Languages of the Native Americans

Thanksgiving is tomorrow! So before we get ready to eat copious amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, and (don’t forget) pumpkin pie—let’s take a moment to give thanks to the indigenous peoples of North America who welcomed the pilgrims so many years ago. While we’re at it, why not learn a little more about them and their native languages?

Before colonization, there were thousands of different languages spoken across the Americas.  Today, there are approximately 296 different languages spoken by Native Americans north of Mexico, and over a hundred more south of the border.  Most of these can be grouped into language families, the largest of them being: Uto-Aztecan, Na-Dené, and Algic.

The Uto-Aztecan family currently has approximately 1.95 million speakers, if we include the languages in Mexico, making it the most spoken of the Native language families. About 1.5 million of those people speak Nahuatl, more commonly known as Aztec.  These speakers live primarily in Mexico where Nahuatl is considered a national language, along with 63 other indigenous languages there. Shoshoni is another Uto-Aztecan language spoken as far north as Idaho.  Some other languages in the family include Hopi, Comanche, Pima-Papago, Cora, Huichol, and many more.

The Na-Dené family has a wide geographical distribution, but only 200,000 speakers.  Na-Dené can be divided into 3 main branches: Tlingit, Eyak, and, Athabaskan.  Athabaskan languages are the most commonly spoken, with 180,000 speakers of Navajo and 12,000 speakers of Chipewyan.  The Na-Dené languages span across the north western area of North America, including Alaska, most of western Canada, Washington State, Oregon, and scattered populations throughout California and into Mexico.

The Algic family has about 180,000 speakers mostly located in Canada, the Great Lakes area, and the East Coast, with a large population in the Plains. Wiyot, Yurok, and Algonquian are the three subdivisions of Algic, with most current languages falling under the Algonquian category.  In the Central US and Canada, Cree is spoken by an estimated 117,000 and Ojibew/Chippewa by 90,000.

Many of the Native languages still spoken are nearly extinct or severely endangered.  There have been some revivals of past extinct languages, including Massachusett (not just a state) which went extinct in the 19th century.  One tribal member started a project in 1993 to learn and teach the language to any Massachusetts residents eager to learn.  As of 2011, 400 adults are second language learners and five children are native speakers.  Numerous cultures and organizations within North America are working to revive, preserve, and promote native languages like these.As always, if you need something translated into one of these languages, or any language, Lionbridge onDemand can help.  Although Native translators are few and far between, we will do everything we can to source a translator for you.