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South Carolina – Indians, Native Americans – Language


Main SC Indians Page


What is a language family?

A language family – or stock, as it is sometimes called – is a group of similar languages or dialects. Linguists, archaeologists, and other scholars classify languages in order to better understand the relationship of groups to one another.

Why study Native American languages?

Because language retains traces of changes in culture. Thus, the historical study of Native American languages, along with archaeological findings, and knowledge of Native historical traditions, helps reconstruct remote past cultures and migrations.

South Carolina Indian tribes and their language families:

Web resources

Article about Native American languages

For more information about Native American languages, read the following from the unpublished work of William Bright titled Native North American Languages.

North American Indian languages are as diverse as they are numerous (originally numbered as many as 300); no single set of characteristics is shared by all of them. They can be grouped into some fifty-seven families, comparable to language families in Europe such as Romance (Italian, Spanish, French) and Germanic (German, Dutch, English).

When a group of languages shows similar vocabulary items, with regular correspondences of sounds, the group is said to have a genetic relationship; that is, the languages are "sister" languages, descended historically from a single origin. Examples in the Romance languages are sets of words like Italian vacca, Spanish vaca, French vache 'cow,' and Italian bocca, Spanish boca, French bouche 'mouth'; these distinguish the Romance family from the Germanic family, which has contrasting sets: German Kuh, Dutch koe, English cow, and German Mund, Dutch mond, English mouth. Such sets of words also occur among American Indian languages, as with Fox okimaawa, Cree okimaaw, Menominee okeemaaw, and Ojibway okimaa 'chief,' which help identify the Algonkian family and assist in reconstructing a proto-language, or prehistoric parent, under such a name as Proto-Algonkian.

Beyond this level of relationship, however, some families show more distant degrees of similarity, indicating shared history at a more remote chronological period. For instance, European language families like Romance and Germanic can be grouped together into Indo-European, which also includes families like Slavic and Indic. In North America, similarities between the Siouan family and the Iroquoian family suggest such a higher-order grouping, which can be called Macro-Siouan. This type of grouping is often called a phylum (plural phyla), referring to a family at a high level of classification. Within a phylum, however, it may also be necessary to recognize some languages that have no close relatives and do not fall into families; these are language isolates (or simply isolates). Thus the Yuchi language, in the southeastern United States, may be such an isolate within Macro-Siouan. The classification of languages in these terms helps correlate the history of languages with what archaeology and Native tradition reveal about the history of cultures (see Language and Culture section, below). Taken together, these types of evidence aid in the reconstruction of prehistoric homelands, migrations, and culture contacts.

At present, the classification of Native American language families in terms of phyla is a matter of intense controversy. Almost the only agreement is that the organization into some fifty-seven families, as presented by J. W. Powell (1891), is approximately correct. One of the most influential scholars of American Indian linguistics, Edward Sapir (1929), published a classification of these languages into six phyla, and at one time this was widely accepted. In more recent years, however, re-evaluation of Sapir's work has suggested the revised scheme of C. F. Voegelin and F. R. Voegelin (1977), which recognizes six phyla - not identical with Sapir's - but also several unclassified families and language isolates. Still more recently, opinions have become increasingly divided. Scholars known as "splitters," such as Campbell (1997), have cast doubt on all groupings of the phylum level; by contrast, a "lumper" such as J. H. Greenberg (1987) has proposed that all linguistic families of both North and South America - except for Na-Dené and Eskimo-Aleut, in the far north - can be assigned to a single macro-phylum that he calls Amerindian.

Since the 1970s, various efforts have been made in Native American communities tp preserve and restore traditional languages, sometimes through the teaching of literacy in those languages. In some groups children are growing up as active bilinguals; examples can be found among the Inuit and Cree in Canada, Athabaskan groups in both Canada and Alaska, the Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Cherokee in North Carolina and Oklahoma, some Pueblos in New Mexico, and the Navajo in New Mexico and Arizona. However, each succeeding generation tends to be less fluent in Native languages than the one before it. It has been estimated that by the mid twenty-first century not more than a dozen Native American languages will still be actively spoken. Nevertheless, studying extinct and living Native languages broadens understanding of the resources offered by human language and provides insight into the past history of the North American continent.

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