Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Continent of Lost Languages

Imagine yourself among the travelers to North America 500 or more years ago, arriving initially by ship as the earliest European explorers did, but equipped with the trained sensibility of a modern linguist. Exploring the continent while you took meticulous notes along the way might eventually enable you to draw a map like the one below, which shows the distribution of language families at first contact with Europeans. 

Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The number and variety of languages spoken in North America half a millennium ago is truly astonishing in comparison with today. The ways in which so many of these languages have disappeared is a familiar one around the world, where a colonizing people appears with superior technology that eventually translates into cultural domination and destruction, resulting in the death of languages and cultures. That's a sad story that has been told many times, so let's focus instead on some success stories in native North American languages.

A different map is much more pertinent for illustrating the ways that Native American languages are spoken in the United States today. The map below is based on census data, and shows counties across the country in which there are a significant number of speakers of a native language. It's a very different map from the one above, but offers some hope that the first languages spoken on the continent won't disappear completely.

A recent article in High Country News profiled the life of native languages in the western United States, where about two-thirds of the country's speakers of a native language live. More than sixty languages are still spoken in the Western states alone, though only a dozen of these have more than 2,000 speakers, and the majority have fewer than 300 speakers. Roughly two-thirds of homes where a Native language is spoken are located in only three states: New Mexico, Arizona and Alaska.

Here's a closer look at three languages that are alive, if not entirely well, today. All these languages are represented by some hotspots on the map below: Lakota, Yupik, and Navajo.


The large, irregular bluish patch on the first map, representing the original territory of Siouan languages, has a representative today in Lakota, a collection of dialects spoken by Indians that are variously grouped under the names Dakota, Lakota, and Sioux. You can listen to a sample here, the audio stream of KILI, a radio station that broadcasts from the Pine Ridge reservation in southwest South Dakota. Lakota has about 5,000 speakers today. Contributions from Lakota to English include the iconic Indian word tepee, designating a conical tent, and wahoo, a shrub in the Euonymus genus. The prospects for Lakota are not bright, given the high rates of poverty among its speakers, coupled the lack of any economic incentive to preserve the language.


The outlook is brighter for Yupik (also called Cup'k), a language that is spoken in western Alaska — the state with the highest per capita number of native language speakers in the US. The 5% of Alaskans who speak a Native language divide that fluency among nearly two dozen languages in two major language families — Eskimo–Aleut, which includes Yupik — and  Na-Dené. You can hear a sample of Yupik here, if you tune in at the infrequent times of day devoted to Yupik-language programs.

Yupik is also a collection of dialects that do not all enjoy complete mutual intelligibility. All together the dialects have more than 10,000 speakers, including a significant percentage of children in native villages for whom Yupik is a first language. Owing to geographic and climatic remoteness from the contiguous United States, Yupik has made no familiar contributions to English, other than the word Yupik itself, which designates a "genuine" person. But this very isolation is perhaps one factor in favor of the preservation of the language: its speakers live far from the trappings of American civilization and many still enjoy a very traditional, low-technology life.


If you judged by the second map alone, Navajo would be considered the Native American linguistic success story. It has far more native speakers than any other indigenous language, and by some estimates it accounts for nearly half the speakers of all native languages north of the US-Mexico border. Navajo speakers are concentrated in northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico, in the counties shaded in dark blue on the second map.  These counties, however, are large and sparsely populated, and all of them are partly or wholly within the Navajo reservation, the largest in the United States. Despite the fact that more than a quarter of its residents speak a language other than English at home,  Arizona has declared English as its official language and its constitution stipulates that "representatives of government in this state shall preserve, protect and enhance the role of English as the official language of the government of Arizona."

You can stream Navajo radio here, where you will often be treated to the completely unique sound of spoken Navajo, punctuated by the mesmerizing and percussive recordings of Navajo music. But just as often you will hear rather disconcerting public service messages from various US government agencies, along with contemporary American C&W tunes, both of which are part of the cultural diet of the modern Navajo. Even the spoken language has frequent interpolation of English words, reflecting the fact that the native population does exist or function in an atmosphere of undiluted cultural purity.

Many efforts are underway to preserve native languages, although in some cases it is acknowledged that the languages will be preserved mainly as artifacts, not as living languages that stand a chance of attracting or developing fluent speakers. There is, for example, the Endangered Languages Project, a world-wide effort partly funded by Google that keeps tabs on nearly 200 languages of the United States. Smaller efforts are focused on individual languages, mainly through university-based grant funding. One program, Documenting Endangered Languages, is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation. Some of its successes are catalogued here. Less optimistically, the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2014, which would have authorized funding for the preservation of native languages through 2019, died in the last Congress last year and its sponsor, former Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, did not seek re-election.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday April 1st 2015, 7:05 AM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
A fascinating if sad story, and the loss is for all humankind not just the original speakers. I referenced this article on my website today ( in a post regarding the set of "25 Maps that Explain the English Language" that has been circulating. Now, 27. Thank you!
Wednesday April 1st 2015, 12:43 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent, informative, and interesting. The huge number of different languages, the way they both hold to an identity and morph into new identities--this piece really taught me something which I'd sum up as: people love to talk!! People feel a million things inside that they want-need-hunger-yearn-hope-try to get across to other people. The urge to communicate is like the urge to live: people will do whatever is necessary to get their insides across the gap between themselves and others.
Wednesday April 1st 2015, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Cree is alive in Canada, specifically here in Manitoba. I think British Columbia has a surviving language too, perhaps similar to or the same as the one from Alaska.

If I recall correctly, it was one of the missionaries here who made a written version of the Cree language enabling some codification of it, and assisting other learners.
Wednesday April 1st 2015, 4:11 PM
Comment by: John F.
Very engaging article - mahalo.

I realize your article's geographic scope is the United States of North America; nevertheless, it seems appropriate to include the 50th state. Hawaii's indigenous population has experienced much the same treatment and subsequent "cultural domination and destruction" as the Native Americans of North America. Instead of beginning half a millennium ago, though, it began in 1788 and by the late 19th century Hawaiian culture was in steep decline. At one time there were less than 1,000 living speakers of the Hawaiian language.

Fortunately that trend of cultural suppression appears to have been effectively reversed, and a renaissance of the Hawaiian language is gaining momentum. The following comes from, a rich an reliable source of information about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture:

Keep It Alive
After nearly 100 years of the Hawaiian language being banned in public schools and hardly spoken, Hawaiian language is now an official language of the state since 1978 and a recognized medium of instruction in Hawaiian immersion schools since 1986.

The number of Hawaiian Immersion students continues to increase. From an aging population of about 1,500 native speakers in the 1980s, today Hawai‘i has about 10,000 youth who speak the Hawaiian language.
Thursday April 2nd 2015, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, all, for comments. Jane, Cree is one of many languages alive in Canada, which has done an admirable job of native language preservation. I'm sorry I didn't have space to treat languages north of the border in greater detail, but there are many efforts underway. One in particular is a summer school that is run at the university of Alberta:

John, thanks for this great news about Hawaiian--it shows that where there is a will, there's a way.
Friday April 3rd 2015, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Orin, I think that part of the reason for this is the relative strength of the populations put together with our geography. Especially here in the west there were such vast stretches of land to be settled, and harsh weather limiting the time to do it in, so that native populations were under less stress. Seems strange then that there was such a different mood about moving into the restrictions of the reservations up here. So while some aspects like language could be retained, much of the 'way of life' was lost.

The image of a traveller reaching the hinterland and being exposed to the zillion languages is fascinating!

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