Modern American accents have been shaped by the history of immigration. New York’s accent has been influenced by Italians, Michigan’s accent was shaped by the Finns, and of course, American accents wouldn’t exist without English colonization. Often ignored, however, are the people who were here before any of those groups came to the United States. Native American English is an important, understudied part of our accent landscape.
Native American English is different from the accents we’ve covered so far because it is tied to an identity, not a geographic location. Because of this, Native American English is not a highly specific way of speaking, and Native Americans do not all speak the same way. There are, however, commonalities that have sprung up across Native American communities. Before explaining why we’ll have to go back in time.
Languages Before And During Colonialism
Prior to colonization, the continents that would eventually be known as the Americas were very linguistically diverse. There were over 50 language families, which is huge when you consider the fact that Europe has only three main families: Romance, Germanic and Slavic. One estimate is that there were at least 2,000 distinct languages spoken throughout the Americas by the time Christopher Columbus landed in the Indies.
One estimate is that there were at least 2,000 distinct languages spoken throughout the Americas by the time Christopher Columbus landed in the Indies.
This article won’t rehash the harsh European conquest that proceeded over the centuries following Columbus’ arrival, but by the middle of the 20th century, at least two-thirds of indigenous languages had been wiped out. In the United States, there are only about 175 indigenous languages left, and most are spoken by only a small number of speakers. The most widely spoken is Navajo with 150,000 speakers, and there are restoration efforts to keep the remaining languages from going extinct.
For the most part, however, Native Americans have been forced to learn English to assimilate. This can be a point of tension, because language is such an important part of identity. To resolve this, Native Americans have found other ways to use speech to assert their heritage.
Native Influences On American Dialects
Despite having been around for longer than any other American voices, Native American dialects haven’t had a huge impact on non-Native American dialects. You’re most likely to see the influence of Native American language on English in location names: 26 of the 50 states were named after Native Americans (though the spellings were Anglicized). Colonists also tended to adopt Native American terms for native animals and geographic features, like skunk and bayou.
The remaining Native American speech influences that you might still hear used today are in the western parts of the country, namely in the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Northwest — one example in the latter being the use of the indigenous word “potlatch” instead of “potluck.” Other than that, you won’t find much noticeable Native American language in most people’s speech in the United States.
There’s no definite explanation for why Native American accents didn’t intermingle much, but it likely has to do with attitudes toward Native Americans. Our impressions of accents are strongly related to our impressions of people. Thus, discrimination against Native Americans meant people would resist picking up Native American speech patterns.
Native American English, Or The “Rez Accent”
At some point in your life, you have probably encountered Native American speech portrayed in the media. There have been many negative, stereotyped examples of Native Americans (think of almost any Western), but once in a while, there are more accurate representations. Here’s an example from the 1998 film Smoke Signals:
In this scene, the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire is telling a story, and you can hear that his speech pattern is very distinctive. There is a “sing song” quality to it, which is caused by differences in intonation and vowel length in the speech. While the accent Thomas uses in this clip is somewhat exaggerated according to Native Americans, linguists have found that the features in his speech do appear in Native American English, which is sometimes called the “Reservation Accent,” or just “Rez Accent.” And the oddest thing is that these traits are not specific to any one group of Native Americans; they pop up across North America.
No one is entirely sure exactly where these Native American English features come from. Linguists have attempted to study the prosody — the stress, intonation and rhythm of speech — to find the source of it. One theory is that it’s based on Native American languages, many of which are tonal. Often, when someone transitions from a tonal language to a non-tonal one, the speech will still be affected. That could explain why the Rez Accent almost sounds tonal, and why the sentences flow differently. For example, a Native American English speaker asking a question will have a more even tone than other American speakers, who usually use upspeak (the pitch of the question goes up at the end).
There’s another theory that boarding schools, where Native Americans were forced to learn English, also played a role in the development of the accent. Children would learn English in a specific way, and then bring that way of speaking back to reservations, where it would form a new accent. This theory is very popular among linguists, but it is still kind of a mystery how the accent spread across huge distances.
The reason the accent has managed to persist, though, goes back to identity. There are many Native Americans who don’t speak the language of their ancestors, and so to claim membership to their heritage, they turn to accented English instead. This isn’t to say all Native Americans have this accent — there are plenty of people who identify with their Native American heritage who speak with other accents — but for some, it’s a way to demonstrate group membership.
For members of an oppressed group, speech can be important. It is a way of showing that despite years of being discriminated against and mistreated by the government, Native Americans are not going away, and they are not bending to societal expectations.