In 1492 there were at least 350 different languages spoken by the Native Americans north of Mexico, including Eskimos and Aleuts, and perhaps some 1,500 languages spoken in Mexico and Central and South America. These are totals of separate languages--not dialects. The speakers of one such language could not understand any of the other languages without special learning. If one included the different dialects of each of these languages, the totals would be much greater. As a general rule, most Indian groups known to us as separate tribes spoke separate languages. Presently, about 200 languages survive in North America, perhaps 275 in South America, and many more in Central America and Mexico.
Many Indian languages are related (in the same manner as, for examples, English, German, French, Greek, and Russian are related), going back ultimately to a single ancestral language. Languages related in this way belong to a single language family (English is a member of the Indo-European family). There were about sixty such families north of Mexico and an even larger number in Latin America. Some linguists have tried to find remoter relationships among many of these families and have grouped them into more inclusive units sometimes called stocks. One influential classification grouped all of the languages of North America into six stocks, but recently specialists have questioned the validity of studying such larger units of relationship before the histories of the individual families are understood. The wide diversity that exists among many of the American Indian languages can be compared to that found among English, Hungarian, Arabic, Malay, Swahili, and Chinese in the Old World.
No American Indian language is derived from an historically known Old World language. The affinities of the native languages of the Americas are presumed to reach back across the Bering Strait but date back to a very remote period in the past. Not even the closest of such relationships can yet be demonstrated conclusively, so great have the changes been over the many thousands of years since the ancestors of the Old and New World peoples drifted apart.
Aside from such genetic relationships presumed (but not demonstrated) to exist between American language families and some of the language families of Asia, attempts have often been made to identify specific words in various American Indian languages with more or less similar words in Old World languages, as evidence for pre-Columbian contacts across the Atlantic or Pacific. However, no such suggestions for prehistoric borrowings between the New and Old World languages have withstood critical examination of the evidence by qualified linguistic scientists.
Few North American Indian languages are culturally or politically important today. However, Guarani is one of the national languages of Paraguay (along with Spanish), and Nahuatl (Aztec) and various Mayan languages are the majority languages of extensive regions of Mexico and Guatemala as is Quechua in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. In addition, Greenlandic Eskimo is one of the two official languages of Greenland (together with Danish) and is used in all levels of local administration including the Greenland Parliament. Indian, Eskimo, and Aleut languages continue to be spoken in many communities. Indian language dictionaries and school curriculum materials have been produced in several Native American languages. Furthermore, American Indian languages have great scientific importance, and their study is a major concern of American anthropology. Because of the great diversity among these languages, they help us to understand the range of plasticity of human linguistic behavior and provide many independent cases for testing propositions about language in general. The study of Indian languages has also contributed greatly to improving the methods of linguistic science. New methods have had to be devised for studying purely spoken languages: only the Maya and to some degree the Aztec, Mixtec, and Zapotec languages in Mexico were written in pre-Columbian times. Among other things, such study has shown that unwritten languages do not change more rapidly than written ones.
Indian languages have contributed to the vocabulary of English and many other Old World languages, especially in words for animals, plants, and culture traits unknown to Europeans before their discovery of the New World. Such words include raccoon, coyote, squash, tomato, potato, tapioca, chocolate, tobacco, succotash, barbecue, hurricane, hammock, canoe, moccasin, totem, pow-pow, and many, many others, including a large number of place names.
Bright, William O. "North American Indian Languages," Encyclopedia Britannica Macropaedia , 15th ed., vol. 13, 1974, pp. 208-213. (Lengthy article dealing with the classification and description of North American Indian languages, including map and bibliography.)
Campbell, Lyle, and Marianne Mithun, editors. The Languages of Native America: Historical and Comparative Assessment . Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. (Proceedings of a 1976 conference on the classification of North American and Mesoamerican languages. A summary of the current classification of North American Indian languages given at the conference showed 59 separate language units, though with strong indications of relationship among some.)
Goddard, Ives, volume ed. Handbook of North American Indians , Volume 17: Languages. William C. Sturtevant, General Editor. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1996. (This volume documents the extraordinary diversity of North American languages at the time of European contact. Includes a folded color map.)
Handbook of North American Indians . William C. Sturtevant, general editor. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978--. (A 20 volume encyclopedia summarizing knowledge about all Native peoples north of Mesoamerica, including linguistics. Each of the area volumes includes a chapter or chapters on the languages of that area.)
Random House Dictionary of the English Language . 2nd ed. unabridged. Stuart B. Flexner, ed. 1987. (The most complete and up-to-date etymologies of English words from American Indian languages.)