More on the Mayan system of writing
North America thus had much more linguistic variety than Europe at the time of Columbus. The present territory of the continental United States was home to several prevalent language families, in contrast to the two of Europe.
The maps on this page show nine important language families which existed in the present-day territory of the United States before they were largely displaced by English over the last few centuries. These included Algic (Algonquin), Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Salishan and Eskimo-Aleut. In addition, there were many other smaller families, such as Sahaptian, Miwok-Costanoan, Kiowa-Tanoan and Caddoan. Some languages, such as Zuni, have no known relationship with any other language, and are known as isolates.
The maps on this page show those language families which had significant presence in the territory of the continental United States, although nearly all of them extended to either Canada or Mexico. There were many additional language families represented elsewhere in the Americas, and South America probably represented even more diversity than North America. The Mayan language family of Mexico and nearby countries is also indicated on the continental map. Many tribes and languages are indicated on the U.S. map, although there is not nearly enough space to show them all.
Creating such maps with any degree of precision is impaired by several profound difficulties. Individual political and lingusitic entities were not "countries" in the current sense of the term, and usually were spread out of great distances while overlapping in territory with others. Sharp borders such as we see on maps today rarely existed. Many populations moved seasonally, as the lifestyle adapted to local climate. Almost all moved permanent homelands from place to place as Europeans moved in, usually to the west, but movement and resettlement also occured frequently before colonization began. In addition, there is great uncertainty in many cases about exactly which people were living in a given location at any given point in time. Thus, the boundaries on the map are not to be taken too seriously. They are meant to represent the approximate regions where each language family was spoken at the time that European civilization reached the areas in question.
It should be made clear that the areas shaded on the map were not political regions where a central government ruled over a single race, maintaining uniform control within specified borders. Instances of a large area under one government were rare in pre-Columbian America. In addition, one needs to recall that the languages within a language family can be very diverse. Although in some cases, an individual might be able to travel far away and find people with whom communication was easy, this was exceptional. In most cases, two different languages within the same language family will seem very different and mutually incomprehensible to the speakers of those languages. To fully appreciate this, simply consider that English is in the same family, the Indo-European family, as Dutch, Polish and Hindi.
Only 8 indigenous languages of the area of the continental United States currently have a population of speakers in the U.S. and Canada large enough to populate a medium-sized town. Only Navajo still has a population of greater than 25,000 within the U.S.
|Navajo||Athabaskan||AZ, NM, UT||148,530|
|Ojibwa||Algic||MN, ND, MT, MI, Canada||51,000|
|Dakota||Siouan||NE, ND, SD, MN, MT, Canada||20,000|
|Apache||Athabaskan||NM, AZ, OK||15,000|
|Choctaw||Muskogean||OK, MS, LA||9,211|
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