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What Native American Language Diversity Tells Us

The diversity of Native American (“American” meaning “of the Americas”) languages is striking and significant. It is not simply that there were many languages — the number of languages spoken north of Mexico is often given as 250 or as 300. But this does not do justice to the true diversity, or to what that diversity tells us.

To do that, we need to look at language relationships — to families and classifications. This is a subfield of the field of linguistics called Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Historical Linguistics means the examination of the changes in language over time, including the evolution of one language into many. Comparative Linguistics means the comparison of existing languages to determine if they are related (descended from a common ancestor) and if so, how closely.

Historical and comparative linguistics was born in the late 18th century when British philologist William Jones, who had learned Sanskrit, announced his realization that there were striking parallels and resemblances between Sanskrit and ancient languages of Europe, particularly Greek and Latin, and proposed that all these languages came from a common source.

In fact, all the languages of Europe (with a few isolated exceptions), many languages of Central Asia (such as Persian and Afghan) and the languages of the northern two-thirds of India clearly belong to the same language stock, which is called Indo-European. Indo-European contains various language families — the Germanic family, which includes German, Dutch, English, and Scandinavian languages; the Romance family, which includes Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian; the Slavic family, which includes Russian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, and Serbian; the Celtic family, which includes Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish; and Indo-Iranian languages, which include Farsi (Persian), Afghan (Pashto), Urdu (Pakistani) and the languages of the northern two-thirds of India. (The southern third of India is inhabited by speakers of Dravidian languages, which undoubtedly predate Indo-European in the region.) All of these language families are subfamilies of the Indo-European family. The Indo-European family is sometimes called a superfamily, meaning that it it is a family of families. It is also called a language stock or a language phylum (plural, phyla); this means there is no still larger grouping of languages to which it, in turn, belongs.

At some point, all the Indo-European languages were descended from a common ancestor, which is known as proto-Indo-European. Although of course no one speaks proto-Indo-European today, various Indo-European languages have been written for thousands of years, and by studying the changes in Indo-European languages over the centuries (Sanskrit to Hindi, ancient Greek to modern Greek, Latin to Italian, French and Spanish, etc), it became possible to trace backwards and reconstruct proto-Indo-European, as well as to date it to approximately 6000 years ago.

All the languages in Europe are Indo-European except for Hungarian, Finnish, and Saami (Lapp) which are members of the Ural-Altaic family and distantly related to Turkish and some Siberian languages; and Basque, which is an isolate, completely unique in the world, both in structure and in vocabulary. (Basque word list ) An isolate is a language with no known relatives.

Thus, in total, we can say that three language stocks are represented in Europe: Basque (which accounts for about 0.4% of Europe’s population), Ural-Altaic (which accounts for about 2% of Europe’s population), and Indo-European (which accounts for about 97.6% of the Europeans population, and in addition, as a result of European colonization, accounts for about 60% of the entire world’s population), .

What has all this to do with Native American studies? In a way, nothing. I believe that there should be a Euro-American studies program, with Euro-American and European history and culture analyzed from an indigenous point of view. Rather than taking Western culture as the starting point and then evaluating other cultures based on how they resemble or differ from Western culture, we could start with indigenous way as the starting point, as the norm for human beings, and then look at how Western culture resembles or deviates from the indigenous norm. So this is a beginning of of analysis of European history from a Native point of view. The language situation in Europe tells us something about Europe. This is relevant to Native studies because of what the differences tell us about Native American societies, by contrast, and because it helps put the history of Europe’s invasion into a context.

Indo-European has been extremely expansionist, spreading English, Spanish, and other languages around the world. The linguistic and archaeological evidence concur that, thousands of years before Europe began expanding its influence to the rest of the world, Indo-European speakers overran Europe and also expanded through southern Asia.

With a small handful of exceptions, all of Europe’s languages belong to a single stock, one that is estimated at only 6000 years old. Yet cave paintings and other evidence of human culture go back 40,000 years in Europe. Despite its age, Europe has a remarkable lack of linguistic diversity.

Not only do nearly all Europeans speak languages of a single stock, but if you count the number of individual languages in Europe in 1492 — even if you count separate languages mutually unintelligible dialects of Italian, Iberian tongues such as Catalan, Scottish and Irish forms of Gaelic, etc. — the number of languages spoken in Europe total only a few dozen. Contrast to the hundreds of indigenous languages in North America (which, as I intend to demonstrate, barely begins to convey the true richness of North American linguistic diversity).

What does this tell us? Europeans have a long history of being overrun by conquerors who obliterate their older languages and original identities. peoples of Europe did not always speak Indo-European languages. Every language family has a point of origin. It spreads, through migration, and, as populations separate and lose contact with each other, it turns into multiple different languages. Tribal peoples often displace each other, during their migrations. This can sometimes involve warfare. But tribal peoples don’t conquer each other. They don’t try to control or rule each other. They don’t force their languages or cultures upon each other. And they don’t attempt to wipe each other out, either physically or culturally. Something other than just intertribal warfare was happening in Europe several thousand years ago in order for a continent full of diverse languages (and the ethnic identities that went along with them) to be wiped out. But when you have an entire continent or vast country speaking one language or language family, it was spread by force and conquest. (The US, with English spoken from sea to shining sea, is an example.) The uniformity of language over vast areas means that peoples were not merely displaced, but eliminated, either physically or culturally.

Consider Basque, famed for its uniqueness. Basque — isolated in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain and relatively inaccessible to conquerors who successfully imposed their language on the Basques’ neighbors — is a survivor from pre-Roman times. Not only from pre-Roman times, but pre-Indo-European times. Basque testifies to the diversity of languages that must once, very long ago, have been Europe’s heritage. Before the Indo-European conquest, all of what is now Spain and France spoke non-Indo-European languages. Their old languages were driven into extinction by the Indo-Europeans. They now spoke languages that were Indo-European. The Roman conquest in turn imposed Latin on them and drove the languages into extinction, and Latin over millennia transmuted into modern Romance languages. Basque alone survives to testify to Europe’s ancient pre-Indo-European roots.

Now consider the following languages: Salinan, Shasta, Yuki, Maidu, Pomo, Yokuts, Esselen, Washo, Karuk, Chimariko. All are from present-day California, but what is notable about these languages is that each one of them represents a unique isolate, like Basque. That is ten isolates in California alone — each utterly unique, representing an entirely unique language stock all by itself, and each as different from any other language as English is from Arabic or Vietnamese is from Zulu. Take any four of these languages, and you have greater linguistic diversity than in all of Europe, which has only three stocks counting Basque and the three Ural-Altaic languages (Hungarian, Finnish and Saami).

Beyond that, there are a number of other language stocks in California that contain only two languages: Yukian (Yuki and Wappo), Palaihnihan (Atsugewi, also known as Pit River, and Achomawi), Yanan (Yana and Yahi), and Klamath (Klamath and Modoc). Then there are stocks containing more languages: Wintuan, which includes Wintu, Nomlaki, and Patwin; Utian,which includes Miwok and eight other languages; Chumashan, which includes Chumash and five “Mission Indian” languages; Yuman-Cochimi, whose Yuman branch includes Mohave, Maricopa, and six other languages, and whose Cochimi branch consists of Cochimi (language stocks are given hyphenated names when they consist of branches that are highly divergent from each other);

All these language stocks are unique to California, or to California and to adjacent regions of Oregon, Nevada, or Mexico. There are also represented in California certain language families that are found elsewhere. The Athabaskan family (Na-Dene) is represented in California by Tututni (notice the connection of the -tni ending with the Navajo dine), Tolowa, Hupa, Mattole, and Wailaki. The Uto-Aztecan stock is represented in California by the Cahuilla and several languages of “Mission” Indians. The Algonkian family MAY have a distant relationship with Wiyot and with Yurok (which are not close to each other) but this is controversial, and some linguists consider Wiyot and Yurok each to be isolates.

If we decide to be conservative and put Wiyot and Yurok in the same group, then that is twenty-one distinct language stocks represented in California alone, eighteen of which are exclusive (endemic) to California (or to Californian and adjacent areas in Oregon, Nevada, or Mexico). Compare that to one single language stock stretching across all of Europe and through much of central and southern Asia. other words, if we leave out Europe’s four non-Indo-European survivors, California alone had twenty times as much linguistic diversity as all of Europe and beyond. Even if we count Basque and the Ural-Altaic languages, so that Europe has three stocks, California alone has seven times as much linguistic diversity as all of Europe.

If we add Oregon, in addition to stocks which are also represented in California, we add the isolates Molala, Alsea, Takelma, Siuslaw-Lower Umpqua; the exclusively (endemically) Oregon stocks Coos and Kalapuyan (each with only two to three member languages); and stocks also represented in neighboring states — Chinook (an isolate), Cayuse (an isolate), Sahaptian (the main family of the upper Columbia River, upstream from the Dalles, which includes Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Wallawalla, and Klikitat), Salishan (the main family of Washington state outside the Columbia River Basin, and also prominent in British Columbia). That is ten language stocks in Oregon, and twenty-eight language stocks in California and Oregon together. In Washington are also represented Chimakuan (which includes only two languages, Quileute and Chimakum) and Wakashan ,which is mostly represented on Vancouver Island, but in Washington by the Makah).

Other languages which are considered to be isolates are: Natchez, Timucua, Tunica, Chitimacha, Atakapa, Tonkawa, Karankawa, and Yuchi, in the Southeast; Tsimshian and Haida in coastal British Columbia; Beothuk in Newfoundland; Ktunaxa (also known as Kootenay / Kootenai / Kutenai) in the northern Rockies; Zuni and Keres (spoken in seven pueblos) in the Southwest; Coahilteco and six or more languages in Texas that may each be isolates, although sufficient evidence is uncertain, so we will not count them all. This makes at least twenty-nine isolates (languages as unique in the world as Basque) in North America north of Mexico.

Then there are other some small families: Caddoan (with five languages, all in the Southeast); and Kiowa-Tanoan (Kiowa was formerly considered an isolate, but a remote relationship was demonstrated between it and the Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa languages of certain Rio Grande pueblos).

Ten major language stocks in North America account for about 140 languages spoken north of Mexico. Already mentioned (as represented in California and Oregon) have been:

– Algic, which means the Algonkian family, represented mainly in the Northeast by languages like Algonquin proper, Narragansett, Mohegan, Pequot, Wampanoag, Abenaki, Passamaquoddy, and Mi’qmaq; around the Great Lakes by Anishnabe (Ojibway or Chippewa), Menominee, Ottawa; in the eastern subarctic by Cree and Naskapi; and on the Plains by Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Blackfoot. But there is another branch, Ritwan, separate from the Algonkian family, which has come to be generally accepted as having remote links to Algonkian; the Ritwan family is comprised of Wiyot and Yokuts in California, although Wiyot and Yokuts differ from each other as much as they do from Algonkian languages.

– Na-Dene, a stock which includes the family,represented by twenty-four languages in the interior of Alaska and northern Canada; in the Southwest by Navajo and Apache, and by six small languages in California and Oregon; plus Tlingit and Eyak, previously considered to be isolates but now widely considered to be each a distinct branch of the Na-Dene stock.

– Uto-Aztecan, which in addition to many languages of northern Mexico is represented in the Southwest by Pima, Papago, Yaqui, and Hopi, among others; in the Great Basin, by Ute, Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock.

– Salishan, represented by many small tribes of Puget Sound and in the interior Northwest by tribes such as the Okanagan, Kalispel, Flathead, and Coeur d’Alene, and by a number of tribes in British Columbia.

– Sahaptian, represented by Nez Perce, Yakama, and other tribes of the Columbia River watershed

In addition to those, the most important language families are:

– Eskimo/ Aleut, represented in the Arctic and adjacent regions of Alaska and Canada (as well as in Greenland and Siberia/Russia). Although the number of languages in this family is small, it is treated as a major family because it covers such a large territory.

– Iroquoian, represented mostly in the Northeast US and eastern Canada, and in the Southeast by the Cherokee and Tuscarora.

– Siouan, represented on the Plains and Midwest by Dakota / Lakota / Nakota, Mandan, Ho Chunk (Winnebago), Hidatsa, and Apsaroke (Crow), and in the Southeast by Catawba and several smaller tribes

– Muskogean, represented in the Southeast by the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and some smaller languages

This is a total of 52 distinct language stocks north of the present-day Mexican border. The nine largest stocks mentioned account for about 140 languages; on the other hand, the thirty isolates have one language each.

This doesn’t mean that America north of Mexico had 52 times as much linguistic diversity as the Indo-European-speaking regions. There actually was much MORE than 52 times as much diversity. Within these major stocks, Wiyot and Yurok are more distinct from the Algonkian languages, Kiowa more distant from Tanoan languages, Tlingit and Eyak more distinct from Athabaskan languages, than any Indo-European languages are from each other. So the difference between the diversity of America north of Mexico and Europe is actually much greater than the difference in the number of linguistic stocks. When you consider that the epidemics, which killed 50% to 90% of many tribes who survive today, likely eliminated unknown numbers of isolates and small language families entirely, leaving not a trace.

Adding Mexico and Central America increases the number of stocks in geographical North America to about 80 (though the diversity of stocks decreases sharply around the Aztec and Mayan regions). The number of stocks currently counted for South America is 118 (Campbell, p 172) but South America languages have been less studied and some of those groups may actually be branches of an older stock. Adequate study might reduce the number of stocks. However, all of the presently enumerated stocks are at least as distinct as Indo-European. That means that America as a whole (North, Central, South) had perhaps 200 times as much linguistic diversity as Europe had in 1492 — without even taking into account the loss of languages from epidemics.

So what does the linguistic diversity of Native America tell us about the ultimate origins of Native American peoples?

First, it should not be surprising that, given that so many Native American languages have not even the remotest traceable relationship even to each other, not the remotest relationship has ever been demonstrated between any Native American language and any language of Asia or the so-called “Old World.” This in spite of enormous efforts by many individuals over the years to use languages to prove their pet theories about Native Americans’ origins as ancient Hebrews, Welsh, Tibetans, Atlanteans, or Pleiadeans.

There may indeed be genetic evidence linking Native American populations to Asia, but the reason we are “Native” is because our cultures, our languages, our nations and tribes, are entirely of American (= of the Americas) origin. When the People say that they emerged from the ground of their Native lands, they are telling the truth. When they say that they emerged from a particular sacred cave or canyon, they are telling the truth. The Spirits that create them channel the power to them that makes them live as a people from these sacred places. (Note that I said “that create,” not “that created”; creation is a continuous process, not an event that took place somewhere removed in linear time.)

The scientists who try to pin down a date in linear time when particular genetic material traveled from one part of the Earth to another think that the Peoples’ own origin stories are “myths,” which they define as “false beliefs,” incompatible with their true science. They don’t understand that there are different dimensions of reality besides the realm of linear time, and the realm of spiritual beings or “myths” and the realm of linear time and its hard “facts” do not compete; they are distinct realms with their own distinct realities, and the realm of the spirit realities is simply much more important and significant to traditional Natives than the realm of linear time.

Native peoples would be little interested in arguing with scientists were it not for the fact that the Bering Strait theory, and other migration theories, are used to deny the indigenousness of Native peoples; “you are immigrants too, just earlier ones.” The cultures and languages and ethnicities originated here in the Americas; THAT is what makes American Indians indigenous to the continent. And the languages definitively demonstrate that indigenousness.

What else the language diversity tells us

I have not infrequently run across non-Indians who say, “Well, Indians were killing each other off, wiping out other tribes, before white people came. They shouldn’t complain about what the white people did to them because they did it to each other long before white people came.” If asked what the evidence is that Indian tribes were going around committing genocide on each other, the response is something like: 1) European peoples did it to each other, so everyone must have — if you say that Indians didn’t do what “everyone else did,” then you are romanticizing them. 2) Indian tribes warred with each other, and groups who fight with each other have the goal and aim of wiping each other out; intertribal warfare equals intertribal genocide; there just isn’t any other way that warfare works.

But the linguistic evidence shows that this is not the case. Nor do tribal peoples conquer each other; that is to say, they don’t attempt to rule and control and exploit one another the way that conquerors and empires rule and exploit the conquered, because tribal peoples, who are regulated by networks of kinship obligations rather than by governments and systems of coercion, don’t have the means even for coercing their own members, beyond social pressure and the threat of social ostracism, and certainly don’t have the means to control and rule another group of people against their will, even if they had wanted to do that. “Linguistic archaeology” confirms what Native people say about the nature of intertribal warfare.

First, it must be understood that tribal societies function by kinship. A tribal system can virtually be defined as a system run by a network of mutual kinship obligations rather than by a coercive system of authority. And the universe mirrors of the social system; just as European societies ruled by kings conceived of the universe as being ruled by a Heavenly King, for indigenous tribal peoples, the entire universe is a system of mutual kinship obligations. (I use the term “indigenous tribal peoples” to distinguish indigenous, or animistic, tribal peoples from Islamic tribes, whose kinship bonds are not extended to the natural world. I would argue that this kinship extending to the Land one lives on, and all beings who share it, could be considered the very definition of “indigenousness.”) The sun may be Father or Elder Brother, the wind may be Grandfather or Grandmother, the Earth of course is Mother, the animals are Elder Brothers — kinship definitions vary from tribe to tribe, but the important thing is that humans a members of a larger kinship system. a “All my relations” is a phrase with great power in Native cultures.

Now, while ultimately all beings are related, some beings are more closely related than others, and one has stronger obligations to closer than to distant kin. Since a tribal community is in constant danger of fractionalizing along kinship lines and falling into kinship-based feuds, a huge amount of the social system and socialization process is designed to prevent such a disaster and to keep peace among the kin groups. Internally, these systems worked well. And if reconciliation systems don’t work, and irreconcilable differences arise within a tribal community, rather than one faction imposing its will on another faction, which is impossible, the solution is for the community to divide into separate communities. The migrations of split-off communities accounts for many far-flung language stocks. With physical separation and the passage of time, language becomes distinct, and also, kinship bonds are formed with the Land in a new region, way of life adapts to that Land, and you have a new, distinct tribe, with its own language and culture, that was literally born from that Land. The spirit forces that make a People the People who they are flow from their Native land. The People are born out of that land.

Tribalism has many strengths and advantages. But a weakness of tribalism has been in foreign relations. In relation to foreign tribes, we have the problems: first, differences in language and custom make it difficult to communicate and resolve problems the way that each tribe can internally. Second, the power of the kinship system translates into the principle: if anyone in your group harms anyone in my group, then all of your group share the guilt. (Awhile the positive aspects of tribalism have been lost by modern peoples, this ONE aspect of tribalism remains alive and well.) This is also known as revenge.

These factors (along with other factors beyond the scope of this paper) mean that it is easy for blood feuds to start between two tribes, and it is difficult to end them. And, in fact, people often didn’t want or need to end them. The idea, rather, was to keep these feuds limited and under control, and avoid escalating them to the point where normal life became impossible. Warfare, regulated under strict rules, rituals and limits to keep it from getting too destructive, was integrated into the culture as part of the spiritual system — a way for young men to practice and prove their bravery and pit their spirit power against each other, a way to risk their lives and look death in the face. So if the Choctaws killed three Cherokees, a war party made up of the kin of the dead Cherokees would seek the deaths of exactly three Choctaws in return. In intertribal warfare, atrocities could be and were committed in the name of avenging one’s kin. But escalation of the number of casualties was avoided as much as possible. Actual deaths were low, and often a battle would cease when one person had been killed (see Ruth Underwood’s Papago Woman, pp 41-47, for a vivid description of how intertribal warfare worked).

Another factor in intertribal warfare was displacement. A migrating group that had split off from its tribe would almost inevitably find itself in someone else’s territory. Usually that would result in the group’s being attacked. (The process of displacement, and consequent intertribal warfare, was extremely accelerated as white USAmericans pushed west, and the revenge cycles escalated, often making intertribal conflicts far more destructive than they had been before — especially when the whites furnished their allies with guns and made their allies dependent on them for more guns and ammunition.)

Intertribal wars were fought for various reasons: for revenge, for ritual purposes, for fun and sport and danger, to show off and gain prestige, to capture prisoners for adoption or sale, to establish the boundaries of territories, or, if a group has had to leave its old territory, to establish its place in a new territory.

But on the other hand, intertribal wars were NOT fought: to conquer an enemy (i.e., to rule, control, exploit, or tax an enemy group); to wipe out an enemy (except under very unusual circumstances), or to impose a religion or ideology or culture on an enemy. Religious wars or even religious arguments are an absurd notion in the Native world.

In fact, there is not even a sense of a goal of “winning” a war against an enemy in any final sense. The aim, in warlike cultures, is to keep warfare going indefinitely so that young men could forever have the chance to be warriors, but to contain it within limits so that normal community life would not be disrupted.

The linguistic archeology of Native America confirms this. The extreme linguistic diversity of the Americas is a testimony to what was not happening. Language is a very vulnerable aspect of culture, because, unlike a religious ceremony or a particular skill, if language is missed by a generation or two it may be unrecoverable. It is more easy to wipe out language than any other aspect of culture. Even without an intentional effort by the powerful group to wipe out a language, groups that are under the control of more powerful groups, unless they are very internally cohesive, tend to adopt the language of the more powerful group. (The peoples conquered by the Romans, now speaking languages descended from Latin, are an example.)

In the Americas, as the linguistic diversity testifies, tribes were not conquering each other, tribes were not trying to wipe each other out, tribes were not fighting over religion or trying to convert each other religiously or culturally

Human and ecological diversity are woven together into a single fabric. A strong correlation has been found worldwide between linguistic and biological diversity — that is to say, regions with the greatest linguistic diversity (such as New Guinea, the only region in the world that rivals the Americas in its intense linguistic diversity) are the regions with the greatest biological diversity as well, and the reduction in linguistic and biological diversity strongly correlates as well, so much so that the term “biocultural diversity” is now in widespread use. It is not that diversity of language is a direct cause of biological diversity, or vice versa, as much as it is that languages can be so easily and irrevocably lost that a region can sustain linguistic diversity over millennia only if the human beings who share the region actively value biocultural diversity. Thus, linguistic diversity is a very sensitive measurement of biocultural diversity.

In contrast, the march of Western culture, with its “totalitarian agriculture” and monoculture that reduces vast complex ecosystems to a single species fields, and its efforts to impose monocultured religions, expanding through the world through colonialism and globalization, has been a march of cultural homogenization and biological simplification, to the point where we are now going through a mass extinction of both species and languages/cultures. Cultural-linguistic diversity, cognitive diversity, and biological diversity go together.


As a social force, language helps to maintain group identity. If a language is intact and flourishing in spite of being surrounded by other languages, that is a sign that the group maintaining the language has strong social cohesion, freedom, and a sense of identity. The diversity of language testifies to the respect and value that people placed on diversity, both cultural and biological.

The linguistic diversity of Native America tells us important things about the Native American world before the European invasion, and it also tells us that,conquest, genocide, the effort to control and convert one’s neighbors, and the drive to reduce the diversity of the natural world are not the universal condition of human beings.

Languages are precious and are rapidly being lost all over our rapidly homogenizing and globalizing world; the loss of languages and of species and habitats go together, and the drive to control one’s neighbors and to control the natural world go together in the cultures of conquest and expansionism. The linguistic diversity of Native America is very significant, and I hope that this is pointed out in the Native American history classes. After all, Native American history did not begin with the European invasion. We had a stable world that worked for many thousands of years, and the linguistic diversity testifies to that.



Image: When The Land Speaks, by Morgan Maher

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