Indigenous Languages

views updated

Indigenous Languages

In discussing the indigenous languages of Latin America, it is necessary to begin by qualifying the geolinguistic zones of relevance. For North America, linguists prefer to speak of languages north of Mexico. For Central America, however, linguists allude either to the geographic area otherwise known as Middle America, including Mexico and Central America, or to Mesoamerica, a region extending from northern Mexico, south of the Pánuco River, to El Salvador, but also including Pacific coast of southwestern Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica, and excluding most of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The latter region—eastern Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama—is referred to as lower Central America, and is more properly included in the treatment of the indigenous languages of South America, along with continental South America and the Antilles. South America includes the following geographic regions: "continental South America, lower Central America, and the Antilles: i.e., Latin America without MesoAmerica" (Kaufman, p. 13). It can be further subdivided into several geolinguistic subregions (Kaufman, pp. 32-35): Northwest, Amazonia (western, central, and northern), Foothills (northern and southern), Southern Cone, Chaco, and Brazil (eastern and northeastern).


A conservative estimate of the number of language families and isolates for North America stands at fifty-eight, and at about fifteen for Mexico and Central America. The total number of extant languages is approximately 200 in the United States and Canada, and 350 for Mexico and Central America. In the United States and Canada, at least twice as many languages may have existed at the time of European contact. A few ethnolinguistic groups from the United States migrated south after 1500 (e.g., Apachean, an Athapaskan language, and Kickapoo, a Central Algonquian language), and at least one, Carib, a member of the Arawakan family from South America, arrived after 1797, when its speakers were relocated from Saint Vincent and became the so-called "Black Carib" of Central America, that is, the Garífuna (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua). Excluding these late arrivals, North America and Central America contain about seventy-three conventionally accepted language families. Opinions on the number of language families and isolates in South America (by Morris Swadesh, Jorge Suárez, Joseph Greenberg, Terrence Kaufman, Alden Mason, and Čestmír Loukotka, among others) differ in important ways. Lyle Campbell (1997) follows Kaufman's classification into 118 phylogenetic units, 48 of which consist of language families, and 70 of isolates. Campbell notes that it is likely to be a conservative, and in some cases merely tentative, estimate that can serve as a starting point for further refinement.

In terms of total number of languages, in the early twenty-first century between about 350 and 422 languages are spoken; this may be about one-fifth of the total number of languages that were spoken in South America at the time of contact with the Europeans. It is likely that throughout the Americas, more than 2,000 languages may have been spoken prior to the arrival of the Europeans, of which fewer than half have survived to the present. The majority of speakers of indigenous languages are found in Mexico, Guatemala, Perú, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, where they number in the hundreds of thousands or millions, at least for a few languages: Nahuatl, Yucatec Maya, K'iche', Kaqchikel, Q'eqchi', Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní. After these languages, most of the indigenous languages of the Americas are spoken by 100,000 to a few thousand to a handful of speakers, depending on the language. In South America, Manuel Lizarralde (1988, pp. 10-11) reports that out of a maximum of 472 ethnolinguistic groups, 141 have fewer than 100 speakers, 241 fewer than 300, and 346 fewer than 1,000; at the same time, all these 472 groups constitute about 3.71 percent of the total population of South America, based on estimates for 1976 to 1987.


A number of scholars have proposed long-distance phylolinguistic relationships among some or many of these language families, most notoriously Edward Sapir, with his Penutian stock, and Joseph Green-berg (1987), who classified all of the languages of the Americas into three families: Eskimo-Aleut, Na Dene, and Amerind. Amerind would include all of the languages of North America, Central America, and South America not included within Eskimo-Aleut or Na Dene. These and other proposals so far lack support from most specialists, and in some respects, as in the case of Greenberg's Amerind, are known to exhibit serious methodological flaws. Some proposals exist for broader groupings of language families and isolates in South America. Some such proposals have been rejected through more detailed analysis (e.g., Maya-Chipaya, Maya-Chipaya-Yunga), whereas for others the jury is still out (e.g., Quechumaran, or Quechua-Aymara).

In terms of linguistic typology, there is also considerable diversity in North America and Central America. The works by Joel Sherzer (1976) and Yoshiho Yasugi (1995) document the major areal and typological traits for North America and Middle America, respectively. There is also great diversity among South American languages; however, there is no synthesis of South American languages comparable to those by Sherzer and Yasugi. Comprehensive surveys exist (Pottier 1983; Tovar and Larrucea de Tovar 1984; Fabre 1998), but these tend to catalog nonlinguistic data for the languages, such as population estimates and geographic location, in addition to proposed genetic groupings, with the exception of the 1961 work of Antonio Tovar, which covers some typological traits, but not as many, and not as systematically, as in the approaches by Sherzer and Yasugi.

There are approximately twenty-three linguistic areas, areas that show persistent—lexical, phonological, morphological, syntactic—linguistic traits that have diffused geographically, even among nonrelated languages, after long periods of contact, which can be properly considered as part of North America and Mesoamerica. Of the twenty-two defined for the United States and Canada, two in particular have experienced contact with Spanish: the Southern California-Western Arizona Area (compare Chumash Indians) and the Pueblo Area (compare Pueblo Indians). The remaining linguistic area is the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area. In South America the following seven linguistic areas have been defined: the Colombia-Central American Area, the Venezuelan-Antillean Area, the Andean Area, the Ecuadoran-Colombian Area, the Orinoco-Amazon Linguistic Area, the Amazon Linguistic Area or Lowland South America, and the Southern Cone Area. Some of these are regarded as preliminary definitions, requiring further research to confirm and refine, as well as to incorporate into future considerations of genetic linguistic relationships.

Regarding linguistic contacts, aside from the linguistic area phenomenon, it is of course evident that Spanish has exerted a major influence in the form of hispanisms, which include not only lexical items, but also grammatical particles. Hispanisms of both types are found in a considerable number of terms from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire, which was diffused throughout the North and Central America into Spanish, English, and Portuguese, and from other indigenous languages, through Spanish. The same process is evident throughout South America with regard to terms from Quechua (also Quichua or Kichwa), the language of the Inca Empire, adopted by and diffused through Spanish, and in a more limited fashion, in Paraguay, with regard to terms from Guaraní, although this time as the result of the unusual acceptability of Guaraní as a national language, compared to other situations in Latin America. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, linguistic diffusion of both types was already extensive in numerous instances among indigenous languages. In fact, this phenomenon has been key to the reconstruction of culture histories in different parts of Latin America, as with the case of the ancient prestigious status of Mixe-Zoquean in Mesoamerica, which suggests a very influential role by its speakers, who may have been the bearers of Olmec civilization.


Linguistic diffusion, sometimes resulting in long-term linguistic convergence, which can lead to the formation of linguistic areas, is often the result of social forces such as economic and political interactions. Since the arrival of the Spanish, and continuing through the colonial and postcolonial periods, socioeconomic and political marginalization, and outright genocide, have generally resulted from intensive modernization, nation-building, and globalization policies, and have led to more extreme forms of short-term linguistic change, such as language shift and language loss—two stages in the process of language endangerment. Many ethnolinguistic groups have experienced (and in some cases, continue to experience) marginalization and discrimination, even violence. Language shift and loss have been all too common in such cases, and many groups have shifted to English, Spanish, or Portuguese as a result. Particularly as a result of increasing numbers of illegal migrants from Mesoamerica to the United States, many indigenous people from that region are now engaged in contact with English, and thus it is possible that a new model of language shift and loss will soon emerge within immigrant communities in the United States—a shift to English, as in the case of the Yucatec Mayans in San Francisco, and the Awakatek Mayans in Morganton, North Carolina.

There have been positive responses to language endangerment in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, Central America, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru; some of these efforts, as well as their successes and persisting problems, are discussed by contributors to Nancy Hornberger's Indigenous Literacies in the Americas (1997). In the last three countries, for example, several indigenous languages have national, co-official status (e.g., Quechua and Aymara in Peru and Bolivia, Guaraní in Paraguay). Indigenous-language-education programs have been implemented in Mexico, as with the case of Yucatec Maya in the Yucatan peninsula, and have become official policy in Guatemala, where implementation is only in its initial stages. In Colombia the indigenous communities have achieved semi-autonomy from the government, a factor that could lead to successful indigenous-education programs.

The major problem remains the pervasive negative perception of indigenous languages as obstacles to economic opportunity, not only by the mainstream, nonindigenous populations of these countries, but also by the marginalized, indigenous populations themselves. Save for the few indigenous languages that are spoken by hundreds of thousands or even millions of people, it remains entirely possible that most of the indigenous languages of the Americas will become extinct by the end of the present century (Krauss 1992). The languages can survive only by the sincere efforts on the parts of governments and nongovernmental organizations—that is, efforts including adequate funding and continuing support, not just policy writing, and especially efforts sanctioned and spear-headed by indigenous communities, focusing both on indigenous language education and on culturally prestigious and economically advantageous social uses of the languages. In other words, such efforts must focus on the role of linguistic and ethnic identity, the very factor that modernization and nation-building enterprises have tried to erase. This method has been implemented successfully in Latin America by indigenous organizations during the past few decades, and shows promise for the future. Evo Morales, the current president of Bolivia and himself an Aymara Indian, may be particularly helpful in promoting such efforts.

See alsoIndigenous Peoples .


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

Fabre, Alain. Manual de las lenguas indígenas sudamericanas, 3 vols. Munich: Lincom Europa, 1998.

Greenberg, Joseph. Language in the Americas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.

Hornberger, Nancy H., ed. Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up. Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997.

Kaufman, Terrence. "Language History in South America: What We Know and How to Know More." In Amazonian Linguistics: Studies in Lowland South American Languages, ed. Doris L. Payne. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Krauss, Michael E. "The World's Languages in Crisis." Language 68 (1992): 4-10.

Lizarralde, Manuel. Índice y mapa de grupos etnolingüísticos autóctonos de América del Sur. Caracas: Fundación La Salle, Instituto Caribe de Antropología y Sociología, 1988.

Pottier, Bernard, ed. América Latina en sus lenguas indígenas. Caracas: Monte Avila Editores, 1983.

Sherzer, Joel. An Areal-Typological Study of American Indian Languages North of Mexico. Amsterdam, Oxford, and New York: North-Holland, 1976.

Tovar, Antonio. Catálogo de las lenguas de América del Sur: Enumeración, con indicaciones tipológicas, bibliografía y mapas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1961.

Tovar, Antonio, and Consuelo Larrucea de Tovar. Catálogo de las lenguas de América del Sur. Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1984.

Yasugi, Yoshiho. Native Middle American Languages: An Areal-Typological Perspective. Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology, 1995.

                                   David Mora-MarÍn