By Sarah-Claire Jordan
As a country of immigrants, it’s no wonder that there are over 300 different languages spoken in the U.S. today. Over half of those languages, however, are indigenous languages spoken by members of the different Native American tribes found in the U.S. If you think about it, every other language spoken in the U.S. can be considered an immigrant language, since it was either brought over by immigrants from Europe or from other parts of the world.
Nowadays, the most commonly spoken languages don’t generally include languages indigenous to the U.S. Thankfully, there are still enough speakers of Native American languages to keep them alive to this day. Here are the top ten languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of the United States:
Navajo is by and far the most common indigenous language in the U.S. As of 2011, the number of speakers almost reaches 170,000. It was once in danger of losing a lot of speakers, but the Navajo nation set up programs to teach the language as well as many bilingual schools. Now there are even institutes, community colleges, and technical universities with classes in the Navajo language. Navajo is part of the Athabaskan family of languages and is very closely related to Apache, which is also in the same language family. Different kinds of media have been translated into Navajo, like the movie Star Wars. There are a few radio stations that broadcast in the language as well.
Sioux is an interesting language because of the number of dialects it has. Over 30,000 people speak one dialect of Sioux or another in the U.S. It can be found in the Dakotas as well as northern Nebraska, southern Minnesota, and northeastern Montana. It is also spoken in some parts of Canada. The three main varieties of Sioux are Lakota, Western Dakota, and Eastern Dakota. Each variety has a few sub-varieties, all of which have some lexical and phonetic differences but for all intents and purposes are mutually intelligible. The writing system is based on the Latin alphabet, though there was a writing system before the Latin system was introduced.
Yupik refers to several different languages, the most commonly spoken one being Central Alaskan Yup’ik. It is spoken in Alaska as well as a few islands near Alaska. All of the Yupik languages belong to the Eskimo – Aleut language family. Central Alaskan Yup’ik has several dialects that differ a bit in terms of morphology but are all very mutually intelligible. The Yupik languages may have the highest percentage of people identifying as Yupik who actually speak the language, with about half of the Yupik population speaking one of the varieties. There was never a writing system for any Yupik language until the arrival of missionaries who introduced the Latin alphabet. The Hinz writing system became popular, using the Latin alphabet, but a different system was created later in the 1960s that came to replace it.
Moving back down into desert areas, we come to the Keresan languages, which is actually a group of mutually intelligible dialects. It is spoken by many tribes in the New Mexico area and other parts of the southwest. Some dialects of the language include Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, Cochiti Pueblo and more. Linguists have had a difficult time categorizing it and linking it with other language, but some say that it is related to Wichita. It is considered a language isolate, and has a rather complicated tone system.
Cherokee is an indigenous language in the Iroquoian language family. It is spoken by the Cherokee people who tend to live in Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Carolina, and the Great Smokey Mountains. Cherokee is probably the most extensively documented indigenous language in the country, mostly thanks to the invention of the Cherokee syllabary by Sequoyah in 1821. This important development made it possible for any Cherokee speaker to become literate in their native language, and further encouraged the creation of literature in the Cherokee language. Cherokee is supposedly very difficult for native English speakers to learn, as it is a polysynthetic language. This means that many Cherokee words are made up of different parts that can stand on their own. “Sentence-words” are prevalent in polysynthetic languages, where an entire sentence can be one very long word.
The Choctaw language is a Muskogean language spoken by the Choctaw people from the southeastern U.S. It is very similar to Chickasaw, which was once thought to be a dialect of Choctaw. The actual Choctaw dialects are “native” Choctaw, spoken in southeastern Oklahoma, Mississippi Choctaw spoken in south central Oklahoma, and the Choctaw spoken by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians found in Mississippi. There are three different Choctaw writing systems, each based on the Latin alphabet and differing from each other only slightly. There is another system as well that is used only by linguists to talk about Choctaw. During the last days of World War I, a group of Choctaw Indians used their language as a code language for the U.S. military. Their work set the stage for future groups to do the same with other Native American languages.
Zuni is an interesting indigenous language for many reasons. First of all, it is believed by linguists that Zuni became it’s own language over 7,000 years ago, which accounts for the fact that it is now considered a language isolate, meaning that it belongs to know other language family. Many Zuni children still speak Zuni at home and within their community, which is unfortunately not so common with many indigenous languages. The Zuni people can be found in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. Other languages like Navajo, Hopi, Tanoan, and Keresan are also spoken in that area or nearby and have influenced Zuni to some extent, including the borrowing of words related to religion. The Zuni alphabet is based on the Latin one, but has only 18 letters.
O’odham is a language in the Uto-Aztecan family that is spoken by the Tohono O’odham and Pima people. It is spoken in southern Arizona as well as near Sonora, Mexico. After Apache and Navajo, it comes in third place as the most spoken indigenous language in Arizona. There are about twelve dialects of O’odham, with the three major dialects being Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham, and Hia C-ed O’odham, each with several varieties. There is very little linguistic data on the Hia C-ed O’odham dialects, but a fair amount on the other dialects. The word order for O’odham is fairly free, with many different ways to form the same sentence. O’odham is a language where agglutination is used, meaning words can be formed by adding on more and more morphemes.
Sometimes called Chippewa, Ojibwe is an indigenous language in the Algonquian language family. It includes a variety of dialects, none of which are considered the “main” Ojibwe dialect. Each dialect tends to have its own name and writing system, which shows the lack of unity among groups that speak Ojibwe. Though it is also spoken in parts of Canada, in the U.S. it can be found in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and parts of North Dakota and Montana. Many dialects of Ojibwe have been used as lingua franca around the Great Lakes, most notably with groups that speak other Algonquian languages.
Hopi is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family, along with O’odham. It is spoken by the people of the Hopi tribe who live primarily in northeastern Arizona. There are an estimated 5,000 native speakers of Hopi today, with probably about 40 monolingual speakers. Unfortunately, these numbers are much smaller than they used to be, as the use of Hopi has experienced a decline since the 1900s. In order to deal with this problem, many Hopi have become involved in revitalization efforts that include raising children in their language and organizations that promote the use of Hopi in the community. A Hopi-English dictionary has also been published.
Though they may seem like a lot, these ten languages are only a small portion of the indigenous languages spoken in the United States. Many of the languages not mentioned in this list are in danger of extinction or are already on their way to dying out completely. Issues such as discrimination against indigenous peoples don’t help, as younger members of the indigenous community may feel pressure to fit in by rejecting the language they were raised in and speaking only in English. Another issue is the fact that most people in mainstream society speak English for business and other reasons, so if a native person wants to be a part of that for work or any other reason, they have to learn English, which can cause them to neglect their native tongue sometimes. As many of us know, with the death of a language the death of a culture usually follows. Fortunately, many people have become aware of this issue and have dedicated themselves to efforts aimed at keeping indigenous languages alive.
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