Native American Languages-How Did They Differ?

How dissimilar are the North American native /Indigenous languages? Could a member of the Algonquian tribe (NE USA) understand a member of the Sioux tribe? How about the South West-do the Navajos and Pueblo tribes have grossly different languages? Finally: have linguist been able to connect any of the Native American languages with any Asiatic ones?
I’ve heard that some of these tongues are extremely complex-like Navajo contains over 100 verb tenses! Are these languages fated to die out? Or do most of them retain enough speakers to keep them viable?

There were hundreds of different languages when Columbus arrived in the Americas. They were mutually incomprehensible, of course. (If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be separate languages. They’d be dialects of one language.) There are still hundreds of these languages spoken, although a lot have died out. These languages have been shown to belong to a couple dozen language families. In other words, like the languages in the Indo-European family, the language in each family can be shown to have descended from a proto-language for that family which existed 4,000 to 8,000 years ago. There’s a theory by a linguist named Joseph Greenberg that these several dozen families can be grouped together into three superfamilies, and all the families in each of the superfamilies can be shown to be related. These superfamilies are the Eskimo/Inuit/Aleut family, the Na-Dene family (found in two regions, one straddling Western Canada and Northwestern U.S. and the other in the American Southwest), and the Amerind family, which is all the other languages of the Americas. Supposedly each superfamily is descended from a single group which crossed from Siberia to Alaska sometime in the past 20,000 years.

For a quick taste of how different they seemed, take a look at the lyrics from this Clannad song which incorporates segments on mohican and cherokee

Which Clannad song?

Is Clannad doing a cover of John Cage’s 4’33"?

http://www.lyricsfreak.com/c/clannad/i+will+find+you_20031541.html

sorry, forgot the link :o

This is perhaps a bit too strong. Spanish and Portugese, for instance, are generally regarded as separate languages, but it’s not too hard for a native speaker of one to understand the other. Even Spanish and Italian are mutually comprehensible, with a bit of effort on the part of both speakers.

Slightly OT, but for the curious, there is a 50KW station in the four corners area that has a significant amount of it’s programming (including commercials) in Navajo…KTNN 660 KHz (AM)

Chronos writes:

> This is perhaps a bit too strong. Spanish and Portugese, for instance, are
> generally regarded as separate languages, but it’s not too hard for a native
> speaker of one to understand the other. Even Spanish and Italian are mutually
> comprehensible, with a bit of effort on the part of both speakers.

Well, yes, but that’s because the terms “language” and “dialect” are two ends of a spectrum. There’s no sudden jump from being two dialects of a single language to being different languages. 1500 years ago, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and the various other Romance languages were the same language - Latin. They have slowly diverged over that period. You can sometimes sort of, kind of understand one if you know another, but it’s quite hard.

I want to emphasize this because, if I don’t, the OP will be left supposing that all the Native American languages are close enough to each other that speakers of one can understand the others. No, this isn’t the case. In a few cases, the languages diverged as little as 1500 years ago and might be almost mutually intelligible. In most cases they diverged much longer ago. Even within the Amerind superfamily, many pairs of the languages diverged at least as long ago as 12,000 years. The three superfamilies are separated by even longer periods. In most cases, the Native American languages are further apart than English is from Russian, Welsh, Persian, Romanian, Hindi, or any other Indo-European language, since they diverged less than 8,000 years ago.

There are languages which have dialects that are not mutually intelligible.

No, but probably speakers of one can (somewhat) understand some others. I presume that speakers of two different Algonquin languages, for instance, would be able to communicate if they tried.

I don’t know, Chronos, I wouldn’t assume such a thing at all. Personally, I’m very dubious as to claims of mutual intelligibility between speakers of related languages. I don’t know if I believe a monolingual English speaker and a monolingual Dutch speaker could have much more of a functional conversation together than a monolingual English speaker and a monolingual Vietnamese speaker could (yeah, there are funky happenings vocabulary-wise in English’s history to help obscure some potential common ground but who’s to say the same’s not true for Algonquian languages?) Sure, I think shared underlying features between related languages can help people learn a language more easily in a theoretical sense but overall I’m quite skeptical of the idea that people speaking related languages can “work something out” better than people speaking non-related languages. Obviously it depends strongly on the specifics of the languages in question but I certainly wouldn’t assume anything without knowing those. English and Greek are related but I wouldn’t wager my luck on a successful conversation with a monolingual Greek person any more than with a Japanese person.

Algonquian isn’t even a complete family. It’s a subfamily of a family called Algic:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algic_languages

The languages in it have apparently descended from a proto-language spoken thousands of years ago. It’s possible that there are cases where a couple of Algonquian languages are just barely close enough that speakers of one of them could just barely understand a little of the other language, but certainly most of the Algonquian languages are mutually unintelligible.

Chronos writes:

> There are languages which have dialects that are not mutually intelligible.

You know, I’m really trying to explain this to the OP, but you keep bringing up niggling objections which make it harder. Yes, there are cases like this: A language has dialects named A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J, and they are geographically located west to east in that order. Each of the pairs of languages A and B, B and C, C and D, D and E, E and F, F and G, G and H, H and I, and I and J are mutually intelligible. A and J are not mutually comprehensible though. This is again a problem that the terms “language” and “dialect” are not as easy to define as you might think.

Actually, I posted that.

One post is “keep bringing up niggling objections?” Interestng definition of the term.

I’m a bit more conversant in Linguistics than you appear to think I am.

I was told by a professor that most of the American Indian languages were (are) polysynthetic in morphology. Is this the case? He tried to make a point that communication problems between European settlers and American natives were compounded because of the difficulty in translating abstract ideas between polysynthetic languages ans synthetic and analytic languages. What do linguists here think?

Probably one of the most important points to make is that asking about “Native American Languages” is equivalent to asking about “European-Asian-African Languages” – there are about as many distinct stocks, with subordinate families, languages, and dialects, in the two American continents as there are in the Old World (including the Indian and Pacific Ocean islands), and they differ nearly as greatly.

But just as most Old World languages fall into a few major stocks (Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Congo, Uralic, Altaic, Sino-Tibetan, and Austronesian, plus a double dozen smaller ones), likewise most Native American languages fall into a few major stocks. Each of these may be as divergent as Indo-European or Niger-Congo in its member languages, but has some common properties.

While only a very few languages in Anglo-America have more than 10,000 surviving speakers, there are dozens from a wide variety of groups in Latin America which do. Some of the largest:
[ul][li]Nahuatl, of the Uto-Aztecan stock, has 1,200,000 speakers in Mexico.[/li][li]Quiche, of the Mayan stock, has 680,000 speakers, mostly in Guatemala.[/li][li]Otomi, of the Oto-Manguean stock, has 432,000 speakers in Mexico.[/li][li]Yucatec, also a Mayan language, has 605,000 speakers, mostly on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and Belize.[/li][li]The Andean-Equatorial stock has a large number of surviving South American languages. Over 7,000,000 speak Quechua and over 1,000,000 the closely related Aymara, in an area ranging from southern Colombia through Ecuador and Peru into Bolivia.[/li][li]Guarani, one of the two national languages of Paraguay (and hence the only “official” language native to the New World, has some 3,000,000 speakers, mostly in Paraguay.[/li]Several Arawakan languages survive with 10,000-50,000 speakers each, mostly in Colombia and Peru. Arawakan is a constitutent family of Andean-Equatorial.[/ul]

Monty writes:

> One post is “keep bringing up niggling objections?” Interestng definition of the
> term.

Sorry. I read fast and didn’t notice that you had posted the last thing I quoted, not Chronos. I assumed that Chronos posted both the claims that some languages are almost mutually intelligible and that some languages aren’t a collection of mutually intelligible dialects. While these are both true, I was a bit touchy because I thought that the OP was still likely to get the idea that the native languages of the Americas (or maybe just the native languages of North America) don’t differ that much. The OP seemed to think that these languages are just dialects of a single language. This is utterly false. The languages of North America are not only wildly different (and, in general, mutually incomprehensible), but they come from a number of different language families. There are languages spoken in North America from the Inuit superfamily, the Na-Dene superfamily, and the Amerind family for which you would have go back at least 20,000 years to find a proto-language from which all of them derive.

neorxnawange writes:

> I was told by a professor that most of the American Indian languages were
> (are) polysynthetic in morphology.

There are polysynthetic languages in northern Asia, Australia, and the Americas:

Some quick research in Wikipedia seems to indicate that as a vague general statement, the languages of northern Asia, the Americas, and Australia are polysynthetic, the languages of southeastern Asia and the Pacific are isolating, and the languages of Europe and Africa are agglutinative.

I forgot to mention something. You really can’t just go with geography for determining dialects. After all, some groups move around a bit and then settle down quite some distance from where the languages related to theirs are.

I mentioned to my favorite Linguistics prof that I thought both Cultural Geography and Languages of the World should be a required course for Linguistics majors. If they were, more people in the language biz would, IMHO, know more about language.

Check. A pre-settlement linguistic map of the East and Midwest of the U.S. at relatively fine scale looks like a M.C. Escher print, with Iroquoian and Algonkian centers, outliers, enclaves and exclaves, exclaves within enclaves, etc.

And the same sort of map for California looks like nothing in this world except a linguistic map of the Caucasus or an ethnic map of NYC at 1"=500’ scale.

Understanding how diverse the cultures were may help in understanding how diverse the languages were. Here is an excellent glossary of some Indian nations that includes, in most cases, the languages and ties to other languages. Note that Cherokee is an Iroquois language, but is so different that it cannot be understood by other Iroquois. In fact, the name “Cherokee” is derived from a Creek word (Chelokee), meaning “people with a different speech”. The prefered name among Cherokee was (and still is for some) “Tsalagi”.