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Native American Languages: The Amerindian Language Families

written by: Laura Jean Karr • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 11/18/2012

Native Americans lived across the North and South American continents and spoke a great diversity of languages. Here we discuss the families of Amerindian Languages. There are about 25 families!

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    Diversity of Amerindian Languages

    On an individual basis there are approximately over eight hundred Amerindian languages stemming from both North America and South America.

    The Amerindian languages are broken down into language families, of which there are 25. Of a total of 25 million people who still speak the Amerindian languages, it is estimated that only 500,000 of them reside in Canada and the United States of America.

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    Native Language Families

    winkapew The first and largest Amerindian language family is the Algonquian family. In this family there are 35 separate languages that range from the Abenaki-Penobscot in the southeastern region of Canada and the northeastern region of the United States to the Yurok language based mainly in the state of California.

    Due to the size of native Amerindian speakers within the Algonquian language family, many common American English words are derived from this Amerindian group. Plant names, animal names and even political terms such as caucus are now apart of the American English language. In the image to the left is the Algonquian word for good person/friend and is used to describe a friend that is not of one's tribe.

    The second largest Amerindian language family is the Uto-Atec family. In this family there are 17 languages that begin with the Numic Languages such as Comanche and Shoshone in the northern and central middle United States to the Yaqui language of the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico. It is interesting to note, that many of the southern and southwestern tribes of the United States speak a branch of Amerindian language that stems from the Aztec language group of Nahuatl.

    The smallest Amerindian language family is the Mixe-Zoque. Within the Mixe-Zoque group there is the Mixe, Zoque and the Popoluca. All three languages that are based out of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. This language family is also an ancestor of the Aztec Nahuatl group but is more closely aligned with Nahuatl in its current language state than that of the Uto-Aztec Amerindian language family.

    For more information on Native American languages, see Native American Languages and Tribes.

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    Saving Native Languages

    As native English speaking peoples and their cultures continue to encroach upon Native Americans and their grouping of Amerindian languages, we come closer to losing the history and the culture that comes from tribal speaking.

    In an effort to help preserve and restore Amerindian languages in the United States, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act was passed into law by Congress in 2006, which requires all Native American schools within the United States teach an Amerindian language for a minimum of five hundred hours to gain funding. A non-profit group called The National Alliance to Save Native Languages helps tribal cultures through out the America’s to work with their local governments to educate, promote and save their ancestral native languages.

    For additional Native American and Amerindian Language resources, please visit the Native Languages website.