At the time of Christopher Columbus, it’s estimated that in North America there were some 300 different languages spoken by about 1.5 million people. By the middle of the last century, something like two-thirds of those languages had already died out or were in danger of doing so. However, others were definitely alive and a few had even been newly discovered and were being researched.
The most widely spoken aboriginal language of North America is Navajo, but Cherokee also has a large number of speakers and has programmes for maintaining its culture which are particularly well organised and attended. Most of the habitual users of Native American languages are bilingual, also speaking English.
It’s generally accepted nowadays that the original home of Native Americans is Asia. However no definitive link has been made between languages in these two disparate parts of the world. Attempts have been made to show that the group of languages to which Navajo and Apache belong bears similarity to the group which includes Chinese, or to the languages of central Siberia, but research continues.
The native languages of North America are distinct one from another and also highly developed. Interestingly, some languages have nasal vowels like in French, and others use glottal stops. Some have stress patterns like in English, others utilise different pitches with rising and falling tones like in Chinese, and some use both.
A great many Native American languages share a characteristic called polysynthesism. This basically means that they tack word elements together to form longer words which then have the function of sentences. The English word ‘antidisestablishementarianism’ is an example of synthesis, which someone who knew English well would perhaps be able to dissect and decipher, but it isn’t a sentence. An example of a single-word sentence in Yupik, an indigenous language of Alaska and Siberia, is: kaipiallrulliniuk which means ‘the two of them were apparently really hungry’. The notions of ‘really’ and ‘apparently’ are built into the verb rather than being separate words.
In the same vein, another feature of Indigenous languages is that they often have an elaborate system of mood i.e. what in many European languages is simply either indicative or subjunctive – the latter being almost lost in English. Thus there can be an embedded distinction between whether a statement is true, probable, possible, unlikely, hypothetical, rumoured, untrue, etc.
It’s also interesting to note that Native American languages use parts of the body extensively when referring to features of the landscape, like we might talk about the mouth of a river or the foot of a mountain. The difference is that the place may be a suffix of the verb, thus in Hul’q’umi’num’: walk.along-mouth, walk.along-foot, – all one word. This highlights the close connection between Indigenous language speakers and place.
There are always things to be learnt from languages, however narrow their geographical base or limited their use. Native American languages are valuable for their complexity and appeal alone, not to mention the light they shed on population movement to and within the Americas. Some of these languages, notably Navajo, Cherokee and Apache, played an unexpected role in World War II when the US military used them for wartime communications in the confident (and justified) belief that the enemy would be unable to decipher them.