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Languages of the United States of America

It wouldn’t surprise me if many people are still unaware that the United States does not have any official language, although some of the individual states do. More surprising, I think, is the number of languages that are native to this country. It struck me the other day that it would be instructive even to just list those that still survive and are not in danger of dying out anytime soon. I’ve consulted the Ethnologue and Wikipedia, neither of which is an entirely reliable source, of course; but in combination they provide a good first look at what languages are out there and how their own speakers perceive them. Excluding creoles and languages marked as “nearly extinct” by the Ethnologue, and for present purposes choosing only one name for each language, I’ve come up with a list of 89 languages:

Alabama, Aleut, Alutiiq, Angloromani, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cayuga, Central Siberian Yupik, Central Yupik, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Columbia-Wenatchi, Comanche, Crow, Dakota, Deg Hit’an, Eastern Keres, English, French, Gwich’in, Haida, Halkomelem, Havasupai-Walapai-Yavapai, Hawaiian, Ho-Chunk, Hopi, Hutterite German, Inupiatun, Ipai, Jicarilla Apache, Kalispel-Pend d’Oreille, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Klickitat, Koasati, Koyukon, Kumeyaay, Lakota, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, Maricopa, Mescalero-Chiricahua, Mesquakie, Micmac, Mikasuki, Mohave, Mohawk, Muskogee, Navajo, Nez Perce, Northern Paiute, Northern Tiwa, O’odham, Ojibwe, Okanagan, Omaha-Ponca, Oneida, Onondaga, Ottawa, Pennsylvania German, Plains Cree, Plautdietsch, Potawatomi, Qawiaraq, Quechan, Russian, Seneca, Shawnee, Shoshone, Skagit, Southern Tiwa, Spanish, Spokane, Tenino, Tewa, Tipai, Tlingit, Towa, Tsimshian, Umatilla, Upper Tanana, Ute-Southern Paiute, Walla Walla, Western Apache, Western Keres, Yakama, Yaqui, and Zuñi.

Fifteen different language families are represented, along with at least two linguistic isolates (Haida and Zuñi) and possibly a third (Tlingit, if it isn’t related to the Athapaskan family).

There are a few interesting things to note about this list right away. First, if you don’t see your favorite language here, it could be that it’s one of those ones labelled “nearly extinct” by the Ethnologue, as mentioned above; or it could be known by another name, since I’ve excluded alternate names for the sake of seeing the whole list at once; or it could be that linguists consider it a dialect of a larger language, as in the cases of Columbia-Wenatchi, Havasupai-Walapai-Yavapai, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, Mescalero-Chiricahua, O’odham (formerly known as Papago and Pima), Omaha-Ponca, and Ute-Southern Paiute (which actually includes Chemehuevi as well as the two named). Often political divisions do not technically correspond to linguistic ones, and it’s important here to bear in mind that this realization is not applied only to non-Indo-European languages: the classic examples are Serbo-Croatian and Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu, each technically a single language written in two different alphabets.

Notice further that there are more Indo-European languages in the list than just English. In fact, there are what look like three varieties of German listed: Hutterite German, Pennsylvania German, and Plautdietsch. The reality is more complicated than it appears, partly because the partial dialect continuum usually known simply as “German” is much more diverse than most people realize, and partly because these dialects belong to three different religious groups who took their speech patterns from three very different parts of the “German”-speaking world. According to what I’ve recently read, Hutterite German, or Hutterisch, comes from the particularly Carinthian dialect of Austrian German, although the sect formerly had more of a Tyrolean (which is also Austrian) speech pattern. Pennsylvania German, on the other hand, comes from the Pfalz (Palatinate) variety, which is not far removed from Swiss German and Alsatian German, if my understanding is correct. Plautdietsch, the language of the Mennonites, is really a form of Low German or Plattdeutsch; it's called “low” not from any value judgment, but because northern Germany consists generally of the country’s lowlands, as opposed to the High German-speaking uplands in the south, near the Alps.

The attentive reader will have noticed the term dialect continuum above (partly because I boldfaced it): what linguists actually describe nowadays is a swath of territory extending from the eastern end of Austria through Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Alsace-Lorraine, and Luxembourg, and up through all of Germany, the Netherlands, and Flanders in Belgium. Each city or town or village can pretty much understand the speech of the surrounding ones, but as you travel through, the language gradually changes, and after a while it’s changed so much that the people you’re staying with now would neither understand nor be understood by the people you were staying with when you started traveling. So when three disparate religious groups, each adhering steadfastly to its own internal traditions, pluck out three particular dialects from very different parts of the continuum, and then continue to evolve their own forms in America, it’s no surprise that they end up unable to understand each other — which is what defines them as separate languages. It’s roughly analogous with the gradual development of separate species out of the contiguous varieties of a single one.

Incidentally, the idea of the dialect continuum is also applied to the Romance languages (Provençal and Catalan are surprisingly similar, for instance) and even to English-Scots spread across much of the United Kingdom (a form of Scots is spoken in Northern Ireland, a consequence of the Ulster Plantation). It’s a widely applicable concept that shows up clearly in the list above: for instance, Eastern Keres and Western Keres actually form a dialect continuum, but the ends of the continuum are too different for one to be understood by native speakers of the other; Dakota and Lakota, possibly along with Assiniboine, form another continuum. Most of the hyphenated combinations above are likely to have some aspects of dialect continua about them, and it’s also worth noting that the Iroquois (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca) and Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Ottawa, Potawatomi, related languages in Canada) groups are still very close together, perhaps reflecting their political histories.

But the point of the exercise is not to make assertions about linguistic concepts and historical configurations. Nor is it to arouse guilt when I mention that the Ethnologue also lists at least 62 more American languages (specifically native to the U.S.A.) as very close to dying out; in fact some of those are the targets of sincere efforts at resuscitation, which does sometimes succeed. The point, basically, is that although we think of the U.S.A. as an English-speaking country, the fact is that we Americans actually speak about 150 different languages, and we can expect to continue to speak at least about 90 of those for the foreseeable future. This isn’t even counting immigrant communities, who add well over a hundred more, nor does it count the four creoles that are native here — Afro-Seminole Creole, Gullah, Hawaii Creole English, and Louisiana Creole French — nor the mixed language Michif, an old blend of French and Plains Cree. I also haven’t included the languages of our overseas territories: add, if you feel the need, Carolinian and Tanapag for the Northern Mariana Islands, Chamorro for the Northern Marianas and Guam, Samoan for American Samoa, and Virgin Islands Creole English for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Just wanted to point all that out.