Indian Languages

( – promoted by navajo)

It is estimated that there were between 250 and 400 distinct American Indian languages were being spoken in what is now the United States and Canada at the time of first contact with Europeans. By the 1960s, there were 175 Indian languages still being spoken north of Mexico. Of these languages, 136 had fewer than 2,000 speakers and 34 had fewer than 10 speakers. By 2007, it was estimated that only 154 Indians languages were still being spoken and that half of these were spoken only by elders.

At the present time, it estimated that there are 46 Indian languages which are still being spoken by significant numbers of children. Languages which are being learned by children have some chance of survival.  A flourishing language is one in which the contact or colonial language (English) is used almost entirely as a second language. In North America only Navajo, Mississippi Choctaw, and some Cree communities fit this definition.  

Language is more than a collection of sounds which can be formed into meaningful words: it is a form of communication which allows us to talk about the future and the past as well as the present; which allows us to talk about fantasy as well as reality.

Humans are born with the capacity to acquire language. During the first few years of life, children acquire language or languages. While all languages have about the same amount of complexity, they vary greatly in their sound patterns and in the way in which they categorize both time and the perception of the material world. As a result, we see the world through the language or languages that we speak.

The Hollywood vision of American Indians has them speaking in grunts with an occasional “ugh” or “how” thrown in for good measure. The implication in many movies and in many popular writings is that Indian languages are somehow “primitive” and less developed than European languages. Indian languages are as fully developed and as complex as English. Indian languages, in spite of the common stereotypes, are as capable of expressing feelings, imagination, creativity, poetry, and thoughts as any European language. They are very different from English which means that translation is not just a matter of word substitution.

During the nineteenth century, many Christian missionaries went to work with Indian tribes assuming that because Indian cultures were felt to be “inferior” to Euro-American culture, the Indian languages would be somehow simpler and less complex. Many of these missionaries, in their attempts to translate Christian concepts into Native languages, found this to be a difficult job. On the one hand, Native languages often lacked words for important Christian concepts, such as “religion,” “god,” “heaven,” and “hell.” As a consequence, many missionaries assumed (and some still assume) that Indians also lacked religion.

In addition, the concept of time in the Indian languages was often very different than in the Indo-European languages. In talking about the past, for example, there is a tense that indicates that the speaker had personally witnessed a past event and that it was an event related by another person. In some languages there are multiple past tenses which indicate how long ago something happened.

Another feature of language is what the linguists call syntax: sentence structure and formation. In English, for example, we use a subject-verb-object syntax. That is, word order tells us what is the subject of the sentence and what is the object of the sentence. In many Indian languages, action may be expressed in a prefix or suffix without having to use a verb. In Ojibwa (Anishinaabe), for example, almost four-fifths of all words are verbs, whereas in English nouns, adjectives, and adverbs predominate. Ojibwa orators put the verb first in a sentence, before the noun. Ojibwa-speakers learning to speak English have to learn to talk backwards.

Morphology refers to word structure and formation. Languages may use prefixes or suffixes or compounding to change the meaning of the word. Many Indian languages differ from European languages in that they use morphology rather than syntax to express changes in meaning. Many Indian languages are polysynthetic, which means that they use a process of word formation in which a single word contains grammatical and semantic information that would be expressed in a sentence in Western European languages.

In Navajo, an object at rest is placed in one of 15 general categories based on criteria such as animate/inanimate, size, position, cohesiveness, rigidity, shape, and degree of containment. These general categories are signified by the verb stem. Each of these 15 general categories is further subdivided into 15 categories based on variables such as plurality, grouping, and patterning. When a speaker of Navajo describes an object at rest, he places the object in one of 225 categories.

The Navajo language, and particularly Navajo grammar, reflects and reinforces the Navajo world-view of motion. The Navajo world is a world of motion-a world of action in which all beings and entities are either acting or being acted upon; a world of change in which both individual entities and systems are constantly going through phased cycles and processes of deformation and restoration; a world of things in motion and things at rest, but one in which even things at rest are defined by the withdrawal of motion and are classified according to their ability or potential to move or to be moved.

Historical Linguistics:

One approach to the study of language is historical linguistics, which studies the history of language(s) and how languages have changed over time. Historical linguistics involves the comparison of languages with a view to ascertaining which ones are related. For example Indo-European is the common ancestor of languages such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Anglo-Saxon, etc. A grouping of related languages is known as a language family. A language family is composed of a group of related languages.

Understanding language families is one of the keys to understanding the historical relationships between the Indian groups. In other words, the language provides us with some clues about the history of the language and its people. It can provide some insights into migrations and to the divisions of different groups. By overlaying languages and geography, we can get suggestions about aboriginal homelands as well as migrations.

In comparing languages within the same family, glottochronology can be used to determine how long ago two languages shared a common ancestor, how long ago they separated from each other. Glottochronology is simply a mathematical method for calculating when two related languages split apart. It is generally felt that glottochronology has a practical range of about 5,000-6,000 years. In other words, glottochronology can date the separation of two languages as long as this occurred within the past 5,000-6,000 years.

Importance of Indian Languages Today:

Retention of the native language is an important issue for many tribes. At the present time, many Native American communities have language programs to try to teach their languages to children. As a consequence there are on many reservations programs which are intended to maintain the language. In communities in which the children no longer speak the native language, the goal is language revival in which the Indian language is taught as a second language. By 1986 there were 98 language projects involving 55 different Indian languages. There was an enrollment of more than 14,000 students in these programs. By 2006, there were 62 native languages being taught in 101 language project.  

A study conducted on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation by media anthropologist E. B. Eiselein found that: “Among Northern Cheyenne Tribal members, 42% understand the Cheyenne language well; 42% understand it a little; and 16% don’t understand it at all.” Among people over 55 years of age, 69% understand the language well. Among teenagers, on the other hand, only 4% understand the language well and 67% understand it a little.  The study also found that 78% of the tribal members are very interested in having radio programs that teach Indian language. Among teenagers, only 65% are interested in this type of radio program.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act which declared “a national policy of respect for Native American languages and encouragement of their continued vitality.” In 1997, the Indigenous Language Institute began to put an emphasis on the revitalization of Indian languages, not just their preservation. With new technologies, such as computers, and working with Native communities, languages can be revitalized as a part of daily life.