Indigenous languages of the Americas

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.
Many proposals to group these into higher-level families have been made, such as Joseph Greenberg's Amerind hypothesis. 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.
According to UNESCO, most of the indigenous American languages are critically endangered, and many are already extinct. The most widely spoken indigenous language is Southern Quechua, with about 6 to 7 million speakers, primarily in South America.


Thousands of languages were spoken by various peoples in North and South America prior to their first contact with Europeans. These encounters occurred between the beginning of the 11th century and the end of the 15th century. Several indigenous cultures of the Americas had also developed their own writing systems, the best known being the Maya script. 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. 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 ; 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 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, Lyle Campbell lists several hypotheses for the historical origins of Amerindian languages.
  1. A single, one-language migration
  2. A few linguistically distinct migrations
  3. Multiple migrations
  4. Multilingual migrations
  5. The influx of already diversified but related languages from the Old World
  6. Extinction of Old World linguistic relatives
  7. Migration along the Pacific coast instead of by the Bering Strait
Roger Blench 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.

Numbers of speakers

Language families and unclassified languages

There are approximately 296 spoken indigenous languages north of Mexico, 269 of which are grouped into 29 families. The Na-Dené, Algic, and Uto-Aztecan families are the largest in terms of number of languages. Uto-Aztecan has the most speakers if the languages in Mexico are considered ; Na-Dené comes in second with approximately 200,000 speakers, and Algic in third with about 180,000 speakers. Na-Dené and Algic have the widest geographic distributions: Algic currently spans from northeastern Canada across much of the continent down to northeastern Mexico with two outliers in California ; Na-Dené spans from Alaska and western Canada through Washington, Oregon, and California to the U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico. 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 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.
Another area of considerable diversity appears to have been the Southeastern Woodlands; 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 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. 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. The languages of the Plateau area have relatively rare pharyngeals and epiglottals. Ejective consonants are also common in western North America, although they are rare elsewhere.
Head-marking is found in many languages of North America, but outside of the Americas it is rare. Many languages throughout North America are polysynthetic, although this is not characteristic of all North American languages. 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, Campbell, and Mithun.
  1. Adai
  2. Algic
  3. Alsea
  4. Atakapa
  5. Beothuk
  6. Caddoan
  7. Cayuse
  8. Chimakuan
  9. Chimariko
  10. Chinookan
  11. Chitimacha
  12. Chumashan
  13. Coahuilteco
  14. Comecrudan
  15. Coosan
  16. Cotoname
  17. Eskimo–Aleut
  18. Esselen
  19. Haida
  20. Iroquoian
  21. Kalapuyan
  22. Karankawa
  23. Karuk
  24. Keresan
  25. Kutenai
  26. Maiduan
  27. Muskogean
  28. Na-Dené
  29. Natchez
  30. Palaihnihan
  31. Plateau Penutian
  32. Pomoan
  33. Salinan
  34. Salishan
  35. Shastan
  36. Siouan
  37. Siuslaw
  38. Solano
  39. Takelma
  40. Tanoan
  41. Timucua
  42. Tonkawa
  43. Tsimshianic
  44. Tunica
  45. Utian
  46. Uto-Aztecan
  47. Wakashan
  48. Wappo
  49. Washo
  50. Wintuan
  51. Yana
  52. Yokutsan
  53. Yuchi
  54. Yuki
  55. Yuman–Cochimí
  56. Zuni

    Central America and Mexico

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 '
  2. Chibchan
  3. Coahuilteco
  4. Comecrudan
  5. Cotoname
  6. Cuitlatec '
  7. Epi-Olmec '
  8. Guaicurian
  9. Huave
  10. Jicaquean
  11. Lencan
  12. Maratino '
  13. Mayan
  14. Misumalpan
  15. Mixe–Zoquean
  16. Naolan '
  17. Oto-Manguean
  18. Pericú
  19. Purépecha
  20. Quinigua '
  21. Seri
  22. Solano
  23. Tequistlatecan
  24. Totonacan
  25. Uto-Aztecan
  26. Xincan
  27. Yuman

    South America and the Caribbean

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. Kaufman gives the following appraisal:

Since the mid 1950s, the amount of published material on SA 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 areamuch smaller than SA, to be sureis 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. Many of the proposed groupings of families can be seen in Campbell, Gordon, Kaufman, Key, Loukotka, and in the [|Language stock proposals] section below.
  1. Aguano
  2. Aikaná '
  3. Andaquí
  4. Andoque '
  5. Andoquero
  6. Arauan
  7. Arawakan
  8. Arutani
  9. Aymaran
  10. Baenan '
  11. Barbacoan
  12. Betoi '
  13. Bororoan
  14. Botocudoan
  15. Cahuapanan
  16. Camsá '
  17. Candoshi
  18. Canichana '
  19. Carabayo
  20. Cariban
  21. Catacaoan
  22. Cayubaba '
  23. Chapacuran
  24. Charruan
  25. Chibchan
  26. Chimuan
  27. Chipaya–Uru
  28. Chiquitano
  29. Choco
  30. Chon
  31. Chono
  32. Coeruna '
  33. Cofán '
  34. Cueva
  35. Culle '
  36. Cunza '
  37. Esmeraldeño
  38. Fulnió
  39. Gamela '
  40. Gorgotoqui '
  41. Guaicuruan
  42. Guajiboan
  43. Guamo '
  44. Guató
  45. Harakmbut
  46. Hibito–Cholon
  47. Himarimã
  48. Hodï '
  49. Huamoé '
  50. Huaorani '
  51. Huarpe
  52. Irantxe '
  53. Itonama '
  54. Jabutian
  55. Je
  56. Jeikó
  57. Jirajaran
  58. Jivaroan
  59. Kaimbe
  60. Kaliana
  61. Kamakanan
  62. Kapixaná '
  63. Karajá
  64. Karirí
  65. Katembrí
  66. Katukinan
  67. Kawésqar '
  68. Kwaza
  69. Leco
  70. Lule '
  71. Maku
  72. Malibú
  73. Mapudungu '
  74. Mascoyan
  75. Matacoan
  76. Matanawí
  77. Maxakalían
  78. Mocana '
  79. Mosetenan
  80. Movima '
  81. Munichi '
  82. Muran
  83. Mutú
  84. Nadahup
  85. Nambiquaran
  86. Natú '
  87. Nonuya '
  88. Ofayé
  89. Old Catío–Nutabe '
  90. Omurano '
  91. Otí '
  92. Otomakoan
  93. Paez
  94. Palta
  95. Pankararú '
  96. Pano–Tacanan
  97. Panzaleo '
  98. Patagon '
  99. Peba–Yaguan
  100. Pijao†
  101. Pre-Arawakan languages of the Greater Antilles '
  102. Puelche '
  103. Puinave
  104. Puquina '
  105. Purian
  106. Quechuan
  107. Rikbaktsá
  108. Saliban
  109. Sechura
  110. Tabancale '
  111. Tairona '
  112. Tarairiú '
  113. Taruma
  114. Taushiro '
  115. Tequiraca '
  116. Teushen '
  117. Ticuna '
  118. Timotean
  119. Tiniguan
  120. Trumai '
  121. Tucanoan
  122. Tupian
  123. Tuxá '
  124. Urarina
  125. Vilela
  126. Wakona
  127. Warao '
  128. Witotoan
  129. Xokó '
  130. Xukurú '
  131. Yaghan '
  132. Yanomaman
  133. Yaruro
  134. Yuracare '
  135. Yuri '
  136. Yurumanguí
  137. Zamucoan
  138. Zaparoan

    Language stock proposals

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. Other proposals are more controversial with many linguists believing that some genetic relationships of a proposal may be demonstrated but much of it undemonstrated. Still other proposals are almost unanimously rejected by specialists. Below is a list of some such proposals:
  1. Algonquian–Wakashan
  2. Almosan–Keresiouan
  3. Amerind
  4. Angonkian–Gulf
  5. Arawakan
  6. Arutani–Sape
  7. Aztec–Tanoan
  8. Chibchan–Paezan
  9. Chikitano–Boróroan
  10. Chimu–Chipaya
  11. Coahuiltecan
  12. Cunza–Kapixanan
  13. Dené–Caucasian
  14. Dené–Yeniseian
  15. Esmerelda–Yaruroan
  16. Ge–Pano–Carib
  17. Guamo–Chapacuran
  18. Gulf
  19. Macro-Kulyi–Cholónan
  20. Hokan
  21. Hokan–Siouan
  22. Je–Tupi–Carib
  23. Jivaroan–Cahuapanan
  24. Kalianan
  25. Kandoshi–Omurano–Taushiro
  26. Katembri–Taruma
  27. Kaweskar language area
  28. Keresiouan
  29. Lule–Vilelan
  30. Macro-Andean
  31. Macro-Carib
  32. Macro-Chibchan
  33. Macro-Gê
  34. Macro-Jibaro
  35. Macro-Lekoan
  36. Macro-Mayan
  37. Macro-Otomákoan
  38. Macro-Paesan
  39. Macro-Panoan
  40. Macro-Puinavean
  41. Macro-Siouan
  42. Macro-Tucanoan
  43. Macro-Tupí–Karibe
  44. Macro-Waikurúan
  45. Macro-Warpean
  46. Mataco–Guaicuru
  47. Mosan
  48. Mosetén–Chonan
  49. Mura–Matanawian
  50. Sapir's Na-Dené including Haida
  51. Nostratic–Amerind
  52. Paezan
  53. Paezan–Barbacoan
  54. Penutian
  55. # California Penutian
  56. # Oregon Penutian
  57. # Mexican Penutian
  58. Puinave–Maku
  59. Quechumaran
  60. Saparo–Yawan
  61. Sechura–Catacao
  62. Takelman
  63. Tequiraca–Canichana
  64. Ticuna–Yuri
  65. Totozoque
  66. Tunican
  67. Yok–Utian
  68. Yuki–Wappo
Good discussions of past proposals can be found in Campbell and Campbell & Mithun.
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. 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 FamilyProbabilityConfidence
Almosan −75%50%
Keresan and Uto-Aztecan0%60%
Keresan and Zuni−40%40%
Mexican Penutian−40%60%
Quechua as Hokan−85%80%
Tlapanec–Subtiaba as Otomanguean+95%90%
Wakashan and Chimakuan0%25%

Linguistic areas

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. A short list is below.
Loukotka 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. Algonquian-Basque pidgin
  3. Broken Oghibbeway
  4. Broken Slavey
  5. Bungee
  6. Callahuaya
  7. Carib Pidgin
  8. Carib Pidgin–Arawak Mixed Language
  9. Catalangu
  10. Chinook Jargon
  11. Delaware Jargon
  12. Eskimo Trade Jargon
  13. Greenlandic Pidgin
  14. Guajiro-Spanish
  15. Güegüence-Nicarao
  16. Haida Jargon
  17. Inuktitut-English Pidgin
  18. Jargonized Powhatan
  19. Labrador Eskimo Pidgin
  20. Lingua Franca Apalachee
  21. Lingua Franca Creek
  22. Lingua Geral Amazônica
  23. Lingua Geral do Sul
  24. Loucheux Jargon
  25. Media Lengua
  26. Mednyj Aleut
  27. Michif
  28. Mobilian Jargon
  29. Montagnais Pidgin Basque
  30. Nootka Jargon
  31. Ocaneechi
  32. Pidgin Massachusett
  33. Plains Indian Sign Language

    North America