Indigenous languages of the Americas

  (Redirected from Native American languages)

Indigenous languages of the Americas are spoken by indigenous peoples from Alaska, Nunavut, and Greenland to the southern tip of South America, encompassing the land masses that constitute the Americas. These indigenous languages consist of dozens of distinct language families, as well as many language isolates and unclassified languages.

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

Many proposals to group these into higher-level families have been made, such as Joseph Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis.[1] This scheme is rejected by nearly all specialists, due to the fact that some of the languages differ too significantly to draw any connections between them.[2]

According to UNESCO, most of the indigenous American languages are critically endangered, and many are already extinct.[3] The most widely spoken indigenous language is Southern Quechua, with about 6 to 7 million speakers, primarily in South America. In the United States, 372,000 people speak an indigenous language at home.[4]


Thousands of languages were spoken by various peoples in North and South America prior to their first contact with Europeans.[dubious ] These encounters occurred between the beginning of the 11th century (with the Nordic settlement of Greenland and failed efforts in Newfoundland and Labrador) and the end of the 15th century (the voyages of Christopher Columbus). Several indigenous cultures of the Americas had also developed their own writing systems,[5] the best known being the Maya script.[6] The indigenous languages of the Americas had widely varying demographics, from the Quechuan 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 developed in the Americas, based on European, indigenous and African languages.

The European colonizers and their successor states had widely varying attitudes towards Native American languages. In Brazil, friars learned and promoted the Tupi language.[7] In many Latin American colonies, Spanish missionaries often learned local languages and culture in order to preach to the natives in their own tongue and relate the Christian message to their indigenous religions. In the British American colonies, John Eliot of the Massachusetts Bay Colony translated the Bible into the Massachusett language, also called Wampanoag, or Natick (1661–1663); he published the first Bible printed in North America, the Eliot Indian Bible.

The Europeans also suppressed use of indigenous American languages, establishing their own languages for official communications, destroying texts in other languages, and insisting that indigenous people learn European languages in schools. 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.

Many indigenous languages have become critically endangered, but others are vigorous and part of daily life for millions of people. Several indigenous languages have been given official status in the countries where they occur, such as Guaraní in Paraguay. In other cases official status is limited to certain regions where the languages are most spoken. Although sometimes enshrined in constitutions as official, the languages may be used infrequently in de facto official use. Examples are Quechua in Peru and Aymara in Bolivia, where in practice, Spanish is dominant in all formal contexts.

In North America and the Arctic region, Greenland in 2009 adopted Kalaallisut[8] as its sole official language. In the United States, the Navajo language is the most spoken Native American language, with more than 200,000 speakers in the Southwestern United States. The US Marine Corps recruited Navajo men, who were established as code talkers during World War II.


In American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (1997), Lyle Campbell lists several hypotheses for the historical origins of Amerindian languages.[9]

  1. A single, one-language migration (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 by the Bering Strait

Roger Blench (2008) has advocated the theory of multiple migrations along the Pacific coast of peoples from northeastern Asia, who already spoke diverse languages. These proliferated in the New World.[10]

Numbers of speakersEdit

  • Bullet points represent minority language status
List of Widely Spoken and Officially Recognized Languages
Language Number of speakers Official Recognition Source
Southern Quechua 6,080,000   Bolivia (Official Language)

  Peru (Official Language)

  Jujuy, Argentina

Guaraní 4,850,000   Paraguay (Official Language)


  Corrientes, Argentina

  Brazil (Official Language in Tacuru,   Mato Grosso do Sul)


Kʼicheʼ 2,330,000   Guatemala


Nahuatl 1,688,261   Mexico [14]
Aymara 1,677,100   Bolivia


Kichwa 1,200,000   Ecuador  Colombia (  Cauca,   Nariño,   Putumayo) [17]
Ancash Quechua 918,000   Peru [18]
Yucatec Maya 851,316   Mexico


Qʼeqchiʼ 800,000   Guatemala



Tzeltal 524,823   Mexico [21]
Mixtec 500,934   Mexico [22]
Mam 478,000   Guatemala


Tzotzil 460,374   Mexico [23]
Zapotec 450,431   Mexico [24]
Kaqchikel 450,000   Guatemala


Wayuunaiki 320,000   La Guajira,   Colombia
Otomi 304,985   Mexico [26]
Totonaco 261,946   Mexico [27]
Mapuche 258,620 Cautín Province, La Araucanía,   Chile (Galvarino, Padre Las Casas) [28]
Ch'ol 241,073   Mexico [29]
Mazateco 233,022   Mexico [30]
Garífuna 190,000   Guatemala


  North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region,   Nicaragua

  Honduras (Atlántida, Colón, Gracias a Dios)

Miskito 180,000   North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region,   Nicaragua

  Honduras (Gracias a Dios)

Huasteco 169,364   Mexico [32]
Navajo 169,359   Navajo Nation, United States [33]
Yaru Quechua 150,000   Peru [34]
Mazahua 146,398   Mexico [35]
Purepecha/Tarasco 136,864   Mexico [36]
Chinanteco 135,033   Mexico [37]
Ixil 135,000   Guatemala


Mixe 129,852   Mexico [38]
Tlapaneco 127,780   Mexico [39]
Cree 96,260   Northwest Territories, Canada [40]
Poqomchiʼ 92,000   Guatemala
Ojibwe 90,000   Canada

  United States

Jakaltek 90,000   Guatemala


Tz’utujil 99,300   Guatemala
Achí 85,552   Guatemala
Tarahumara 85,018   Mexico
Qʼanjobʼal 81,000   Guatemala


Chuj 61,630   Guatemala


Kuna 61,000   Chocó,   Colombia

  Antioquia,   Colombia

Paez 60,000   Colombia (  Cauca,   Huila,   Valle del Cauca)
Amuzgo 55,588   Mexico
Tojolabʼal 51,733   Mexico
Kalaallisut 49,826 §(estimated as per persons born in Greenland)   Greenland, Denmark [42]
Tikuna 47,000   Amazonas,   Brazil,   Amazonas,   Colombia (Leticia, Puerto Nariño) [43]
Chatino 45,000   Mexico
Huichol 44,800   Mexico
Mayo 39,600   Mexico
Inuktitut 39,475   Nunavut, Canada

  Northwest Territories, Canada

Chontal Maya 37,072   Mexico
Wichi 36,135   Chaco, Argentina
Tepehuán 36,000   Mexico
Soteapanec 35,050   Mexico
Shuar 35,000   Ecuador [45]
Blackfoot 34,394   Alberta,   Canada,   Montana,   United States [46]
Sikuani 34,000   Colombia (  Meta,   Vichada,   Arauca,   Guainía,   Guaviare)
Kom 31,580   Chaco, Argentina
Poqomam 30,000   Guatemala
Ch'orti' 30,000   Guatemala
Kaiwá 26,500   Mato Grosso do Sul,   Brazil [43]
Sioux 25,000   South Dakota, United States [47]
Oʼodham 23,313   Tohono Oʼodham Nation, United States

  Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, United States


Kaigang 22,000   Brazil [43]
Guambiano 21,000   Cauca,   Colombia
Cora 20,100   Mexico
Yanomamö 20,000   Brazil


Nheengatu 19,000 São Gabriel da Cachoeira,   Amazonas,   Brazil  Colombia


Yup'ik (Central Alaskan) & Siberian) 18,626   Alaska, United States
Huave 17,900   Mexico [49]
Yaqui 17,546   Mexico
Piaroa 17,000   Vichada,   Colombia
Sakapultek 15,000   Guatemala
Western Apache 14,012   San Carlos Apache Nation, United States

Fort Apache Indian Reservation, United States

Xavante 13,300   Mato Grosso,   Brazil [43]
Keresan 13,073   New Mexico, United States
Cuicatec 13,000   Mexico
Awa Pit 13,000   Nariño,   Colombia
Cherokee 12,320   Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,   North Carolina, United States

  Cherokee Nation of   Oklahoma, United States

Karu 12,000   Guaviare,   Colombia

São Gabriel da Cachoeira,   Amazonas,   Brazil (Baníwa language)

Awakatek 11,607   Guatemala


Chipewyan 11,325   Northwest Territories, Canada [50]
Pame 11,000   Mexico
Wounaan 10,800   Colombia (  Chocó,   Cauca,   Valle del Cauca)
Choctaw 10,368   Choctaw Nation of   Oklahoma, United States [51]
Moxo 10,000   Bolivia
Kogi 9,900   Magdalena,   Colombia
Zuni 9,620   New Mexico, United States [52]
Guajajara 9,500   Maranhão,   Brazil [43]
Sumo 9,000   North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region,   Nicaragua
Mopan 9,000–12,000   Guatemala


Tepehua 8,900   Mexico
Mawé 8,900   Pará,   Amazonas,   Brazil [43]
Terena 8,200   Mato Grosso do Sul,   Brazil [43]
Sipakapense 8,000   Guatemala
Ika 8,000   Cesar,   Colombia

  Magdalena,   Colombia

Tukano 7,100 São Gabriel da Cachoeira,   Amazonas,   Brazil

  Vaupés,   Colombia

Minica Huitoto 6,800   Amazonas,   Colombia
Hopi 6,780   Arizona, United States [54]
Piapoco 6,400   Colombia (Guainía, Vichada, Meta)
Cubeo 6,300   Vaupés,   Colombia
Kayapo 6,200   Pará,   Mato Grosso ,   Brazil [46]
Yukpa 6,000   Cesar,   Colombia
Chiquitano 5,900   Bolivia  Mato Grosso,   Brazil
Guarayu 5,900   Bolivia
Macushi 5,800   Roraima,   Amazonas,   Brazil



Chimané 5,300   Bolivia
Tewa 5,123   New Mexico, United States
Timbira 5,100   Maranhão,   Tocantins,   Pará,   Brazil [55]
Muscogee 5,072   Creek Nation,   Oklahoma, United States [56]
Chontal of Oaxaca 5,039   Mexico [57]
Tektitek 5,000   Guatemala
Barí 5,000   Cesar,   Colombia

  Norte de Santander,   Colombia

Sanumá 5,000   Brazil  Venezuela [58]
Camsá 4,000   Putumayo,   Colombia
Kulina 3,900   Amazonas,   Brazil  Peru [58]
Crow 3,862   Montana,   United States
Mohawk 3,875   Ontario,   Quebec,   Canada

  New York,   United States

Kashinawa 3,588   Brazil,   Peru
Munduruku 3,563   Pará,   Amazonas,   Brazil [58]
Tunebo/Uwa 3,550   Boyacá,   Colombia
Ayoreo 3,160   Bolivia
Desano 3,160   Amazonas,   Colombia
Wapishana 3,154   Roraima,   Brazil (Official language in Bomfim, Roraima)


Yaminawa 3,129   Bolivia
Moquoit 3,000   Chaco, Argentina
Inupiat 3,000   Alaska, United States

  Northwest Territories, Canada

Puinave 3,000   Guainía,   Colombia
Cuiba 2,900   Colombia (  Casanare,   Vichada,   Arauca)
Tupi-Mondé 2,886   Rondônia,   Brazil [58]
Yuracaré 2,700   Bolivia
Wanano 2,600   Vaupés,   Colombia
Shoshoni 2,512   United States
Bora 2,400   Amazonas,   Colombia
Cofán 2,400   Colombia (  Nariño,   Putumayo)
Kanamari 2,298   Amazonas,   Brazil [58]
Fox (Mesquakie-Sauk-Kickapoo) 2,288   Sac and Fox Nation, United States


Waiwai 2,217   Brazil,   Guyana
Karajá 2,137   Brazil [58]
Huarijio 2,136   Mexico
Slavey 2,120   Northwest Territories, Canada
Chichimeca 2,100   Mexico
Koreguaje 2,100   Caquetá,   Colombia
Xerente 2,051   Tocantins,   Brazil [58]
Uspanteko 2,000   Guatemala
Fulniô 1,871   Pernambuco,   Brazil [58]
Pakaásnovos (wari) 1,854   Rondônia,   Brazil [58]
Wiwa 1,850   Cesar,   Colombia
Weenhayek 1,810   Bolivia
Matlatzinca 1,800   Mexico
Tacana 1,800   Bolivia
Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì 1,735   Northwest Territories, Canada
Cavineña 1,700   Bolivia
Jupda 1,700   Amazonas,   Colombia
Zacatepec Mixtec 1,500   Mexico
Seneca 1,453 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation,   Ontario, Canada [62]
Movima 1,400   Bolivia
Tlingit 1,360   Alaska, United States
Inuinnaqtun 1,310   Nunavut, Canada

  Northwest Territories, Canada

Kiowa 1,274   Oklahoma,   United States
Ka'apor 1,241   Maranhão,   Brazil [58]
Aleut 1,236   Alaska, United States
Gwichʼin 1,217   Alaska, United States

  Northwest Territories, Canada

Inuvialuktun 1,150   Nunavut, Canada

  Northwest Territories, Canada

Arapaho 1 087   United States
Macuna 1,032   Vaupés,   Colombia
Guayabero 1,000   Colombia (  Meta,   Guaviare)
Comanche 963   United States
Chocho 810   Mexico
Maricopa/Piipaash 800   Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community,   Arizona, United States
Rama 740   North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region,   Nicaragua
Seri 729   Mexico [63]
Ese Ejja 700   Bolivia
Nukak 700   Guaviare,   Colombia
Pima Bajo 650   Mexico
Cayuvava 650   Bolivia
Chácobo-Pakawara 600   Bolivia
Lacandon 600   Mexico
Oneida 574 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation,   Ontario, Canada

  Oneida Nation of the Thames,   Ontario, Canada

Cocopah 515   Mexico [67]
Sirionó 500   Bolivia
Siona 500   Putumayo,   Colombia
Havasupai–Hualapai 445 Havasupai Indian Reservation,   Arizona, United States [68]
Kumeyaay 427 (525 including Ipai and Tiipai languages)   Mexico [69][70]
Tembé 420   Maranhão,   Brazil [58]
Yurok 414   California,   United States
Alutiiq/Sugpiaq 400   Alaska, United States
Tatuyo 400   Vaupés,   Colombia
Andoque 370   Caquetá,   Colombia
Guajá 365   Maranhão,   Brazil
Chimila 350   Magdalena,   Colombia
Koyukon 300   Alaska, United States
Hitnü 300   Arauca,   Colombia
Mikasuki 290   Georgia (U.S. state),   Florida,   United States [71]
Quechan 290 [72]
Cabiyari 270 Mirití-Paraná,   Amazonas,   Colombia
Reyesano 250   Bolivia
Achagua 250   Meta,   Colombia
Kakwa 250   Vaupés,   Colombia
Yavapai 245   Arizona,   United States [73]
Siriano 220   Vaupés,   Colombia
Mojave 200   Arizona,   United States [74]
Paipai 200   Mexico [75]
Toromono 200   Bolivia
Ixcatec 190   Mexico
Ocaina 190   Amazonas,   Colombia
Haida 168   Alaska, United States

  Council of the Haida Nation, Canada

Muinane 150   Amazonas,   Colombia
Deg Xinag 127   Alaska, United States
Warázu 125   Bolivia
Araona 110   Bolivia
Upper Tanana 100   Alaska, United States
Itene 90   Bolivia
Ahtna 80   Alaska, United States
Tsimshian 70   Alaska, United States
Tanacross 65   Alaska, United States
Cayuga 61 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation,   Ontario, Canada

Cattaraugus Reservation,   New York, United States

Denaʼina 50   Alaska, United States
Onondaga 50 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation,   Ontario, Canada [77]
Bauré 40   Bolivia
Upper Kuskokwim 40   Alaska, United States
Tanana 30   Alaska, United States
Ayapaneco 24   Mexico [78]
Leco 20   Bolivia
Xincan 16   Guatemala
Hän 12   Alaska, United States
Holikachuk 12   Alaska, United States
Carijona 6   Colombia (  Amazonas,   Guaviare)
Itonama 5   Bolivia
Kiliwa 4   Mexico
Tuscarora 3 Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation,   Ontario, Canada

Tuscarora Reservation,   New York, United States

Nonuya 2   Amazonas,   Colombia
Cochimí 0   Mexico (Extinct, but retains recognition)
Kallawaya 0   Bolivia (Extinct, but retains recognition)
Eyak 0   Alaska, United States (Extinct, but retains recognition)

Language families and unclassified languagesEdit


  • 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).
  • For convenience, the following list of language families is divided into three 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 cannot fully delineate indigenous culture areas.

Northern AmericaEdit

Pre-contact: distribution of North American language families, including northern Mexico
Bilingual stop sign in English and the Cherokee syllabary, Tahlequah, Oklahoma

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).[citation needed] 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-Dené 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 remain.

North America is notable for its linguistic diversity, especially in California. This area has 18 language families comprising 74 languages (compared to four families in Europe: Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic, and Afroasiatic and one isolate, Basque).[80]

Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeastern Woodlands[citation needed]; 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.[citation needed] This diversity has influenced the development of linguistic theories and practice in the US.

Due to the diversity of languages in North America, it is difficult to make generalizations for the region. Most North American languages have a relatively small number of vowels (i.e. three to 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).[81] The languages of the Plateau area have relatively rare pharyngeals and epiglottals (they are otherwise restricted to Afroasiatic languages and the languages of the Caucasus). Ejective consonants are also common in western 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 the Tanoan languages, the lexical affixes of the Wakashan, Salishan and Chimakuan languages, and the unusual verb structure of Na-Dené.

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

  1. Adai
  2. Algic (30)
  3. Alsea (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 (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–Cochimí (11)
  56. Zuni

Central America and MexicoEdit

The indigenous languages of Mexico that have more than 100,000 speakers

In Central America the Mayan languages are among those used today. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name, and Mexico recognizes eight more. The Mayan language family is one of the best documented and most studied in the Americas. Modern Mayan languages descend from Proto-Mayan, a language thought to have been spoken at least 4,000 years ago; it has been partially reconstructed using the comparative method.

  1. Alagüilac (Guatemala)
  2. Chibchan (Central America & South America) (22)
  3. Coahuilteco
  4. Comecrudan (Texas & Mexico) (3)
  5. Cotoname
  6. Cuitlatec (Mexico: Guerrero)
  7. Epi-Olmec (Mexico: language of undeciphered inscriptions)
  8. Guaicurian (8)
  9. Huave
  10. Jicaquean (2)
  11. Lencan (2)
  12. Maratino (northeastern Mexico)
  13. Mayan (31)
  14. Misumalpan (5)
  15. Mixe–Zoquean (19)
  16. Naolan (Mexico: Tamaulipas)
  17. Oto-Manguean (27)
  18. Pericú
  19. Purépecha
  20. Quinigua (northeast Mexico)
  21. Seri
  22. Solano
  23. Tequistlatecan (3)
  24. Totonacan (2)
  25. Uto-Aztecan (United States & Mexico) (33)
  26. Xincan (5)
  27. Yuman (United States & Mexico) (11)

South America and the CaribbeanEdit

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. (Note that Quechua, the family with most speakers, is not displayed.)
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.[citation needed] 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, isolates, and unclassified languages 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. Arauan (9)
  7. Arawakan (South America & Caribbean) (64) (also known as Maipurean)
  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. Botocudoan (3) (also known as Aimoré)
  15. Cahuapanan (2) (also known as Jebero, Kawapánan)
  16. Camsá (Colombia) (also known as Sibundoy, Coche)
  17. Candoshi (also known as Maina, Kandoshi)
  18. Canichana (Bolivia) (also known as Canesi, Kanichana)
  19. Carabayo
  20. Cariban (29) (also known as Caribe, Carib)
  21. Catacaoan (also known as Katakáoan)
  22. Cayubaba (Bolivia)
  23. Chapacuran (9) (also known as Chapacura-Wanham, Txapakúran)
  24. Charruan (also known as Charrúan)
  25. Chibchan (Central America & South America) (22)
  26. Chimuan (3)
  27. Chipaya–Uru (also known as Uru–Chipaya)
  28. Chiquitano
  29. Choco (10) (also known as Chocoan)
  30. Chon (2) (also known as Patagonian)
  31. Chono
  32. Coeruna (Brazil)
  33. Cofán (Colombia, Ecuador)
  34. Cueva
  35. Culle (Peru) (also known as Culli, Linga, Kulyi)
  36. Cunza (Chile, Bolivia, Argentina) (also known as Atacama, Atakama, Atacameño, Lipe, Kunsa)
  37. Esmeraldeño (also known as Esmeralda, Takame)
  38. Fulnió
  39. Gamela (Brazil: Maranhão)
  40. Gorgotoqui (Bolivia)
  41. Guaicuruan (7) (also known as Guaykuruan, Waikurúan)
  42. Guajiboan (4) (also known as Wahívoan)
  43. Guamo (Venezuela) (also known as Wamo)
  44. Guató
  45. Harakmbut (2) (also known as Tuyoneri)
  46. Hibito–Cholon
  47. Himarimã
  48. Hodï (Venezuela) (also known as Jotí, Hoti, Waruwaru)
  49. Huamoé (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  50. Huaorani (Ecuador, Peru) (also known as Auca, Huaorani, Wao, Auka, Sabela, Waorani, Waodani)
  51. Huarpe (also known as Warpe)
  52. Irantxe (Brazil: Mato Grosso)
  53. Itonama (Bolivia) (also known as Saramo, Machoto)
  54. Jabutian
  55. Je (13) (also known as Gê, Jêan, Gêan, Ye)
  56. Jeikó
  57. Jirajaran (3) (also known as Hiraháran, Jirajarano, Jirajarana)
  58. Jivaroan (2) (also known as Hívaro)
  59. Jukude (Maku of Auari)
  60. Kaimbe
  61. Kaliana (also known as Caliana, Cariana, Sapé, Chirichano)
  62. Kamakanan
  63. Kapixaná (Brazil: Rondônia) (also known as Kanoé, Kapishaná)
  64. Karajá
  65. Karirí (Brazil: Paraíba, Pernambuco, Ceará)
  66. Katembrí
  67. Katukinan (3) (also known as Catuquinan)
  68. Kawésqar (Chile) (Kaweskar, Alacaluf, Qawasqar, Halawalip, Aksaná, Hekaine)
  69. Kwaza (Koayá) (Brazil: Rondônia)
  70. Leco (Lapalapa, Leko)
  71. Lule (Argentina) (also known as Tonocoté)
  72. Malibú (also known as Malibu)
  73. Mapudungu (Chile, Argentina) (also known as Araucanian, Mapuche, Huilliche)
  74. Mascoyan (5) (also known as Maskóian, Mascoian)
  75. Matacoan (4) (also known as Mataguayan)
  76. Matanawí
  77. Maxakalían (3) (also known as Mashakalían)
  78. Mocana (Colombia: Tubará)
  79. Mosetenan (also known as Mosetén)
  80. Movima (Bolivia)
  81. Munichi (Peru) (also known as Muniche)
  82. Muran (4)
  83. Mutú (also known as Loco)
  84. Nadahup (5)
  85. Nambiquaran (5)
  86. Natú (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  87. Nonuya (Peru, Colombia)
  88. Ofayé
  89. Old Catío–Nutabe (Colombia)
  90. Omurano (Peru) (also known as Mayna, Mumurana, Numurana, Maina, Rimachu, Roamaina, Umurano)
  91. Otí (Brazil: São Paulo)
  92. Otomakoan (2)
  93. Paez (also known as Nasa Yuwe)
  94. Palta
  95. Pankararú (Brazil: Pernambuco)
  96. Pano–Tacanan (33)
  97. Panzaleo (Ecuador) (also known as Latacunga, Quito, Pansaleo)
  98. Patagon (Peru)
  99. Peba–Yaguan (2) (also known as Yaguan, Yáwan, Peban)
  100. Pijao
  101. Pre-Arawakan languages of the Greater Antilles (Guanahatabey, Macorix, Ciguayo) (Cuba, Hispaniola)
  102. Puelche (Chile) (also known as Guenaken, Gennaken, Pampa, Pehuenche, Ranquelche)
  103. Puinave (also known as Makú)
  104. Puquina (Bolivia)
  105. Purian (2)
  106. Quechuan (46)
  107. Rikbaktsá
  108. Saliban (2) (also known as Sálivan)
  109. Sechura (Atalan, Sec)
  110. Tabancale (Peru)
  111. Tairona (Colombia)
  112. Tarairiú (Brazil: Rio Grande do Norte)
  113. Taruma
  114. Taushiro (Peru) (also known as Pinchi, Pinche)
  115. Tequiraca (Peru) (also known as Tekiraka, Avishiri)
  116. Teushen (Patagonia, Argentina)
  117. Ticuna (Colombia, Peru, Brazil) (also known as Magta, Tikuna, Tucuna, Tukna, Tukuna)
  118. Timotean (2)
  119. Tiniguan (2) (also known as Tiníwan, Pamiguan)
  120. Trumai (Brazil: Xingu, Mato Grosso)
  121. Tucanoan (15)
  122. Tupian (70, including Guaraní)
  123. Tuxá (Brazil: Bahia, Pernambuco)
  124. Urarina (also known as Shimacu, Itukale, Shimaku)
  125. Vilela
  126. Wakona
  127. Warao (Guyana, Surinam, Venezuela) (also known as Guarao)
  128. Witotoan (6) (also known as Huitotoan, Bora–Witótoan)
  129. Xokó (Brazil: Alagoas, Pernambuco) (also known as Shokó)
  130. Xukurú (Brazil: Pernambuco, Paraíba)
  131. Yaghan (Chile) (also known as Yámana)
  132. Yanomaman (4)
  133. Yaruro (also known as Jaruro)
  134. Yuracare (Bolivia)
  135. Yuri (Colombia, Brazil) (also known as Carabayo, Jurí)
  136. Yurumanguí (Colombia) (also known as Yurimangui, Yurimangi)
  137. Zamucoan (2)
  138. Zaparoan (5) (also known as Záparo)

Language stock proposalsEdit

Hypothetical language-family proposals of American languages are often cited as uncontroversial in popular writing. However, many of these proposals have not been fully demonstrated, or even demonstrated 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").[82] Still other proposals are almost unanimously rejected by specialists (for example, Amerind). Below is a (partial) list of some such proposals:

  1. Algonquian–Wakashan   (also known as Almosan)
  2. Almosan–Keresiouan   (Almosan + Keresiouan)
  3. Amerind   (all languages excepting Eskimo–Aleut & Na-Dené)
  4. Algonkian–Gulf   (Algic + Beothuk + Gulf)
  5. (macro-)Arawakan
  6. Arutani–Sape (Ahuaque–Kalianan)
  7. Aztec–Tanoan   (Uto-Aztecan + Tanoan)
  8. Chibchan–Paezan
  9. Chikitano–Boróroan
  10. Chimu–Chipaya
  11. Coahuiltecan   (Coahuilteco + Cotoname + Comecrudan + Karankawa + Tonkawa)
  12. Cunza–Kapixanan
  13. Dené–Caucasian
  14. Dené–Yeniseian
  15. Esmerelda–Yaruroan
  16. Ge–Pano–Carib
  17. Guamo–Chapacuran
  18. Gulf   (Muskogean + Natchez + Tunica)
  19. Macro-Kulyi–Cholónan
  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-Lekoan
  36. Macro-Mayan
  37. Macro-Otomákoan
  38. Macro-Paesan
  39. Macro-Panoan
  40. Macro-Puinavean
  41. Macro-Siouan   (Siouan + Iroquoian + Caddoan)
  42. Macro-Tucanoan
  43. Macro-Tupí–Karibe
  44. Macro-Waikurúan
  45. Macro-Warpean   (Muran + Matanawi + Huarpe)
  46. Mataco–Guaicuru
  47. Mosan   (Salishan + Wakashan + Chimakuan)
  48. Mosetén–Chonan
  49. Mura–Matanawian
  50. Sapir's Na-Dené including Haida   (Haida + Tlingit + Eyak + Athabaskan)
  51. Nostratic–Amerind
  52. Paezan (Andaqui + Paez + Panzaleo)
  53. Paezan–Barbacoan
  54. 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)
  55. Puinave–Maku
  56. Quechumaran
  57. Saparo–Yawan   (also known as Zaparo–Yaguan)
  58. Sechura–Catacao (also known as Sechura–Tallan)
  59. Takelman   (Takelma + Kalapuyan)
  60. Tequiraca–Canichana
  61. Ticuna–Yuri (Yuri–Ticunan)
  62. Totozoque   (Totonacan + Mixe–Zoque)
  63. Tunican   (Tunica + Atakapa + Chitimacha)
  64. Yok–Utian
  65. 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.[83] 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%.[clarification needed] 0% probability or confidence would mean complete uncertainty.

Language Family Probability Confidence
Algonkian–Gulf −50% 50%
Almosan (and beyond) −75% 50%
Atakapa–Chitimacha −50% 60%
Aztec–Tanoan 0% 50%
Coahuiltecan −85% 80%
−25% 20%
Guaicurian–Hokan 0% 10%
Gulf −25% 40%
Hokan–Subtiaba −90% 75%
Jicaque–Hokan −30% 25%
Jicaque–Subtiaba −60% 80%
Jicaque–Tequistlatecan +65% 50%
Keresan and Uto-Aztecan 0% 60%
Keresan and Zuni −40% 40%
Macro-Mayan[85] +30% 25%
Macro-Siouan[86] −20% 75%
Maya–Chipaya −80% 95%
Maya–Chipaya–Yunga −90% 95%
Mexican Penutian −40% 60%
Misumalpan–Chibchan +20% 50%
Mosan −60% 65%
Na-Dene 0% 25%
Natchez–Muskogean +40% 20%
Nostratic–Amerind −90% 75%
Otomanguean–Huave +25% 25%
Purépecha–Quechua −90% 80%
Quechua as Hokan −85% 80%
Quechumaran +50% 50%
Sahaptian–Klamath–(Molala) +75% 50%
Sahaptian–Klamath–Tsimshian +10% 10%
Takelman[87] +80% 60%
Tlapanec–Subtiaba as Otomanguean +95% 90%
Tlingit–Eyak–Athabaskan +75% 40%
Tunican 0% 20%
Wakashan and Chimakuan 0% 25%
Yukian–Gulf −85% 70%
Yukian–Siouan −60% 75%
Zuni–Penutian −80% 50%

Linguistic areasEdit

Unattested languagesEdit

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.

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

Pidgins and mixed languagesEdit

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. Algonquian-Basque 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 Pidgin (West Greenlandic Pidgin)
  14. Guajiro-Spanish
  15. Güegüence-Nicarao
  16. Haida Jargon
  17. Inuktitut-English Pidgin (Quebec)
  18. Jargonized Powhatan
  19. Keresan Sign Language
  20. Labrador Eskimo Pidgin (also known as Labrador Inuit Pidgin)
  21. Lingua Franca Apalachee
  22. Lingua Franca Creek
  23. Lingua Geral Amazônica (also known as Nheengatú, Lingua Boa, Lingua Brasílica, Lingua Geral do Norte)
  24. Lingua Geral do Sul (also known as Lingua Geral Paulista, Tupí Austral)
  25. Loucheux Jargon (also known as Jargon Loucheux)
  26. Media Lengua
  27. Mednyj Aleut (also known as Copper Island Aleut, Medniy Aleut, CIA)
  28. Michif (also known as French Cree, Métis, Metchif, Mitchif, Métchif)
  29. Mobilian Jargon (also known as Mobilian Trade Jargon, Chickasaw-Chocaw Trade Language, Yamá)
  30. Montagnais Pidgin Basque (also known as Pidgin Basque-Montagnais)
  31. Nootka Jargon (spoken during the 18th-19th centuries; later replaced by Chinook Jargon)
  32. Ocaneechi (also known as Occaneechee; spoken in Virginia and the Carolinas in early colonial times)
  33. Pidgin Massachusett
  34. Plains Indian Sign Language

Writing systemsEdit

While most indigenous languages have adopted the Latin script as the written form of their languages, a few languages have their own unique writing systems after encountering the Latin script (often through missionaries) that are still in use. All pre-Columbian indigenous writing systems are no longer used.

Indigenous Writing Systems of the Americas
Writing System Type Language(s) Region(s) Date in usage Status Inventor
Quipu N/A (string) Aymara, Quechua, Puquina Andean civilizations (Western South America) 3rd millennium BCE – 17th century Extinct
Olmec Hieroglyphs Logogram Mixe–Zoque languages Isthmus of Tehuantepec 1500 BCE – 400 BCE Extinct
Zapotec writing unknown Zapotec languages Oaxaca 500 BCE – 700 CE Extinct
Epi-Olmec/Isthmian Script Logogram Zoque languages Isthmus of Tehuantepec 500 BCE – 500 CE Extinct
Abaj Takalik and Kaminaljuyú scripts unknown unknown Mixe–Zoquean language Southern Guatemala Extinct
Maya Script Logogram Mayan languages Maya civilization: Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, Guatemala, & Belize 3rd century BCE – 16th century CE Extinct
Mixtec Script Logogram Mixtecan languages Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero 13th century – 16th century CE Extinct
Aztec Script Semasiogram Nahuatl Central Mexico 14th century – 16th century CE Extinct
Komqwejwi'kasikl (Miꞌkmaw Hieroglyphs) Logogram Mi'kmaq Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, & New Brunswick 17th–19th century Extinct
Cherokee Syllabary Syllabary Cherokee Cherokee Nation, United States 1820s–present Active Sequoyah ᏍᏏᏉᏯ
Canadian Aboriginal Syllabics Abugida Algonquian languages (Cree, Naskapi, Ojibwe/Chippewa, & Blackfoot (Siksika))

Eskimo–Aleut languages (Inuktitut & Inuinnaqtun)

Athabaskan languages (Dane-zaa, Slavey, Chipewyan (Denesuline)/Sayisi, Carrier (Dakelh), & Sekani)

Canada 1840s–present Active James Evans ᒉᐃᒻᔅ ᐁᕙᓐᔅ
Yugtun Script Syllabary Central Alaskan Yup'ik Alaska 1900–present Endangered Uyaquq
Afaka Syllabary Syllabary Ndyuka Suriname, French Guiana 1910–present Endangered Afáka Atumisi

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Greenberg, Joseph (1987). Language in the Americas. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-1315-3.
  2. ^ Campbell, Lyle (2000). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534983-2., page 253
  3. ^ Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Ethnologue: Languages of the World (15th ed.). Dallas, Texas: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671-159-X. (Online version:
  4. ^ "Census Shows Native Languages Count". Language Magazine. Retrieved 2020-08-16.
  5. ^ Premm, Hanns J.; Riese, Berthold (1983). Coulmas, Florian; Ehlich, Konrad (eds.). Autochthonous American writing systems: The Aztec and Mayan examples. Writing in Focus. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs. 24. Berlin: Mouton Publishers. pp. 167–169. ISBN 978-90-279-3359-1. Retrieved 15 March 2019.
  6. ^ Wichmann, Soren (2006). "Mayan Historical Linguistics and Epigraphy: A New Synthesis". Annual Review of Anthropology. 35: 279–294. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123257.
  7. ^ Shapiro, Judith (1987). "From Tupã to the Land without Evil: The Christianization of Tupi-Guarani Cosmology". American Ethnologist. 1 (14): 126–139. doi:10.1525/ae.1987.14.1.02a00080.
  8. ^ "Lov om Grønlands Selvstyre Kapitel 7 Sprog" [Law of Greenland Self-Determination Chapter 7 Language] (PDF). Retrieved 2020-06-11.
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  10. ^ Blench, Roger. (2008) Accounting for the Diversity of Amerindian Languages: Modelling the Settlement of the New World. Paper presented at the Archaeology Research Seminar, RSPAS, Canberra, Australia.
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  12. ^ Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
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  68. ^ Havasupai‑Walapai‑Yavapai at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
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  71. ^ Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
  72. ^ Quechan at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  73. ^ Yavapai at Ethnologue (19th ed., 2016)
  74. ^ Mojave language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  75. ^ INALI (2012) México: Lenguas indígenas nacionales
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  80. ^ If the Caucasus is considered to be a part of Europe, Northwest Caucasian and Northeast Caucasian would be included resulting in five language families within Europe. Other language families, such as the Turkic, Mongolic, Afroasiatic families have entered Europe in later migrations.
  81. ^ Nater 1984, pg. 5
  82. ^ Ruhlen, Merritt. (1991 [1987]). A Guide to the World's Languages Volume 1: Classification, p.216. Edward Arnold. Paperback: ISBN 0-340-56186-6.
  83. ^ 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.
  84. ^ American-Arctic–Paleosiberian Phylum, Luoravetlan – and beyond
  85. ^ Macro-Mayan includes Mayan, Totonacan, Mixe–Zoquean, and sometimes Huave.
  86. ^ Siouan–Iroquoian–Caddoan–[Yuchi]
  87. ^ Alternatively Takelma–Kalapuyan


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North AmericaEdit

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South AmericaEdit

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  • 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.
  • Debian North American Indigenous Languages Project

External linksEdit