What Languages Existed Before Colonization In America, And Which Languages Still Survive?

Let’s retrace the steps of colonization in the Americas to learn how European languages spread, which American languages survived and whether these languages influenced European tongues.

Illustrations by Louise Mézel

Referring to Europe as the Old World and to the Americas as the New World carries with it a patronizing bias that grants history and authority to one “world”, while withholding it from the other. In Europe, the established narrative mentions several cultures, peoples, invasions and civilizations sedimenting each other. In America, the Western narrative speaks of Native Peoples (thousands of cultures and languages lumped together indiscriminately) and European colonizers (usually ignoring Viking settlements on the north-eastern fringes of North America in the late 10th century AD). The Vikings usually get left out of the story because they failed to leave an impact on the development of the continent’s history. But what of the languages and cultures that thrived in the Americas before Europeans imposed their collective imperial will, and Spanish, English and Portuguese became the three dominant languages?

The Spanish Arrival

A holy mission

Estimates regarding the number of inhabitants and languages on the American continents before the first European contact are uncertain, but some estimates tally 300 different languages spoken by roughly 5 million people in what is now Mexico and Central America, and over 1400 languages spoken by 9 million natives in South America and the West Indies. The region of Mesoamerica stretched from Central America to the southwestern United States and its peoples shared a similar culture, encompassing pictographic and hieroglyphic forms of writing, monumental architecture, a similar diet consisting of corn and beans, and the weaving of cotton cloth. Trade was common and extensive, and society ranged from the (mostly) agricultural to the highly hierarchical and centralized — including priests, warriors and merchants.

The arrival of Europeans on the continent and their ability to conquer was intimately linked with language. The cementing of Queen Isabel and King Fernando’s power in Europe included language and religion, and this vision of what was to later become a national identity was intimately bound with faith. The king and queen’s power was itself divinely conferred through the Pope, and royal power conferred credence and ability on anyone who sought the evangelization and conversion of other peoples. Columbus conquered land in the name of his aristocratic sponsors, who in turn legitimized it through the power of God, whose messenger lived in the Vatican. The language used to name new lands and initially evangelize new peoples was Castilian — or what our Central and South American contemporaries call Spanish.

Mesoamerica’s first imperialist languages

Curiously enough, this imperialist approach to language was uncannily mirrored in the Americas before the Spanish arrived. The Aztec empire, stretching across much of modern day Mexico and Central America, espoused Nahuatl as its official language. The dominant tribe, Nahua, imposed it as a lingua franca and disregarded other native tongues as a strategy of control and domination. The several variants of Nahuatl continue to be spoken by an estimated 1.5 million people, mostly still living in central Mexico. “Avocado,” “chilli,” “chocolate,” “coyote,” “peyote” and “tomato” all derive from the language of the Aztecs, who saw their first Nahuatl-Spanish/Spanish-Nahuatl dictionary compiled by Alonso de Molina in the 16th century. The language is agglutinative, words can have prefixes and suffixes attached, and new words can be easily created.

The Incan empire also enforced the same imperialistic policy before Pizarro, coercing all subjects to understand and speak Quechua under threat of punishment. The demographic evolution of the language is connected to the European colonizers. Soon after arriving, the Spanish realized teaching Castilian was not only difficult — they simply didn’t have enough people available to teach the language — but they also failed to bolster Catholic faith in the learner. Once this assumption was broken, missionaries and colonizers chose to use locally sourced interpreters to communicate with locals (mostly under duress, i.e. they were kidnapped) while learning and propagating the use of a privileged native language to evangelize. This initial leniency morphed gradually into intolerance, and by the 18th century it was officially forbidden to speak Quechua in the conquered territories. Nonetheless, some terms snuck into Spanish and later into English, such as “Andes,” “condor,” “llama,” “puma” and “alpaca.” The language currently has 8 million speakers and has even influenced Spanish syntax in some regions, such as Iquitos, where speakers include the verb at the end of the sentence when saying things such as, de mi padre su casa (“of my father his house,” i.e. my father’s house), reflecting the Quechua “tayta-y-pi wasi-n.”

Naming and claiming

As the Spanish ventured out across the continent, they continued naming different places and taking possession of land. This was done through written records, since the spoken word was not considered sufficiently reliable or authoritative. These speech acts were acts of possession: natives and places were renamed and given new identities. As time went by, colonizers assessed the natives’ tongues as inferior, since they didn’t use fully fledged phonetic writing systems. Incidentally, their written testimonies were not seen as writing by scholars such as Bartolome de las Casas, a Franciscan friar who classified the natives as mere barbarians.

The Portuguese Arrival

The Portuguese arrived in 1500, eight years after Columbus, when Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in what was later to be named Brazil. Their first contact with the natives was established with the Tupi people, who populated most of the coast. Initially, the exclusive presence of European men, married and unmarried, led to procreation with native women and the expansion of the Tupinambá language. The progressive arrival of women and families from Europe helped further the predominance of Portuguese concomitantly with the extinction of the natives’ tongues.

There were only two languages documented by the Portuguese during colonization: the aforementioned Tupinambá (from the Tupian language family) and Kiriri, the latter originally spoken in northern Bahia and around the São Francisco river. Tupinambá helped name many places and localities in the newly encountered territory. “Abacaxi” (pineapple), “mandioca” (manioc flour), “caju” (cashew), “tatu” (armadillo), and “piranha” (the infamous fish species) also sneaked into Portuguese, some crossing the Atlantic and others remaining in what was to become Brazil.

Reviving a dead language

The old Tupinambá language is now officially extinct, but there are attempts to revive it. This doesn’t mean, naturally, that there are no languages or indigenous peoples left. Currently, there are approximate 350,000 natives living in communities in Brazil and more than 192,000 living in urban centers. Out of the 1,300 indigenous languages existing throughout Brazil before colonization, only 180 are still spoken. This is also only a guesstimate, since even recently a new tribe was detected by Brazilian photographer Ricardo Stuckert.

The English Arrival

When the pilgrims landed in 1620 in Cape Cod, their first encounters with natives were fraught with tension. Both parties feared each other. Two natives would serve as communication bridges between the groups: Samoset and Squanto.

Samoset, from the Abnaki tribe, befriended the pilgrims in their colony, retelling the account of his kidnapping by explorers, who took him to England where he learned the language. He would later return with Squanto, a Pawtuxet Indian captured in 1614 by the English and taken to Spain to be sold as a slave. He eventually escaped to England and learned to speak English.

When Squanto returned to his native continent in 1619 he found his tribe mostly decimated by disease, leading him to join the Wampanoags who had settled near Plymouth. He encountered the pilgrims in 1621.

The pilgrims were dying of malnutrition and poor living conditions. The Wampanoags had been involved in conflicts with other tribes, and realizing their common vulnerabilities, both parties established a mutual understanding that led to a peace treaty in 1621. Exchanging knowledge about weaponry and agriculture, they benefited from each other’s know-how.

Broken promises

Unfortunately, relations deteriorated as European settlers grew in number and the treaty broke down, leading to war between the factions. The British (and later the U.S.) continued the pattern of making treaties with natives only to break them in their indiscriminate westward expansion, to the detriment of every tribe they encountered. By the 1860s the policy of the (descendants of) the colonizers was all-out genocide. Today, most Native Americans live on reservations and suffer considerably from their loss of culture and the decimation of their peoples. Nonetheless, many languages still survive and are spoken in small and large communities throughout North America.

Old languages for a new generation

The Sioux language family includes three dialects, one of them being Lakota. Only 2000 people speak Lakota today and the average Lakota speaker is 65 years old. The language can be heard in North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Like most Native American tongues, it is spoken on reservations.

The Salish family of languages is vast in number, but its speakers are shockingly few. Forty-seven tribes speak twenty-seven different distinct dialects of Salish, stretching from west from Montana to the Pacific coast and north into British Columbia in Canada. The largest speaking community of Salish, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead reservation in northwestern Montana, has less than fifty fluent speakers.

There is a renewed interest in reviving this family of languages, especially since all fluent speakers are over 50 years of age, but time is not on their side. Nonetheless, institutions such as the Nkwusm school in Arlee, Montana, teach a regular curriculum with subjects such as maths, social studies and sciences in the Salish language, nurturing a new generation of speakers.

Other cultures have been more fortunate in maintaining their traditions. Navajo has 170,000 speakers and belongs to the Athabaskan language family, which includes 44 languages spoken in the U.S. and Canada in discontinuous regions, ranging from the Pacific Coast, the southwestern United States and northwestern Canada and the Alaskan interior. Institutions such as the Navajo Technical University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, as well as the Arizona and New Mexico state universities teach Navajo as a language. The cultural impact of the language has even led to Star Wars being dubbed into Navajo!

The Future of American Languages

Is domination an inevitable part of cultural exchange? Are religious zeal and economic greed the only motors of human development and curiosity? And what role do languages play in our perception of history, especially when certain languages and cultures do not recognize “history” as we Westerners define it?

Demystifying the “noble savage”

Sydney Possuelo explored Brazil and researched native communities throughout his entire life. His initial intent, typical of the mid 20th century, was to include native peoples in what his contemporaries named “the brotherhood of men,” seeing them as equals in social status and rights, awaiting integration into wider society.

Possuelo gradually shifted from an inclusivist viewpoint to a more subtle assessment of this power balance. Many tribes saw their members eradicated through the onslaught of European viruses and diseases too alien for their immune systems. Cultural shock was experienced by any native who picked up a mirror and saw for the first time their own reflection staring vividly at them. Other groups eventually retreated into the forest and refused any connection with outsiders. Sydney’s perception of the natives’ temperament and the innocence white explorers projected onto these tribes were also shaken. He acknowledged their ability to deceive, manipulate and kill with cruel intent as any other human being, understanding his own misguided purpose in contacting unknown cultures. He now fights with many other native and non-native Brazilians for demarcated territories in the interest of native peoples’ survival and well-being.

Can globalization outgrow the Western bias?

European languages and traditions have gained immensely from other cultures and serve as a mnemonic repository for technological and scientific achievements of the West. This stark intellectual curiosity and fierce determination has led to violent dominance both symbolically as well as politically and ecologically. Like many civilizations before it, the West has momentarily conquered our collective imaginations and shared epistemologies.

Is its global dominance inevitable, or should we sacrifice our eagerness for knowledge for a peaceful state of indifference and ignorance? Should we learn a language and a culture as a form of appreciation, or avoid any interference with its isolated development?

Each of us will choose differently, just like Sydney Possuelo did when he ventured into the deep Amazon forest to encounter the unknown. Globalization is not an inevitability and recent political developments have shown how ambiguously we negotiate its demands. For the moment, some isolated tribes have vehemently said no. Who knows whether we will eventually join them in rejecting the global community — or if they will join us, for better and for worse?

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