Search billions of records on
Cherokee Chief
Cherokee Chief
Native American Indian (NAI) Profile©

At the time of first European contact, probably close to 1,000 American 
Indian languages were spoken in North, Central, and South America. 
Although the number of languages in daily use has steadily declined 
because of persecution and pressures on the Indians to adopt English, 
Spanish, and other originally European languages, well over 700 different 
American Indian--or, as they are sometimes called, Amerindian or Native 
American--languages are spoken today.

American Indian languages have long been a source of fascination for 
scholars and lay people alike.  The only transcriptions of many now-extinct 
languages were made by interested soldiers and explorers untrained 
in phonetics;  in areas of Spanish domination, the careful records 
of Catholic missionaries provide invaluable documentation of the way 
indigenous languages were spoken as long as 400 years ago.

In the United States many of the most famous linguists of the early 
20th century--among them Franz BOAS, Leonard BLOOMFIELD, and Edward 
SAPIR--transcribed and analyzed North American Indian languages.  Many 
descriptions of Indian languages are important in the literature of 
the linguistic school known as American structuralism.

Today interest in American Indian languages is increasing, and Americanists, 
as those who study the languages are called, hold regular scientific 
meetings to report on their investigations. Current research on the 
native languages of the Americas is published in several periodicals, 
notably the International Journal of American Linguistics.

Most scholars believe that the aboriginal inhabitants of the Americas 
migrated from Asia many thousands of years ago. Acceptance of this 
theory has led some to hypothesize that all Indian languages can be 
traced back to a single remote ancestor language.  The great diversity 
of Indian languages, however, has thus far prevented proof of common 
origin, and most Americanists favor more conservative classifications 
of the languages into a number of distinct groups.

   American Indian Historical Linguistics
Few American Indian languages have more than 100 years of written 
history; therefore, comparative study must be based upon quite recent 
sources. Following the traditional principles of historical linguistics, 
words from Indian languages believed to be related are subjected to 
minute comparison, in a search for regular correspondences of sound 
and meaning. Regularity is the key:  thus, while Luiseno paa-la, Papago 
wa-, and Aztec a-tl, all meaning "water," do not immediately appear 
similar, the words are seen to be cognate (derived from the same word 
in the ancestor language) when other sets such as Luiseno pe-t, Papago 
woog, and Aztec o-tli, all meaning "road," are considered, since Luiseno 
initial p and Papago initial w regularly correspond to the lack of 
any initial consonant sound in Aztec.

When such correspondences are discovered, the languages being compared 
are judged to have a historical connection, either genetic--because 
of descent from a common ancestor--or through language contact and 
the consequent "borrowing" of words.  As genetic relationships are 
discovered, languages are grouped into families, which then are often 
compared themselves. Related families can be classified in turn into 
larger groups called phyla (singular, phylum) or stocks, or into even 
broader groupings known as macrophyla or superstocks.

On the basis of the Luiseno, Papago, and Aztec words cited above, 
linguists have proposed the reconstruction of initial p sound in the 
words for "water" and "road" in the Proto-Uto-Aztecan ancestor of 
the three languages in question. The sounds systems and vocabulary 
of the ancestors of a number of different American Indian language 
families have been partially reconstructed through similarly detailed 
analysis by linguists. Comparison of these reconstructed protolanguages 
leads to more informed conjecture about earlier connections between 
the ancestor languages and the peoples who spoke them.

   Language Names
Names for American Indian languages can be confusing.  Some names 
are chosen politically rather than linguistically:  for instance, 
Creek and Seminole are mutually intelligible Muskogean languages but 
are traditionally treated as separate because the tribes who use them 
are different.  Many American Indian groups do not have a special 
name for themselves other than the word for "people." Often Indian 
groups come to be known by a foreign term, such as the English names 
Dogrib and Yellowknife for Athabascan tribes in the Northwest or the 
naming of most Coastal California languages for the nearest Spanish 
mission (Luiseno was the Uto-Aztecan language spoken around Mission 
San Luis Rey, for example, and the Chumash language Obispeno was named 
for Mission San Luis Obispo). Some other designations, occasionally 
derogatory, originated with other Indians--the name Comanche, for 
example, is from Southern Paiute kimantsi, "stranger." Both languages 
are Uto-Aztecan.

In some cases the same name has been used for two or more distinct 
languages.  For instance, there are two languages in Central America 
called "Chontal," one Hokan and one Mayan.

The names of linguistic families and stocks are usually coined by 
linguists, often by adding -an to the name of a representative language. 
The Yuman family, for example, is named for the language Yuma.

   North American Languages
Perhaps 300 languages were spoken in North America when the first 
Europeans arrived, and about 200 are still spoken by some 300,000 
people. The American explorer and ethnologist John Wesley POWELL presented 
the first comprehensive classification of the languages north of Mexico 
in 1891, dividing them into 58 families.  Various scholars have subsequently 
proposed consolidation of Powell's families into a smaller number 
of phyla, with the most influential of these classifications credited 
to Edward Sapir.  C.F. and F.M. Voegelin introduced the most widely 
accepted modern classification of American Indian languages, grouping 
most of the languages of the United States and Canada into seven macrophyla, 
with a few families and language isolates left unclassified (Table 1).

One phylum, American Arctic-Paleosiberian, includes both Eskimo- Aleut, 
spoken from Alaska to Greenland, and the Chukchi- Kamchatkan family 
of Siberia.  This phylum is the only American language family to have 
an accepted connection with a non- American language group.

   Central American Languages
Recent estimates place the number of Central American Indian languages 
at about 70, with at least 5 million speakers.  Of course, language 
boundaries and political boundaries do not coincide.  The Hokan and 
Aztec-Tanoan phyla of North America also include a number of Central 
or Meso-American languages, and some South American groups have outlying 
representatives in Central America.  Many of the groupings in Table 
2 are still highly controversial.

   South American Languages
Linguistic diversity is greatest in South America, where many languages 
spoken in remote jungle and mountain regions remain unrecorded and 
unclassified.  There are probably over 500 different languages still 
spoken, with perhaps 14 million speakers.  The various languages of 
the Quechua group alone have 5 million speakers.

Broader classifications of the more than 80 South American language 
families (Table 3) into a smaller number of macrophyla have been proposed 
by Joseph Greenberg, Morris Swadesh, Cestmir Loukotka, and others. 
Because these South American stocks have not as yet been fully documented 
with lists of cognate sets, they are not accepted by all specialists.

   Recent Controversy
Current scholarly approaches to American Indian language classification 
are polarized.  Most Americanists accept only certain parts of the 
Voegelin classification, while rejecting others, with the Macro-Penutian 
and Hokan phyla of North America receiving most challenges.  Joseph 
Greenberg recently proposed a new classification, with just three 
groups of languages:  Eskimo- Aleut, Na-Dene, and a third stock, Amerind, 
which includes all the other languages of North, Central, and South 
America. Although some mainstream Americanists find this proposal 
intriguing, they have criticized Greenberg's research for its methodology 
and data, and the theory is not widely accepted.

The grammatical structure--phonology, or sound system; morphology, 
or word structure;  and syntax, or sentence structure--of American 
Indian languages varies considerably, but none of the languages can 
be called primitive.

Though some Indian languages have a simple phonological structure 
(the Arawakan language Campa, for instance, has only 17 contrastive 
speech sounds, or phonemes), the phonology of others is very complex.  Certain 
sounds, many of which are articulated toward the back of the vocal 
tract, have been cited as characteristic of the American Indian languages, 
but none of these occur in all the languages.  The glottal stop, made 
by briefly closing the vocal cords, as in the middle of the English 
word uh-oh, is a common sound.  Many languages have glottalized consonants, 
made with a glottal stop produced simultaneously with another consonant 
sound.  For instance, Navajo ts'in, meaning "bone," has a glottalized 
ts sound (represented by ts'), while tsin, "tree" has a plain ts. 
Another common sound is a back k sound, normally written q, articulated 
not at the velum, as is English k, but rather in the postvelar or 
uvular region. Many languages contrast k and q in words like Cahuilla 
(Uto-Aztecan) neki, "my house," versus neqi, "by myself."

Vowel systems also vary considerably.  Quite a few American Indian 
languages have nasalized vowels.  Nasalization is represented by a 
tilde symbol in Chickasaw, for example.  The use of pitch accent or 
tonal systems (as in Chinese) to differentiate words is more common 
in the Americas than the use of contrastive stress like that found, 
for example, in English import, pronounced im-port' as a verb and 
im'-port as a noun.

   Morphology and Syntax
The most commonly cited trait of American Indian languages is polysynthesis--the 
expression of complicated ideas within a single word containing many 
separate meaningful elements, or morphemes.  The use of verbs with 
attached subject and object indicators (most often prefixes) is common;  in 
many languages adverbial and other elements may also be attached to 
the verb, forming complex single-word sentences, like the Lakota (Siouan) 
wica-yuzaza-ma-ya-khiya-pi-kte, "you all will make me wash them," 
which includes the component morphemes them + wash + me + you + make 
+ plural + future.

While most languages have accusative case systems like that of English 
(opposing grammatical categories of subject and object), active systems 
in which the same morpheme is used to indicate the object of a transitive 
verb and the subject of a stative verb are not uncommon.  For example, 
the prefix ma-, "me" in the Lakota example just presented means "I" 
in a sentence like ma-s'amna, "I stink."

Many languages use unmarked verbs for the third person.  Thus Chickasaw 
hita can mean either "to dance" or "he dances." Possessive and locational 
indicators are often attached to nouns, as in Yup'ik Eskimo anya-a-ni 
(boat + his + in), which means "in his boat." Gender distinctions 
like those of the Indo-European languages are found in only a few 
languages, such as Garifuna (Arawakan), in which halau, "chair," is 
masculine, but muna, "house," feminine.  More languages make a grammatically 
comparable distinction between animate, or living, and inanimate nouns.  Alienable 
possession or ownership is often indicated differently from inalienable 
possession of items such as kinship terms and body parts. Reduplication--the 
doubling of all or part of a word, usually to indicate plurality or 
intensity--is common, as in Barbareno Chumash ma, "jackrabbit," ma 
ma, "jackrabbits."

The arrangement of words into sentences also varies from language 
to language.  While the most common basic word order is Subject- Object-Verb, 
Subject-Verb-Object is used in many languages, and the rarer word 
orders Verb-Subject-Object, Verb-Object-Subject, and Object-Verb-Subject 
are also found.

Many American Indian languages make use of special syntactic patterns 
to distinguish among third-person participants in a sentence.  Obviation 
(in the Algonquian languages) and the use of the so-called fourth 
person (in Athabascan) allow one participant to be coded as more important 
or interesting than another.  Switch-reference is the name given to 
an unusual grammatical device that allows a speaker to specify whether 
the subject of one clause is the same as or different from that of 
another clause.  The English sentence "he knows he's fat" is ambiguous.  If 
the first "he" is known to refer to Tom, for instance, the sentence 
has one meaning.  If the second "he" also refers to Tom ("Tom is fat 
and he knows it") and another if the second "he" refers to, say, Bill 
("Bill is fat and Tom knows it").  Although the Mojave (Yuman) sentences 
isay-k suupaw-pc (fat + same know + perfective) and isay-m suupaw-pc 
(fat + different know + perfective) both translate as "he knows he's 
fat," they are not ambiguous:  the first implies that the knower is 
fat, while the second means that someone else is.

   The Whorfian Hypothesis
Because of different cultural needs, American Indian vocabulary structure 
varies greatly, and some of the semantic concepts and sentence patterns 
often seem unfamiliar to those who have not grown up speaking the 
languages.  The American linguist Benjamin Lee WHORF argued that the 
differences in semantic and syntactic organization of languages as 
diverse as English and Hopi were correlated with differences in thought 
processes. The so-called Whorfian (sometimes Whorf-Sapir) hypothesis 
that grammatical structure reflects cognitive structure is not widely 
accepted among linguists but has been influential in other social 

Unrelated languages whose speakers are in daily contact often come 
to share various grammatical traits, which can then be called areal 
features of the region.  In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, there 
are several unrelated genetic groups with strikingly similar, unusually 
complex consonant systems.  Many languages of the Tupian family of 
South America have nasalization as an attribute, not just of vowels 
or consonants, but of whole syllables, and this feature has been borrowed 
by some unrelated neighboring languages.

Loanwords can reveal the prior history of a linguistic group. Alaskan 
languages and some as far south as California have Russian loans, 
for instance, dating from the time of extensive trade with Russia, 
and borrowings from Spanish are common throughout California, the 
Southwest, and, of course, Latin America.  Borrowed words are often 
changed to fit the structure of the borrowing language--Spanish caballo 
("horse") was borrowed into Tubatulabal (Uto-Aztecan) as kawaayu, 
for example, because all Tubatulabal words have final stress and the 
language has no bilabial v or b sound.  Indian words have also been 
borrowed into English and and other European languages.  The words 
moccasin, squash, squaw, and toboggan, like the majority of Indian 
loans into English, are from Algonquian languages;  chocolate, from 
Aztec, tobacco, from Taino (an extinct Arawakan language), and condor, 
from Quechua, are examples of words that were borrowed first into 
Spanish and then into English.  The names of thousands of places throughout 
the Americas are of Indian origin.

The Mayan hieroglyphic system, which has not yet been fully deciphered, 
was the only well-developed writing system in use in the Americas 
before European contact, although a number of the Central American 
civilizations and the Quechua used pictographic systems, primarily 
for religious purposes, and other groups made nonlinguistic petroglyphs.  Most 
Indian writing systems now in use were developed by linguists or missionaries: 
one exception is the syllabary devised by the Cherokee SEQUOYA, which 
is still in use.  Most languages, however, do not yet have standard 

Many American Indian languages have few speakers and are in danger 
of extinction, but some are increasing in both influence and number 
of speakers.  Two nations, Greenland and Paraguay, use American Indian 
languages--Greenlandic Eskimo and Guarani (Tupian)--officially.  Preschool 
programs, bilingual elementary instruction, and college-level courses 
are offered in some languages.  A recent resurgence of interest by 
North American Indians in their cultural heritage has led to the training 
of Indian linguists and to courses in Indian languages for older children 
and adults.  Such programs may lead to the preservation of some threatened 

History of  the  United  States, 
By George  Bancroft,   Vol.2, Pg.101-3)
"Native American Langauge"

The  American savage has tongue and palate and lips  and  throat; 
the  power to utter flowing sounds, the power to hiss: hence  the 
primitive sounds are essentially the same, and may almost all  be 
expressed  by the alphabet of European use.  The tribes  vary  in 
their choice of sounds: the Oneidas always changed the letter  r; 
the  Algonkins  have  no f; the Iroquois  family  never  use  the 
semivowel m, or the labials.  The Cherokees are destitute of  the 
labials,  but employ the semivowels. Of the several  dialects  of 
the  Iroquois,  that of the Oneidas is the most soft,  being  the 
only one that admits the letter l; that of the Senecas is  rudest 
and  most energetic. The Algonkin dialects, especially  those  of 
the  Abenakis,  heap up consonants with prodigal  harshness;  the 
Iroquois  abound  in a concurrence of vowels;  in  the  Cherokee, 
every  syllable ends with a vowel. But before  acquaintance  with 
Europeans,  no one of them had discriminated the sounds which  he 
articulated:  east of the Mississippi there was no alphabet;  and 
the only mode of writing was by rude imitations and symbols.

The  Indian  does  not  separate the parts  of  speech  from  one 
another;  he  expresses a complex idea by grouping  its  separate 
elements together in one conglomerate word.  The rude process  is 
not  a perfect synthesis, as in the conjugation of a Latin  verb. 
It  has with greater exactness been said of the red man, that  he 
glues together the words expressing subject and object and number 
and person and case and time, and yet many more relations.   This 
is  the distinguishing mark of American speech; it  pervaded  the 
dialects  of  the Iroquois, of the Algonkin,  and  the  Cherokee.  
When  a new object was presented to an Indian, he  would  inquire 
its use and form for it a name which might include within  itself 
an entire definition. So when Eliot, in his version of the Bible, 
translated kneeling, the word which he was compelled to frame was 
of eleven syllables.

Of the savage, license to gratify his animal instincts seemed the 
system  of morals. The idea of chastity as a social duty was  but 
feebly  developed.   And  yet, wrote Roger  Williams,  "God  hath 
planted in the hearts of the wildest of the sonnes of men a  high 
and  honorable  esteem of the marriage-bed,  insomuch  that  they 
universally  submit unto it, and hold its violation  abominable."  
Neither  might  marriages be contracted between kindred  of  near 
degree;  the Iroquois might choose a wife of the same tribe  with 
himself, but not of the same cabin; the Algonkin must look beyond 
those who used the same family symbol; the Cherokee would at  one 
and  the  same time marry a mother and her  daughter,  but  would 
never marry his own immediate kindred.

Source & Reference Notes!
        File: NA_VOL02.TXT
        Revised: Jan. 15, 1995
        By: Paul R. Sarrett, Jr.

End of File!

NAI - Index
SFA - Index

Would like to Exchange and Share information on SARRATT / SARRETT / SURRATT Families, contact me at:
E-Mail: Paul R. Sarrett, Jr. Auburn, CA.

Text - Copyright © 1996-2001 Paul R. Sarrett, Jr.
Created: Dec. 01, 1996; Aug. 10, 2001