists for Indian languages, however, their relationships and their classification have been more problematical.

Early students of Indian languages included Thomas Jefferson, who engaged in fieldwork and asked Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to bring back information on the languages of the tribes they encountered on the 1804–1806 expedition. Albert Gallatin, Jefferson's secretary of the Treasury, is also credited with later making the first serious attempt at a comprehensive classification. The definitive classification of Indian languages was produced by the Bureau of American Ethnology under the leadership of John Wesley Powell in 1891 and recognized fifty-eight distinct language families. Since then, generally accepted modifications of the Powell classification have been made that involve mergers of languages and groups with other groups and other rearrangements. However, the view of a large number (more than fifty, including isolates) of distinct language groups in North America has remained the orthodox one. There have, however, been attempts to reduce radically the number to as few as three stocks for the entire New World by postulating remote relations showing genetic unity among numbers of the Powellian families. This has led to considerable and sometimes acrimonious debate among experts. Substantial progress has been made in determining the internal relations within families and relating these to prehistoric and historic migrations. Advances have also been made in the reconstruction of earlier stages of the languages.

It is important to note that genetic classification of languages does not necessarily correspond to other classifications such as geographic or cultural. The geographic diversity of the Algonquian languages, which are spread over a huge part of the North American continent in several noncontiguous locations, including the high plains and both the east and west coasts, illustrates this well. Another kind of linguistic relationship among languages is illustrated by the Pueblo languages, which derive from three quite distinct families but show parallel patterns of expression and use because of the close geographic and cultural relations of their speakers. This kind of nongenetic relationship is called a linguistic area.


Although Indians recorded information using pictograms before contact with Europeans, they had no writing in the sense of a graphic system with which to directly represent language. The singular accomplishment of the Cherokee Sequoyah, who created a syllabary for his language in the early nineteenth century, is without parallel within the Indian world. Writing systems using the Latin alphabet and, in the case of Cree and Ojibwe, a geometric syllabary were developed initially by white missionaries and anthropologists, but Native speakers have taken responsibility for promulgating standardized orthographies. The strong tradition of orality has given many Indian languages as rigorous a set of conventions about usage as exists for formal, written English.

Language and Culture

Central to any discussion of Indian languages is the relationship between language and culture. Here, the focus has been the debate on the hypothesis associated with the linguist Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf that language can determine ways in which its speakers view the world. Early evidence given by Whorf in support of the hypothesis has been rejected as untenable, but the debate continues to surface in scholarly discussions.

There can be no doubt, however, that Native culture is richly reflected in the Indian languages. Elaborate kin-ship systems found in these languages not only illustrate specific views of kinship, but also show the centrality of such relations to Indian life. Native systems of classification for the natural world are often subtle and complex.

American English has been greatly enriched by borrowing from Indian languages. Aside from the many place names, the two most commons types of borrowing are terms for native flora and fauna and for objects and concepts of the Native culture.


At the start of the twenty-first century, all North American indigenous languages were classified as endangered. Navajo had by far the largest number of speakers, about 150,000, while most had fewer than 1,000, and many had only a very small number of elderly speakers. The most devastating influence was the pressure of the anglophone milieu in which Indians lived, under which only a small percentage of Indian children learned to speak their Native language at home. This led tribes to introduce ambitious programs of language maintenance and renewal as they took control of their education systems from pre-school through graduate school.


Campell, Lyle. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Campbell, Lyle, and Marianne Mithun, eds. The Languages of Native America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979.

Ives, Goddard, ed. The Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17, Languages. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.

Mithun, Marianne. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Silver, Shirley, and Wick R. Miller. American Indian Languages: Cultural and Social Contexts. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.


See alsoEthnology, Bureau of American ; Education, Indian ; Indian Oral Literature ; Indian Oratory .