Living Languages of the Americas

Living Languages of the Americas

The American Indigenous languages from the US and Canada are mostly extinct, dying, or spoken by relatively tiny remaining communities. It is easy to assume the same about Central and South America, and to think of some of the well-known historical peoples—like "Incas", "Aztecs", and "Mayans"—as being only historical. This is not the case: those people are still around and still speak their own languages!

Here is a quick look at some of the largest families of vibrantly alive American Indigenous languages. I've included a sample of English words which derive from borrowings from these languages where possible. The largest sets of borrowed words are from the imperial languages of Quechua and Nahuatl, plus words for South American plants and animals from Tupi.

There are of course many more English borrowings for North American plants, animals, and other natural phenomena from the indigenous languages of North America: abalone, bayou, chipmunk, hickory, moose, opossum, pecan, persimmon, raccoon, skunk, woodchuck, and more. But those are not among the large living languages I'm covering here.

Pie graphs showing the breakdown of the 30 million speakers of American Indigenous languages by language family and geographical region.

Quechuan

Quechuan languages are spoken by at least 8 million people today. Quechua was used as a lingua franca in the Andes before, during, and after the rule of the Inca Empire which ruled much of the Andes region in the 1400s and 1500s. Quechua continues to be spoken in the Andes region today, especially in Peru, Ecuador, and western Bolivia.

Note on "Inca"

Inca or Inka means "royal, emperor, prince", and properly refers to the rulers and government of the Inca Empire (which ruled much of the Andes region in the 15th and 16th centuries), not to any ethnic identity among its people. In fact, the Inca upperclass may not have even spoken a Quechuan language among themselves. Quechuan sources distinguish between the language of the commoners (Runa Simi) and a separate language of the nobility, Qhapaq Simi. There is no consensus on what Qhapaq Simi was or how closely it was related to the Quechuan Runa Simi.

A few English words from Quechua

  • jerky, from Quecha ch'arki: "dried meat". Freeze drying was a major part of food preservation in the Andes, made easy by the cold, dry mountain air.
  • llama, from the Quechua llama, meaning "llama". Note that in Classical Quechua, it started with a /ʎ/ sound (sounds like a mix of "l" and "y"), which Spanish had at the time, spelled with the ll, but has now been merged with y in most Spanish dialects.
  • lima (bean), named for the city of Lima (current capital of Peru), from a word meaning "speaker" related to modern Southern Quechua rimay: "speech". Also the source of the name of the river that runs through the city, Rimac. The city may be named for the river and/or for a famous oracle located in the city.
  • coca/cocaine/Coca-Cola/coke, from Quechua kuka: "coca"
  • quinine, from Quechua kina: "bark, especially the medicinal bark of the cinchona tree".
    • cinchona is not related, but comes from the Spanish place name Chinchón after Ana de Osorio, Countess of Chinchón, who was supposedly one of the first Europeans treated with quinine for malaria. This story is now considered apocryphal, but was nevertheless believed at the time when the tree got its Latin and English names. (The placename Chinchón derives from one of the pre-Roman languages of Iberia.)

Mayan

Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million people today, on and around the Yucatan Peninsula.

For most English speakers, the word "Mayan" is associated with Classical Maya civilization, who built spectacular cities and temples from around 250 AD to 900 AD; and accomplished one of only two times we can be certain of that full linguistic writing was invented completely from scratch. But Mayan people existed before Classical Maya civilization and after to this day; just as Greek people existed before Classical Greece and after to this day.

At least some groups of what we call the "Maya" really did use that more or less that name for themselves in antiquity and also do today (but by no means all). It comes from a word related to Yucatec Maya mayab: "flat". If I understand correctly, it is referring to living in the flatlands as opposed to the highlands.

A few English words from Mayan

  • cenote, from Yucatec Maya tsʼonot
  • Possibly cigar (and cigarette, etc.). The Spanish cigarro is of uncertain origin, but one possibility is that it is related to Qʼeqchiʼ sik'ar: "to smoke tobacco" (equivalent to Yucatec Maya siyar)
  • Possibly shark from Yucatec Maya xoc: "shark". Northern Europeans were only familiar with small sharks and called them dogfish/houndfish and equivalents. There is one example of the word shark for a fish in 1442, in the letters of Thomas Bekynton, Secretary to Henry VI (writing in Latin), but the word is not attested again for over 100 years until the late 1500s; at which point it may or may not be the same word. If it is not the same word, it may be from a Mayan language. When the word appears again in English, it is referring to a specimen brought to England from the American tropics—potentially from a Mayan speaking area—by John Hawkins.
  • Otherwise, most Mayan in English is place names: Cancun, Panama, Yucatan, etc.

Guaraní and other Tupian Languages

Tupi languages are spoken by at least 6 million people today. Almost all of that is Guaraní, which is co-official in Paraguay along with Spanish. There are probably more Guaraní speakers than Spanish speakers in the country of Paraguay, with most of the population being bilingual in the two.

Most English words borrowed from Tupian languages are from Old Tupi, which was used as a lingua franca in Brazil in the 1500s to 1700s. It lost any support from the colonial classes after the Jesuits were expelled 1759, and was driven almost to extinction over the next several decades.

A few English words from Tupian

  • cayenne, from Old Tupi quiínia: "hot pepper". The word was later remodelled by association with the city of Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana (which is not a Tupian name, probably Cariban or Arawakan)
  • cougar, from a Tupi source, perhaps Old Tupi suasuarana: "deer-like" (reminds me of the French word for "lynx": loup-cervier, lit. "deer-wolf")
  • jaguar, Old Tupi yawara: "jaguar, predatory beast"
  • macaw, Old Tupi macavuana
  • piranha, from Old Tupi pirá: "fish", plus some other morpheme

Aymara

Aymara is spoken by at least 1.5 million people today. It has co-existed with Quechuan in the Andes for a long time, and there is a lot of shared vocabulary, but probably no genetic link.

I don't know of any Aymara words in English, except words specifically for talking about Aymara society, though some Quechua words in English may have been borrowed into Quechua from Aymara originally; particularly likely in the case of coca.

Nahuan

Nahuan languages are spoken by at least 1.5 million people today. Nahuan languages are a subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan languages, which also includes Hopi, Comanche, Shoshoni, and O'odham (each of which also has a few hundred to a few thousand living speakers).

Classical Nahuatl was best known for being spoken in the Aztec Empire which ruled the Valley of Mexico in the 1400s and 1500s. Nahuatl is sometimes called "the Aztec language", but this is inaccurate. Some of the modern Nahuatl varieties are direct descendants of Classical Nahuatl, but many other varieties are relatives—not descendants—of Classical Nahuatl.

The Classical Nahuatl name for the "Aztec Empire" was Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān. This is usually translated as "The Triple Alliance", referring to its origin as an alliance of the three city states Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan (Tenochtitlan later dominated the alliance, ruling the other two). Ēxcān Tlahtōlōyān breaks down literally as Ēx-cān: "Three-Places" (from the combining form ex- of yei: "three") and Tlahtō-lō-yān: "Speech/Agreement/Command/Lawsuit" + passive + verbal locative: "Place where Agreement is Made" or "Place where Commands are Given". "The Court in Three Places" perhaps?

Note on "Aztec"

Aztec (aztēcah) means "people of Az-tlān" and was used to refer to a number of ethnic groups who were understood to have shared mythic past in Aztlān. Aztlān means the "place of Az-?-", with the locative suffix, -tlán, but the meaning of Az-?- is disputed. A person from Aztlán was az-tēca-tl (with -tl noun suffix), plural az-tēca-h. Compare Mixtlān: "Cloud City", from mixtli: "cloud"; mixtēcatl: "a person from Mixtlān", mixtēcah: "people from Mixtlān".

The plural aztēcah was borrowed to Spanish as aztéca. Spanish aztéca was often interpreted as aztéc-a, as a feminine singular, when borrowing into other European languages, thus English Aztec, as if just the stem aztéc-; or Italian azteco/azteca/aztechi/azteche, with a regular Italian inflection paradigm for noun stems ending in -c-.

A few English words from Nahuatl

  • avocado, from Nahuatl ahuaca-tl: "avocado". Contrary to popular legend, ahuacatl does not mean "testicle" in Nahuatl. It is used as slang for "testicles" in some Nahuatl dialects, but the primary and original meaning has always been the fruit. ahuacatl was originally borrowed into Spanish as aguacate, and later modified by association with the similar sounding word abogado: "advocate, lawyer"
    • guacamole: from Nahuatl āhuacamōlli: "avocado sauce", ahuaca- + mōlli (also borrowed as mole)
  • coyote, from a Nahuan language, equivalent to Classical Nahuatl coyō-tl. Proto-Uto-Aztecan *kʷa: "coyote"
  • ocelot, from Nahuatl ocelo-tl: "jaguar"
  • tomato, from Nahuatl toma-tl meaning "tomatillo". The word for "tomato" in Nahuatl is actually xītomatl

Nahuatl 'x'

In all Nahuatl words, the letter x represents /ʃ/ (English sh>). At the time Spanish used x for both /ʃ/ (sh) and /x/ ("heavy h"). Later, the x for /ʃ/ orthography fell out of use in most varieties of Spanish, and many Nahuatl (and Basque) words were re-interpreted in Spanish as having the /x/ sound, and in some cases respelled to j which was also used for /x/. You can see this in the alternate spelling Méjico, or the Spanish ajolote: "axolotl"; in both cases the j is pronounced as current Spanish /x/, but represents original Nahuatl /ʃ/. (The same is true of, e.g., Xavier/Javier which is originally a Basque name and pronounced in Basque with /ʃ/ or /tʃ/.)

Mixtec, Zapotec, and other Oto-Manguean Languages

The Oto-Manguean language family includes 7 languages with over 100,000 speakers—including Mixtec and Zapotec—for a total of around 2 million speakers today.

I don't know of any English words from Oto-Manguean Languages, only proper names. And most of those are heavily mediated through Nahuan languages.

Note on the "Cloud People"

Mixtec and Zapotec are not endonyms, but are borrowed from Nahuatl terms for those groups. Mixtec from mix-tēca-h: "people of the Cloud City", probably a translation of what the Mixtecs call themselves, ñuù savi: "of the land of rain"; and Zapotec from tzapo-tēca-h, formally "people of Sapote City", but the Zapotecs call themselves Bën za: "Cloud People". But tzapo-tēca-h may be an reinterpretation of a word originally formed from Nahuatl borrowing Zapotec za: "cloud" from Bën za and adding pochtecah: "merchants, traders".

Why does "cloud" keep coming up in these ethnonyms? It's probably because many Oto-Manguaen languages—in particular, Mixtec and Zapotec—are mostly spoken south and up into the highlands from the Valley of Mexico, in the modern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. This is where the ecosystems known as Cloud Forests are in Mexico!

Photo of a cloud forest in Oaxaca.
A cloud forest in Sierra Sur in Oaxaca.

Conclusion

These languages total about 27 million speakers—which is awesome! Unfortunately, that's almost all the speakers of American indigenous languages there are. The other a few hundred living American indigenous languages only have another 2-3 million or so speakers between them.

In the United States, the largest living indigenous language is Navajo, with around 200,000 speakers, and in Canada, it is Cree at around 100,000 speakers (or more accurately, the Cree dialect continuum taken as a whole).

Thanks to David Bowles (@DavidOBowles) for checking my work as I stepped out of my expertise. Any remaining errors are my own.