Indigenous languages of the Americas

Indigenous languages of the Americas
Yucatec Maya writing in the Dresden Codex, ca. 11–12th century, Chichen Itza

Indigenous languages of the Americas are spoken by indigenous peoples from Alaska and Greenland to the southern tip of South America, encompassing the land masses which constitute the Americas. These indigenous languages consist of dozens of distinct language families as well as many language isolates and unclassified languages. Many proposals to group these into higher-level families have been made, such as in three macrofamilies of Eskimo–Aleut, Na-Dene, and Amerind, though this scheme is rejected by nearly all specialists.[1] According to UNESCO, most of the indigenous American languages in North America are critically endangered, and many of them are already extinct.[2]



Thousands of languages were spoken in North and South America prior to first contact with Europeans between the beginning of the 11th century (Norwegian settlement of Greenland and attempted settlement of Labrador and Newfoundland) and the end of the 15th century (the voyages of Christopher Columbus). Several indigenous languages of the Americas had also developed their own writing systems, including the Mayan languages and Nahuatl. The indigenous languages of the Americas had widely varying demographics, from the Quechua languages, Aymara, Guarani, and Nahuatl, which had millions of active speakers, to many languages with only several hundred speakers. After pre-Columbian times, several indigenous creole languages also developed in the Americas from European languages.

The European colonizers and their successor states had widely varying attitudes towards Native American languages. In Brazil, friars actively learned and promoted the Tupi language. In many Latin American colonies, Spanish missionaries often preached to the natives in local languages. In the American colonies, John Eliot of Massachusetts translated the Bible into the Massachusett language, also called Wampanoag, Massachusett or Natick (1661–1663; the first Bible printed in North America). However, the Europeans also actively suppressed indigenous American languages. As a result, indigenous American languages suffered from cultural suppression and loss of speakers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, Spanish, English, Portuguese, French, and Dutch, brought to the Americas by European settlers and administrators, had become the official or national languages of modern nation-states of the Americas.

Today, even though many indigenous languages have become critically endangered, others are now rigorously spoken. Several even have official status, such as Guaraní in Paraguay, though in other cases official status is limited to certain regions where languages are spoken, and even if enshrined in constitutions has little de facto official use: examples of this are the status of Quechua in Peru and Aymara in Bolivia, where in practice it is Spanish that remains entirely dominant in all formal contexts. In the Arctic region, Greenland adopted Kalaallisut as its sole official language in 2009. In the United States, the Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language, with over 200,000 speakers in the Southwestern United States. The language was used by the Navajo Code Talkers during World War II to transmit secret military messages, which both the Germans and Japanese had never deciphered. Today, governments, universities, and indigenous peoples are continuing to aim for the preservation and revitalization of indigenous American languages.


In American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America, Lyle Campbell lists several hypotheses for the historical origins of Amerindian languages.[3]

  1. A single, one-language migration (currently not widely accepted)
  2. A few linguistically distinct migrations (favored by Edward Sapir)
  3. Multiple migrations
  4. Multilingual migrations (single migration with multiple languages)
  5. The influx of already diversified but related languages from the Old World
  6. Extinction of Old World linguistic relatives (while the New World ones survived)
  7. Migration along the Pacific coast instead of the Bering Strait

Language families and isolates


  • Extinct languages or families are indicated by: .
  • The number of family members is indicated in parentheses (for example, Arauan (9) means the Arauan family consists of nine languages).
  • Out of convenience, the following list of language families is divided in 3 sections based on political boundaries of countries. These sections correspond roughly with the geographic regions (North, Central, and South America) but are not equivalent. This division also does not cleanly delineate indigenous culture areas.

North America

Pre-contact distribution of North American language families north of Mexico

There are approximately 296 spoken (or formerly spoken) indigenous languages north of Mexico, 269 of which are grouped into 29 families (the remaining 27 languages are either isolates or unclassified). The Na–Dené, Algic, and Uto-Aztecan families are the largest in terms of number of languages. Uto-Aztecan has the most speakers (1.95 million) if the languages in Mexico are considered (mostly due to 1.5 million speakers of Nahuatl); Na–Dene comes in second with approximately 200,000 speakers (nearly 180,000 of these are speakers of Navajo), and Algic in third with about 180,000 speakers (mainly Cree and Ojibwe). Na–Dené and Algic have the widest geographic distributions: Algic currently spans from northeastern Canada across much of the continent down to northeastern Mexico (due to later migrations of the Kickapoo) with two outliers in California (Yurok and Wiyot); Na–Dené spans from Alaska and western Canada through Washington, Oregon, and California to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico (with one outlier in the Plains). Several families consist of only 2 or 3 languages. Demonstrating genetic relationships has proved difficult due to the great linguistic diversity present in North America. Two large (super-) family proposals, Penutian and Hokan, look particularly promising. However, even after decades of research, a large number of families and isolates remain.

North America is notable for its linguistic diversity, especially in California. California alone has 18 genetic units consisting of 74 languages (compared to the mere 4 genetic units in all of Europe: Basque, Indo-European, Uralic, Afroasiatic).[4] Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeast; however, many of these languages became extinct from European contact and as a result they are, for the most part, absent from the historical record. This diversity has been and continues to be very influential in the development of linguistic thought in the U.S.

Due to the diversity of this area, it is difficult to make generalizations that adequately characterize the entire region. Most North American languages have a relatively small number of vowels (i.e. four or five vowels). Languages of the western half of North America often have relatively large consonant inventories. The languages of the Pacific Northwest are notable for their complex phonotactics (for example, some languages have words that lack vowels entirely)[citation needed]. The languages of the Plateau area have relatively rare pharyngeals and epiglottals (they are otherwise restricted to Afro-Asiatic and Caucasian languages). Ejective consonants are also common in North America, although they are rare elsewhere (except, again, for the Caucasus region, parts of Africa, and the Mayan family).

Head-marking is found in many languages of North America (as well as in Central and South America), but outside of the Americas it is rare. Many languages throughout North America are polysynthetic (Eskimo–Aleut languages are extreme examples), although this is not characteristic of all North American languages (contrary to what was believed by 19th-century linguists). Several families have unique traits, such as the inverse number marking of Tanoan, the lexical affixes of Wakashan, Salishan and Chimakuan, and the unusual verb structure of Nadene.

The classification below is a composite of Goddard (1996), Campbell (1997), and Mithun (1999).

  1. Adai
  2. Algic (30)
  3. Alsean (2)
  4. Atakapa
  5. Beothuk
  6. Caddoan (5)
  7. Cayuse
  8. Chimakuan (2)
  9. Chimariko
  10. Chinookan (3)
  11. Chitimacha
  12. Chumashan (6)
  13. Coahuilteco
  14. Comecrudan (United States & Mexico) (3)
  15. Coosan (2)
  16. Cotoname
  17. Eskimo–Aleut (7)
  18. Esselen
  19. Haida
  20. Iroquoian (11)
  21. Kalapuyan (3)
  22. Karankawa
  23. Karuk
  24. Keresan (2)
  25. Kutenai
  26. Maiduan (4)
  27. Muskogean (9)
  28. Na–Dené (United States, Canada & Mexico) (39)
  29. Natchez
  30. Palaihnihan (2)
  31. Plateau Penutian (4) (also known as Shahapwailutan)
  32. Pomoan (7)
  33. Salinan
  34. Salishan (23)
  35. Shastan (4)
  36. Siouan–Catawban (19)
  37. Siuslaw
  38. Solano
  39. Takelma
  40. Tanoan (7)
  41. Timucua
  42. Tonkawa
  43. Tsimshianic (2)
  44. Tunica
  45. Utian (15) (also known as Miwok–Costanoan)
  46. Uto-Aztecan (33)
  47. Wakashan (7)
  48. Wappo
  49. Washo
  50. Wintuan (4)
  51. Yana
  52. Yokutsan (3)
  53. Yuchi
  54. Yuki
  55. Yuman (11)
  56. Zuni

Central America and Mexico

The indigenous languages of Mexico that have more than 100,000 speakers
  1. Alagüilac (Guatemala)
  2. Algic (United States, Canada & Mexico) (29)
  3. Chibchan (Central America & South America) (22)
  4. Coahuilteco
  5. Comecrudan (Texas & Mexico) (3)
  6. Cotoname
  7. Cuitlatec (Mexico: Guerrero)
  8. Guaicurian (8)
  9. Huave
  10. Jicaquean
  11. Lencan
  12. Maratino (northeastern Mexico)
  13. Mayan (31)
  14. Misumalpan
  15. Mixe–Zoquean (19)
  16. Na–Dené (United States, Canada & Mexico) (40)
  17. Naolan (Mexico: Tamaulipas)
  18. Oto-Manguean (27)
  19. P'urhépecha
  20. Quinigua (northeast Mexico)
  21. Seri
  22. Solano
  23. Tequistlatecan (3)
  24. Totonacan (2)
  25. Uto-Aztecan (United States & Mexico) (33)
  26. Xincan
  27. Yuman (United States & Mexico) (11)

South America

Some of the greater families of South America: dark spots are language isolates or quasi-isolate, grey spots unclassified languages or languages with doubtful classification.
A Urarina shaman, 1988.

Although both North and Central America are very diverse areas, South America has a linguistic diversity rivalled by only a few other places in the world with approximately 350 languages still spoken and an estimated 1,500 languages at first European contact. The situation of language documentation and classification into genetic families is not as advanced as in North America (which is relatively well-studied in many areas). Kaufman (1994: 46) gives the following appraisal:

Since the mid 1950s, the amount of published material on SA [South America] has been gradually growing, but even so, the number of researchers is far smaller than the growing number of linguistic communities whose speech should be documented. Given the current employment opportunities, it is not likely that the number of specialists in SA Indian languages will increase fast enough to document most of the surviving SA languages before they go out of use, as most of them unavoidably will. More work languishes in personal files than is published, but this is a standard problem.
It is fair to say that SA and New Guinea are linguistically the poorest documented parts of the world. However, in the early 1960s fairly systematic efforts were launched in Papua New Guinea, and that area – much smaller than SA, to be sure – is in general much better documented than any part of indigenous SA of comparable size.

As a result, many relationships between languages and language families have not been determined and some of those relationships that have been proposed are on somewhat shaky ground.

The list of language families and isolates below is a rather conservative one based on Campbell (1997). Many of the proposed (and often speculative) groupings of families can be seen in Campbell (1997), Gordon (2005), Kaufman (1990, 1994), Key (1979), Loukotka (1968), and in the Language stock proposals section below.

  1. Aguano
  2. Aikaná (Brazil: Rondônia) (also known as Aikanã, Tubarão)
  3. Andaquí (also known as Andaqui, Andakí)
  4. Andoque (Colombia, Peru) (also known as Andoke)
  5. Andoquero
  6. Arawakan (South America & Caribbean) (64) (also known as Maipurean)
  7. Arauan (9)
  8. Arutani
  9. Aymaran (3)
  10. Baenan (Brazil: Bahia) (also known as Baenán, Baenã)
  11. Barbacoan (8)
  12. Betoi (Colombia) (also known as Betoy, Jirara)
  13. Bororoan
  14. Borowa (also known as Macu, Máku)
  15. Botocudoan (3) (also known as Aimoré)
  16. Cahuapanan (2) (also known as Jebero, Kawapánan)
  17. Camsá (Colombia) (also known as Sibundoy, Coche)
  18. Candoshi (also known as Maina, Kandoshi)
  19. Canichana (Bolivia) (also known as Canesi, Kanichana)
  20. Carabayo
  21. Cariban (29) (also known as Caribe, Carib)
  22. Catacaoan (also known as Katakáoan)
  23. Cayubaba (Bolivia)
  24. Chapacuran (9) (also known as Chapacura-Wanham, Txapakúran)
  25. Charruan (also known as Charrúan)
  26. Chibchan (Central America & South America) (22)
  27. Chimuan (3)
  28. Chipaya–Uru (also known as Uru–Chipaya)
  29. Chiquitano
  30. Choco (10) (also known as Chocoan)
  31. Chon (2) (also known as Patagonian)
  32. Chono
  33. Ciboney (3?) (Cuba, Hispaniola)
  34. Coeruna (Brazil)
  35. Cofán (Colombia, Ecuador)
  36. *Colima (Colombia)
  37. Cueva
  38. Culle (Peru) (also known as Culli, Linga, Kulyi)
  39. Cunza (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina) (also known as Atacama, Atakama, Atacameño, Lipe, Kunsa)
  40. Esmeraldeño (also known as Esmeralda, Takame)
  41. Fulnió
  42. Gamela (Brazil: Maranhão)
  43. Gorgotoqui (Bolivia)
  44. Guaicuruan (7) (also known as Guaykuruan, Waikurúan)
  45. Guajiboan (4) (also known as Wahívoan)
  46. Guamo (Venezuela) (also known as Wamo)
  47. Guató
  48. Harakmbut (2) (also known as Tuyoneri)
  49. Hibito–Cholon
  50. Himarimã
  51. Hodï (Venezuela) (also known as Jotí, Hoti, Waruwaru)
  52. Huamoé (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  53. Huaorani (Ecuador, Peru) (also known as Auca, Huaorani, Wao, Auka, Sabela, Waorani, Waodani)
  54. Huarpe (also known as Warpe)
  55. Irantxe (Brazil: Mato Grosso)
  56. Itonama (Bolivia) (also known as Saramo, Machoto)
  57. Jirajaran (3) (also known as Hiraháran, Jirajarano, Jirajarana)
  58. Jabutian
  59. Je (13) (also known as Gê, Jêan, Gêan, Ye)
  60. Jeikó
  61. Jivaroan (2) (also known as Hívaro)
  62. Kaimbe
  63. Kaliana (also known as Caliana, Cariana, Sapé, Chirichano)
  64. Kamakanan
  65. Kapixaná (Brazil: Rondônia) (also known as Kanoé, Kapishaná)
  66. Karajá
  67. Karirí (Brazil: Paraíba, Pernambuco, Ceará)
  68. Katembrí
  69. Katukinan (3) (also known as Catuquinan)
  70. Kawésqar (Chile) (Kaweskar, Alacaluf, Qawasqar, Halawalip, Aksaná, Hekaine)
  71. Kwaza (Koayá) (Brazil: Rondônia)
  72. Kukurá (Brazil: Mato Grosso)
  73. Leco (Lapalapa, Leko)
  74. Lule (Argentina) (also known as Tonocoté)
  75. Malibú (also known as Malibu)
  76. Mapudungu (Chile, Argentina) (also known as Araucanian, Mapuche, Huilliche)
  77. Mascoyan (5) (also known as Maskóian, Mascoian)
  78. Matacoan (4) (also known as Mataguayan)
  79. Matanawí
  80. Maxakalían (3) (also known as Mashakalían)
  81. Mocana (Colombia: Tubará)
  82. Mosetenan (also known as Mosetén)
  83. Movima (Bolivia)
  84. Munichi (Peru) (also known as Muniche)
  85. Muran (4)
  86. Mutú (also known as Loco)
  87. *Muzo (Colombia)
  88. Nadahup (5)
  89. Nambiquaran (5)
  90. Natú (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  91. Nonuya (Peru, Colombia)
  92. Ofayé
  93. Old Catío–Nutabe (Colombia)
  94. Omurano (Peru) (also known as Mayna, Mumurana, Numurana, Maina, Rimachu, Roamaina, Umurano)
  95. Otí (Brazil: São Paulo)
  96. Otomakoan (2)
  97. Paez (also known as Nasa Yuwe)
  98. Pakarara
  99. Palta
  100. *Panche
  101. Pankararú (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  102. Pano–Tacanan (33)
  103. *Pantagora
  104. Panzaleo (Ecuador) (also known as Latacunga, Quito, Pansaleo)
  105. Patagon (Peru)
  106. Peba–Yaguan (2) (also known as Yaguan, Yáwan, Peban)
  107. Pijao
  108. Puelche (Chile) (also known as Guenaken, Gennaken, Pampa, Pehuenche, Ranquelche)
  109. Puinave (8) (also known as Makú)
  110. Puquina (Bolivia)
  111. Purian (2)
  112. Quechuan (46)
  113. Rikbaktsá
  114. Saliban (2) (also known as Sálivan)
  115. Sechura (Atalan, Sec)
  116. Tabancale (Peru)
  117. Tairona (Colombia)
  118. Tarairiú (Brazil: Rio Grande do Norte)
  119. Taruma
  120. Taushiro (Peru) (also known as Pinchi, Pinche)
  121. Tequiraca (Peru) (also known as Tekiraka, Avishiri)
  122. Teushen (Patagonia, Argentina)
  123. Ticuna (Colombia, Peru, Brazil) (also known as Magta, Tikuna, Tucuna, Tukna, Tukuna)
  124. Timotean (2)
  125. Tiniguan (2) (also known as Tiníwan, pamigua)
  126. Tucanoan (15)
  127. Trumai (Brazil: Xingu, Mato Grosso)
  128. Tupian (70, including Guaraní)
  129. Tuxá (Brazil: Bahia, Pernambuco)
  130. Urarina (also known as Shimacu, Itukale, Shimaku)
  131. Vilela
  132. Wakona
  133. Warao (Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela) (also known as Guarao)
  134. Witotoan (6) (also known as Huitotoan, Bora–Witótoan)
  135. Xokó (Brazil: Alagoas, Pernambuco) (also known as Shokó)
  136. Xukurú (Brazil: Pernambuco, Paraíba)
  137. Yaghan (Chile) (also known as Yámana)
  138. Yaruro (also known as Jaruro)
  139. Yanomaman (4)
  140. Yuracare (Bolivia)
  141. Yuri (Colombia, Brazil) (also known as Carabayo, Jurí)
  142. Yurumanguí (Colombia) (also known as Yurimangui, Yurimangi)
  143. Zamucoan (2)
  144. Zaparoan (5) (also known as Záparo)

* There is little to say about these almost unattested languages. See Pijao.

Language stock proposals

Many hypothetical language phylum proposals concerning American languages are often cited as uncontroversially demonstrated in more popular writings. However, many of these proposals have, in fact, not been fully demonstrated if even at all. Some proposals are viewed by specialists in a favorable light, believing that genetic relationships are very likely to be established in the future (for example, the Penutian stock). Other proposals are more controversial with many linguists believing that some genetic relationships of a proposal may be demonstrated but much of it undemonstrated (for example, Hokan–Siouan, which, incidentally, Edward Sapir called his "wastepaper basket stock").[5] Still other proposals are almost unanimously rejected by specialists (for example, Amerind). Below is a (partial) list of some such proposals:

  1. Angonkian–Gulf   (= Algic + Beothuk + Gulf)
  2. Algonquian–Wakashan   (also known as Almosan)
  3. Almosan–Keresiouan   (= Almosan + Keresiouan)
  4. Amerind   (= all languages excepting Eskimo–Aleut & Na–Dené)
  5. (macro-)Arawakan
  6. Arutani–Sape (Ahuaque–Kalianan)
  7. Aztec–Tanoan   (= Uto-Aztecan + Tanoan)
  8. Chibchan stock
  9. Chibchan–Paezan
  10. Chikitano–Boróroan
  11. Chimu–Chipaya
  12. Coahuiltecan   (= Coahuilteco + Cotoname + Comecrudan + Karankawa + Tonkawa)
  13. Cunza–Kapixanan
  14. Dené–Yeniseian
  15. Dené–Caucasian
  16. Esmerelda–Yaruroan
  17. Ge–Pano–Carib
  18. Guamo–Chapacuran
  19. Gulf   (= Muskogean + Natchez + Tunica)
  20. Hokan   (= Karok + Chimariko + Shastan + Palaihnihan + Yana + Pomoan + Washo + Esselen + Yuman + Salinan + Chumashan + Seri + Tequistlatecan)
  21. Hokan–Siouan   (= Hokan + Keresiouan + Subtiaba–Tlappanec + Coahuiltecan + Yukian + Tunican + Natchez + Muskogean + Timucua)
  22. Je–Tupi–Carib
  23. Jivaroan–Cahuapanan
  24. Kalianan
  25. Kandoshi–Omurano–Taushiro
  26. (Macro-)Katembri–Taruma
  27. Kaweskar language area
  28. Keresiouan   (= Macro-Siouan + Keresan + Yuchi)
  29. Lule–Vilelan
  30. Macro-Andean
  31. Macro-Carib
  32. Macro-Chibchan
  33. Macro-Gê   (also known as Macro-Jê)
  34. Macro-Jibaro
  35. Macro-Kulyi–Cholónan
  36. Macro-Lekoan
  37. Macro-Mayan
  38. Macro-Otomákoan
  39. Macro-Paesan
  40. Macro-Panoan
  41. Macro-Puinavean
  42. Macro-Siouan   (= Siouan + Iroquoian + Caddoan)
  43. Macro-Tucanoan
  44. Macro-Tupí–Karibe
  45. Macro-Waikurúan
  46. Macro-Warpean   (= Muran + Matanawi + Huarpe)
  47. Mataco–Guaicuru
  48. Mosan   (= Salishan + Wakashan + Chimakuan)
  49. Mosetén–Chonan
  50. Mura–Matanawian
  51. Sapir's Na–Dené including Haida   (= Haida + Tlingit + Eyak + Athabaskan)
  52. Nostratic–Amerind
  53. Paezan (= Andaqui + Paez + Panzaleo)
  54. Paezan–Barbacoan
  55. Penutian   (= many languages of California and sometimes languages in Mexico)
    1. California Penutian   (= Wintuan + Maiduan + Yokutsan + Utian)
    2. Oregon Penutian   (= Takelma + Coosan + Siuslaw + Alsean)
    3. Mexican Penutian   (= Mixe–Zoque + Huave)
  56. Puinave–Maku
  57. Quechumaran
  58. Saparo–Yawan   (also known as Zaparo–Yaguan)
  59. Sechura–Catacao (also known as Sechura–Tallan)
  60. Takelman   (= Takelma + Kalapuyan)
  61. Tequiraca–Canichana
  62. Ticuna–Yuri (Yuri–Ticunan)
  63. Totozoque   (= Totonacan + Mixe–Zoque)
  64. Tunican   (= Tunica + Atakapa + Chitimacha)
  65. Yok-Utian
  66. Yuki–Wappo

Good discussions of past proposals can be found in Campbell (1997) and Campbell & Mithun (1979).

Amerindian linguist Lyle Campbell also assigned different percentage values of probability and confidence for various proposals of macro-families and language relationships, depending on his views of the proposals' strengths.[6] For example, the Germanic language family would receive probability and confidence percentage values of +100% and 100%, respectively. However, if Turkish and Quechua were compared, the probability value might be -95%, while the confidence value might be 95%. 0% probability or confidence would mean complete uncertainty.

Language Family Probability Confidence
Macro-Siouan[7] −20% 75%
Aztec–Tanoan 0% 50%
Quechumaran +50% 50%
−25% 20%
Na–Dene 0% 25%
Tlingit–Eyak–Athabaskan +75% 40%
Mosan −60% 65%
Wakashan and Chimakuan 0% 25%
Almosan (and beyond) −75% 50%
Hokan–Subtiaba −90% 75%
Coahuiltecan −85% 80%
Guaicurian–Hokan 0% 10%
Quechua as Hokan −85% 80%
Tunican 0% 20%
Natchez–Muskogean +40% 20%
Atakapa–Chitimacha −50% 60%
Gulf −25% 40%
Algonkian–Gulf −50% 50%
Mexican Penutian −40% 60%
Sahaptian–Klamath–(Molala) +75% 50%
Sahaptian–Klamath–Tsimshian +10% 10%
Takelman[9] +80% 60%
Zuni–Penutian −80% 50%
Yukian–Siouan −60% 75%
Yukian–Gulf −85% 70%
Keresan and Zuni −40% 40%
Keresan and Uto-Aztecan 0% 60%
Macro-Mayan[10] +30% 25%
Maya–Chipaya −80% 95%
Maya–Chipaya–Yunga −90% 95%
Otomanguean–Huave +25% 25%
Tlapanec–Subtiaba as Otomanguean +95% 90%
Jicaque–Subtiaba −60% 80%
Jicaque–Tequistlatecan +65% 50%
Jicaque–Hokan −30% 25%
Xinca–Lenca 0% 50%
Tarascan–Quechua −90% 80%
Misumalpan–Chibchan +20% 50%
Nostratic–Amerind −90% 75%

Linguistic areas

The languages of the Americas often can be grouped together into linguistic areas or Sprachbunds (also known as convergence areas). The linguistic areas identified so far deserve more research to determine their validity. Knowing about Sprachbunds helps historical linguists differentiate between shared areal traits and true genetic relationship. The pioneering work on American areal linguistics was a dissertation by Joel Sherzer, which was published as Sherzer (1976).

In American Indian Languages: the Historical Linguistics of Native America, Lyle Campbell also lists over 20 Sprachbunds or linguistic areas,[11] many of which are still hypothetical.

Note: Some linguistic areas may overlap with others.

Linguistic Area (Sprachbund) Included families, branches, and languages
Northern Northwest Coast[12] Aleut, Haida, Eyak, Tlingit
Northwest Coast[13] Eyak, Tlingit, Athabaskan, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Chimakuan, Salishan, Alsea, Coosan, Kalapuyan,
Takelma, Lower Chinook
Plateau[14] Sahaptian, Upper Chinook, Nicola, Cayuse, Molala, Klamath, Kutenai, Interior Salishan
Northern California Algic, Athabaskan, Yukian, Miwokan, Wintuan, Naiduan, Klamath-Modoc, Pomo, Chimariko, Achomawi,
Atsugewi, Karuk, Shasta, Yana, (Washo)
Clear Lake Lake Miwok, Patwin, East and Southeastern Pomo, Wappo
South Coast Range Chumash, Esselen, Salinan
Southern California-Western Arizona Yuman, Cupan (Uto-Aztecan), less extensively Takic (Uto-Aztecan)
Great Basin Numic (Uto-Aztecan), Washo
Pueblo Keresan, Tanoan, Zuni, Hopi, some Apachean branches
Plains Athabaskan, Algonquian, Siouan, Tanoan, Uto-Aztecan, Tonkawa
Northeast Winnebago (Siouan), Northern Iroquian, Eastern Algonquian
Southeast ("Gulf") Muskogean family, Chitimacha, Atapaka, Tunica, Natchez, Yuchi, Ofo (Siouan), Biloxi (Siouan) –
sometimes also Tutelo, Catawban, Quapaw, Dhegiha (all Siouan); Tuscarora, Cherokee, Shawnee
Mesoamerican Aztecan (Nahua branch of Uto-Aztecan), Mixe–Zoquean, Mayan, Xincan, Otomanguean
(except Chichimeco–Jonaz and some Pame varieties, Totonacan), Tarascan, Cuitlatec, Tequistlatecan, Huave
Mayan[15] Mayan, Xincan, Lencan, Jicaquean
Colombian–Central American[16] Chibchan, Misumalpan, Mangue, Subtiaba; sometimes Lencan, Jicaquean, Chochoan, Betoi
Venezuelan–Antillean[17] Arawakan, Cariban, Guamo, Otomaco, Yaruro, Warao
Andean[18] Quechuan, Aymaran, Callahuaya, Chipaya
(subarea of Andean)
Páez, Guambiano (Paezan), Cuaiquer, Cayapa, Colorado (Barbacoan), Camsá, Cofán, Esmeralda, Ecuadorian Quechua
Orinoco–Amazon Yanomaman, Piaroa (Sálivan), Arawakan/Maipurean, Cariban, Jotí, Uruak/Ahuaqué, Sapé (Kaliana), Makú
Amazon Arawakan/Maipurean, Arauan/Arawan, Cariban, Chapacuran, Ge/Je, Panoan, Puinavean, Tacanan, Tucanoan, Tupian
Southern Cone Mapudungu (Araucanian), Guaycuruan, Chon

Unattested languages

Several languages are only known by mention in historical documents or from only a few names or words. It cannot be determined that these languages actually existed or that the few recorded words are actually of known or unknown languages. Some may simply be from a historian's errors. Others are of known people with no linguistic record (sometimes due to lost records). A short list is below.

  • Ais
  • Akokisa
  • Aksana (Akasanas, Kaueskar)
  • Aranama
  • Ausaima
  • Avoyel
  • Bayogoula
  • Bidai
  • Cacán (Diaguita–Calchaquí)
  • Calusa - Mayaimi - Tequesta
  • Chome
  • Cusabo
  • Eyeish
  • Grigra
  • Guale
  • Houma
  • Koroa
  • Manek'enk (Haush) [perhaps Chon]
  • Mayaca (possibly related to Ais)
  • Mobila
  • Okelousa
  • Opelousa
  • Pascagoula
  • Quinipissa
  • Taensa
  • Tiou
  • Yamacraw
  • Yamasee
  • Yazoo

Loukotka (1968) reports the names of hundreds of South American languages which do not have any linguistic documentation.

Pidgins and mixed languages

Various miscellaneous languages such as pidgins, mixed languages, trade languages, and sign languages are given below in alphabetical order.

  1. American Indian Pidgin English
  2. Basque-Algonquian Pidgin (also known as Micmac-Basque Pidgin, Souriquois; spoken by the Basques, Micmacs, and Montagnais in eastern Canada)
  3. Broken Oghibbeway (also known as Broken Ojibwa)
  4. Broken Slavey
  5. Bungee (also known as Bungi, Bungie, Bungay, or the Red River Dialect)
  6. Callahuaya (also known as Machaj-Juyai, Kallawaya, Collahuaya, Pohena, Kolyawaya Jargon)
  7. Carib Pidgin (also known as Ndjuka-Amerindian Pidgin, Ndjuka-Trio)
  8. Carib Pidgin–Arawak Mixed Language
  9. Catalangu
  10. Chinook Jargon
  11. Delaware Jargon (also known as Pidgin Delaware)
  12. Eskimo Trade Jargon (also known as Herschel Island Eskimo Pidgin, Ship's Jargon)
  13. Greenlandic Eskimo Pidgin
  14. Guajiro-Spanish
  15. Güegüence-Nicarao
  16. Haida Jargon
  17. Hudson Strait Pidgin
  18. Inuktitut-English Pidgin
  19. Jargonized Powhatan
  20. Kutenai Jargon
  21. Labrador Eskimo Pidgin (also known as Labrador Inuit Pidgin)
  22. Lingua Franca Apalachee
  23. Lingua Franca Creek
  24. Lingua Geral Amazônica (also known as Nheengatú, Lingua Boa, Lingua Brasílica, Lingua Geral do Norte)
  25. Lingua Geral do Sul (also known as Lingua Geral Paulista, Tupí Austral)
  26. Loucheux Jargon (also known as Jargon Loucheux)
  27. Media Lengua
  28. Mednyj Aleut (also known as Copper Island Aleut, Medniy Aleut, CIA)
  29. Michif (also known as French Cree, Métis, Metchif, Mitchif, Métchif)
  30. Mobilian Jargon (also known as Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw-Chocaw Trade Language, Yamá)
  31. Montagnais Pidgin Basque (also known as Pidgin Basque-Montagnais)
  32. Nootka Jargon (spoken during the 18th-19th centuries; later replaced by Chinook Jargon)
  33. Ocaneechi (also known as Occaneechee; spoken in Virginia and the Carolinas in early colonial times)
  34. Pidgin Massachusett
  35. Plains Indian Sign Language
  36. Trader Navajo

See also

Portal icon Indigenous peoples of the Americas portal
Portal icon Indigenous peoples of North America portal


  1. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. pg. 253. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  2. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version:
  3. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Ch. 3 The Origin of American Indian Languages, pp. 90–106. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  4. ^ If the Caucasus is considered to be a part of Europe, Northwest Caucasian and Northeast Caucasian would be included resulting in 5 language families within Europe. Other language families, such as the Turkic family have entered Europe in later migrations.
  5. ^ Ruhlen, Merritt. (1991 [1987]). A Guide to the World's Languages Volume 1: Classification, p.216. Edward Arnold. Paperback: ISBN 0-340-56186-6.
  6. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Ch. 8 Distant Genetic Relationships, pp. 260–329. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  7. ^ Siouan–Iroquoian–Caddoan–[Yuchi]
  8. ^ American-Arctic–Paleosiberian Phylum, Luoravetlan – and beyond
  9. ^ Alternatively Takelma–Kalapuyan
  10. ^ Macro-Mayan includes Mayan, Totonacan, Mixe–Zoquean, and sometimes Huave.
  11. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Ch. 9 Linguistic Areas of the Americas, pp. 330–352. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  12. ^ May be a subarea of the Northern Northwest Coast Linguistic Area. This sprachbund is contains languages that have strict head-final syntax.
  13. ^ Characterized by elaborate consonant systems
  14. ^ Characterized by glottal stops
  15. ^ Often included in the Mesoamerican sprachbund
  16. ^ Characterized by SOV word order and postpositions
  17. ^ Characterized by VO word order (instead of SOV)
  18. ^ Characterized by SOV word order and elaborate suffixing


  • Bright, William. (1984). The classification of North American and Meso-American Indian languages. In W. Bright (Ed.), American Indian linguistics and literature (pp. 3–29). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Bright, William (Ed.). (1984). American Indian linguistics and literature. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-009846-6.
  • Brinton, Daniel G. (1891). The American race. New York: D. C. Hodges.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (15th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version:

North America

  • Boas, Franz. (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 1). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
  • Boas, Franz. (1922). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 2). Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 40. Washington: Government Print Office (Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology).
  • Boas, Franz. (1929). Classification of American Indian languages. Language, 5, 1-7.
  • Boas, Franz. (1933). Handbook of American Indian languages (Vol. 3). Native American legal materials collection, title 1227. Glückstadt: J.J. Augustin.
  • Bright, William. (1973). North American Indian language contact. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Linguistics in North America (part 1, pp. 713–726). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hauge: Mouton.
  • Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1999). Native languages and language families of North America (rev. and enlarged ed. with additions and corrections). [Map]. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press (Smithsonian Institution). (Updated version of the map in Goddard 1996). ISBN 0-8032-9271-6.
  • Goddard, Ives. (2005). The indigenous languages of the southeast. Anthropological Linguistics, 47 (1), 1-60.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1990). Studies of North American Indian Languages. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19(1): 309-330.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Powell, John W. (1891). Indian linguistic families of America north of Mexico. Seventh annual report, Bureau of American Ethnology (pp. 1–142). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. (Reprinted in P. Holder (Ed.), 1966, Introduction to Handbook of American Indian languages by Franz Boas and Indian linguistic families of America, north of Mexico, by J. W. Powell, Lincoln: University of Nebraska).
  • Powell, John W. (1915). Linguistic families of American Indians north of Mexico by J. W. Powell, revised by members of the staff of the Bureau of American Ethnology. (Map). Bureau of American Ethnology miscellaneous publication (No. 11). Baltimore: Hoen.
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1973). Linguistics in North America (parts 1 & 2). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hauge: Mouton. (Reprinted as Sebeok 1976).
  • Sebeok, Thomas A. (Ed.). (1976). Native languages of the Americas. New York: Plenum.
  • Sherzer, Joel. (1973). Areal linguistics in North America. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Linguistics in North America (part 2, pp. 749–795). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hauge: Mouton. (Reprinted in Sebeok 1976).
  • Sherzer, Joel. (1976). An areal-typological study of American Indian languages north of Mexico. Amsterdam: North-Holland.
  • Sletcher, Michael, ‘North American Indians’, in Will Kaufman and Heidi Macpherson, eds., Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, (2 vols., Oxford, 2005).
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978–present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1-3, 16, 18-20 not yet published).
  • Vaas, Rüdiger: ‘Die Sprachen der Ureinwohner’. In: Stoll, Günter, Vaas, Rüdiger: Spurensuche im Indianerland. Hirzel. Stuttgart 2001, chapter 7.
  • Voegelin, Carl F.; & Voegelin, Florence M. (1965). Classification of American Indian languages. Languages of the world, Native American fasc. 2, sec. 1.6). Anthropological Linguistics, 7 (7): 121-150.
  • Zededa, Ofelia; Hill, Jane H. (1991). The condition of Native American Languages in the United States. In R. H. Robins & E. M. Uhlenbeck (Eds.), Endangered languages (pp. 135–155). Oxford: Berg.

South America

  • Adelaar, Willem F. H.; & Muysken, Pieter C. (2004). The languages of the Andes. Cambridge language surveys. Cambridge University Press.
  • Fabre, Alain. (1998). "Manual de las lenguas indígenas sudamericanas, I-II". München: Lincom Europa.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1990). Language history in South America: What we know and how to know more. In D. L. Payne (Ed.), Amazonian linguistics: Studies in lowland South American languages (pp. 13–67). Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-70414-3.
  • Kaufman, Terrence. (1994). The native languages of South America. In C. Mosley & R. E. Asher (Eds.), Atlas of the world's languages (pp. 46–76). London: Routledge.
  • Key, Mary R. (1979). The grouping of South American languages. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
  • Loukotka, Čestmír. (1968). Classification of South American Indian languages. Los Angeles: Latin American Studies Center, University of California.
  • Mason, J. Alden. (1950). The languages of South America. In J. Steward (Ed.), Handbook of South American Indians (Vol. 6, pp. 157–317). Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology bulletin (No. 143). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  • Migliazza, Ernest C.; & Campbell, Lyle. (1988). Panorama general de las lenguas indígenas en América. Historia general de América (Vol. 10). Caracas: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia.
  • Rodrigues, Aryon. (1986). Linguas brasileiras: Para o conhecimento das linguas indígenas. São Paulo: Edições Loyola.
  • Rowe, John H. (1954). Linguistics classification problems in South America. In M. B. Emeneau (Ed.), Papers from the symposium on American Indian linguistics (pp. 10–26). University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 10). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1929). Central and North American languages. In The encyclopædia britannica: A new survey of universal knowledge (14 ed.) (Vol. 5, pp. 138–141). London: The Encyclopædia Britannica Company, Ltd.
  • Voegelin, Carl F.; & Voegelin, Florence M. (1977). Classification and index of the world's languages. Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 0-444-00155-7.

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