All In The Language Family: The Amerindian Languages

To start, the indigenous languages of the Americas are not technically part of one big ‘family.’
March 27, 2020
All In The Language Family: The Amerindian Languages

The Amerindian language family is a complicated language grouping. If you only look at European languages, you might think that it’s easy to classify languages into neat categories. English, for example, is traceable to the Germanic languages, and there’s a long written history to show how it has evolved. But for any number of reasons, many languages don’t have a well-documented history, and so trying to group them together takes work.

Because of the devastating effects of colonialism and a relative lack of written records, determining how languages fit together in the Amerindian language family is at best speculative. It’s not entirely clear how all of these languages are tied together, and even the best guesses have to rely on best guesses. But even if it’s imperfect, the task of linguistic genealogy can unveil the richness of the Americas’ native languages.

What Are The Amerindian Languages?

The “Amerindian language family” is a general term for the languages spoken in North and South America before contact with Europeans started in the 15th century. At the time of contact, there were an estimated 2,000 languages spoken on the continents. The Native Languages of the Americas, a nonprofit organization devoted to documenting Amerindian languages,  approximates that there are around 800 left today, and it lists 499 languages on its website. It’s hard to get exact numbers, and accounting for them all is an ongoing process, but it’s clear there’s been a steep decline in the past few centuries.

Technically, a language family is a group of languages that can all be traced back to a single root language. Every member of the Indo-European language family, for example, is traceable back to a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European language. This is not the case for the Amerindian language family, which is not properly a “family” at all because the languages are not related. Calling them the Amerindian language family is not fully accurate, but it’s a useful grouping. There are proposed language families within the indigenous languages of the Americas, but figuring out exactly which ones are related has proven difficult (we’ll get more into that later).

How Many People Speak An Amerindian Language?

The Native Languages of the Americas states that there are over 25 million living speakers of an Amerindian language. But these numbers are not evenly spread out across the hundreds of Amerindian languages. The top 10 languages all have hundreds of thousands of speakers, while the bottom hundred are in danger of dying out completely within a generation or two.

Top 10 Amerindian Languages By Number Of Speakers

  1. Quechua — 7.7 million
  2. Mayan — 6.4 million
  3. Guarani — 6.2 million
  4. Nahuatl — 1.7 million
  5. Aymara — 1.6 million
  6. Mixtec — 518,000
  7. Zapotec — 441,000
  8. Otomi — 285,000
  9. Totonac — 268,000
  10. Mapudungun — 250,000 

Note: Data sourced from Ethnologue. Other sources may disagree, as there is no 100 percent accurate accounting for all of the languages in the world.

The list above accounts for macrolanguages, which could be divided into smaller languages. There are 31 Mayan languages, for example, not all of which are mutually intelligible. The above list gives a good overall picture of the indigenous languages that are spoken, especially because getting exact numbers for the smaller languages can be difficult.

Where Are The Amerindian Languages Spoken?

The Amerindian languages are spread throughout both North and South America, as well as part of Greenland. As mentioned, all it takes to be called an “Amerindian language” is to have been spoken in the “New World” before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.

The vast majority of living speakers of an Amerindian language live in Mexico and South America. There are 12 languages spoken in Mexico that are among the 30 most-spoken Amerindian languages, while the United States is only home to two. Of the 25 million Amerindian language speakers, about half a million live in either the United States or Canada.

How Similar Are The Amerindian Languages?

Figuring out how similar the Amerindian languages are to each other has been a subject of debate for decades. For the past century, linguists have been doing a lot of guesswork to figure out how exactly language arrived at and spread throughout the Americas.

A major part of linguistic work is using modern language to recreate how languages may have historically evolved. Many hypotheses have been floated, and there is division among so-called “lumpers” and “splitters.” Not specific to linguistics, these terms refer to people who try to “lump” together many disparate things into one category, and people who “split” categories and claim that the members of that category are not as similar as was previously thought. There is no general right answer as to whether it’s better to be a lumper or a splitter, and both groups of people are integral to scientific research.

One prolific lumper who put forth a theory about Amerindian languages was Joseph Greenberg, who published multiple works on the topic in the 1980s. He argued that all of the indigenous languages in North and South America could fit into one of three language families: Amerind, Na-Dené and Eskimo-Aleut. His belief in these large language families was based on comparing simple vocabulary across many languages and finding similarities. The pronouns for “I” and “you,” for example, were a piece of evidence.

Language I you
Nahuatl no-  mo-
Quechua ñuqa qam
Aymara naya juma
Yine -no pɨ-

This is only a small sample of the overall chart, but the idea is that words for “I” often have an “n” sound and words for  “you” often have an “m” sound. Greenberg, along with other respected linguists, used this as evidence for there being a single proto-language that all, or almost all, indigenous languages of the Americas are related to.

While similar words across languages can be a valid part of an argument for grouping languages together, Greenberg’s work has been roundly rejected. Specialists say that the entire methodology he follows is flawed, and examples like the pronouns above are not statistically significant enough to prove or disprove anything. Yet it’s worth mentioning because his work has been cited by many researchers, and he’s left a lasting impact on this field of study.

Modern specialists say that it is far more likely that the Amerindian languages comprise dozens of language families. The Native Languages of the Americas nonprofit estimates about 25 to 30, in addition to uncategorized languages and language isolates (which have no family). The language families listed on their website are Algonquian, Arawakan, Athabaskan, Caddoan, Cariban, Chibchan, Eskimo-Aleut, Gulf, Hokan, Iroquoian, Kiowa-Tanoan, Macro-Ge, Mayan, Muskogean, Oto-Manguean, Panoan, Penutian, Salishan, Siouan, Tucanoan, Tupian, Uto-Aztecan and Wakashan.

It’s hard to pin down the exact members and borders of these language families, because so much of the linguistic landscape changed or vanished after colonial forces invaded the land. Linguists are trying to do their best to reconstruct the evolution of languages, but they’re relying on a very incomplete set of evidence. 

Today, preservation is the most important task among researchers of the Americas’ native languages. Without concerted efforts of groups like the Native Languages of the Americas, most will go extinct in the coming decades. In some cases, it’s a race against time to study these languages and keep them alive.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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