Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Linguistic Families of the Native Languages



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[Much information on the topic of Native languages can be found in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians and at the Native American Languages site]

The linguistic diversity of the Indians is perhaps the most remarkable feature of American ethnology. While certain general features, such, for example, as incorporation, use of verb and pronoun, employment of generic particles, use of non-grammatical genders, etc., usually occur, most of the languages of the New World exhibit analogies justifying their classification, on psychic grounds at least, as a single family of speech; nevertheless, the comparison of their vocabularies leads to the recognition of the existence of a large number of linguistic families or stocks having lexically no resemblance or connection with each other. Boas (Science , XXIII, 644, 1906) is of the opinion however, that, considering the enormous differences in the psychological bases of morphology in American Indian languages, such psychic unity in one family of speech can hardly be predicated with confidence. Also, it may be that the Paleo-Asiatic languages of Siberia may, perhaps, belong with the American tongues. This linguistic diversity was perceived and commented on by some of the early Spanish historians and other writers on American subjects, such as Hervas, Barton, and Adelung; but the "founder of systematic philology relating to the North American Indians" (in the words of Powell) was Albert Gallatin, whose Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America was published in 1836 in the Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society (Archaeologia Americana, II), of Worcester, Mass. The progress of research and of linguistic cartography since Gallatin 's time are sketched in Powell's epoch-marking article, "Indian linguistic families" (7th Rep. B. A. E., 1-142, 1891), with accompanying map, embodying the author's own researches and those of the experts of the Bureau. Taking vocabulary and dictionary as the factors of discrimination, Powell recognized, N. of the Mexican boundary, the following 58 "distinct linguistic families" or stocks [names in italics are linguistic families found in Canada]: Adaizan (since determined to be a part of the Caddoan), Algonquian, Athapascan, Attacapan, Beothukan [In Newfoundland only], Caddoan, Chimakuan, Chimarikan, Chimmesyan, Chinookan, Chitimachan, Chumashan, Coahuiltecan, Copehan, Costanoan, Eskimouan, Esselenian, Iroquoian, Kalapooian, Karankawan, Keresan, Kiowan, Kitunahan, Koluschan, Kulanapan, Kusan, Lutuamian, Mariposan, Moquelumnan, Muskhogean, Natchesan, Palaihnihan (since consolidated with Shastan), Piman, Pujunan, Quoratean, Salinan, Salishan, Sastean (Shastan), Shahaptian, Shoshonean, Siouan, Skittagetan, Takilman, Tanoan, Timuquanan, Tonikan, Tonkawan, Uchean, Waiilatpuan, Wakashan, Washoan, Weitspekan, Wishoskan, Yakonan, Yanan, Yukian, Yuman, Zuñian. This is the working list for students of American languages, and, with minor variations, will remain the authoritative document on the classification of American linguistic stocks. (See Kroeber in Am. Anthrop, VII, 570-93, 1905, where modifications are proposed.)


A marked feature of the distribution of Indian linguistic families N. of Mexico is the presence or former existence in what are now the states of California and Oregon of more   than one-third of the total number, while some other stocks (Algonquian, Athapascan, Siouan, Shoshonean, Eskimauan) have a very wide distribution. The Pacific coast contrasts with the Atlantic by reason of the multiplicity of its linguistic families as compared with the few on the eastern littoral. The distribution of the Eskimauan family along the whole Arctic coast from Newfoundland to Bering sea, and beyond it in a portion of Asia , is remarkable. The Uchean and the extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland are really the only small families of the Atlantic slope. The Catawba and related tribes in the Carolinas prove the earlier possession of that country by the primitive Siouan, whose migrations were generally westward, The Tuscarora and related tribes of Virginia and southward show the wanderings of the Iroquois, as do the Navaho and Apache those of the Athapascans. In 1896 McGee (The Smithson. Inst ., 1846-96, 377, 1897) estimated the number of tribes belonging to the various linguistic families as follows: Algonquian, 36, Athapascan 53, Attacapan 2, Beothukan 1, Caddoan 9, Chimakuan 2, Chimarikan 2, Chimmesyan (Tsimshian) 8, Chinookan 11, Chitimachan 1, Chumashan 6, Coahuiltecan 22, Copehan 22, Costanoan 5, Eskimauan 70, Esselenian, 1, Iroquoian 13, Kalapooian 8, Karankawan 1, Keresan 17, Kiowan 1, Kitunahan 4, Koluschan 12, Kulanapan 30, Kusan 4, Lutuamian 4, Mariposan 24, Moquelumnan 35, Muskhogean 9, Nahuatlan 7, Natchesan 2, Palaihnihan 8, Piman 7, Pujunan 26, Quoratean 3, Salinan 2, Salishan 64, Sastean 1, Serian 3, Shahaptian 7, Shoshonean 12, Siouan 68, Skittagetan (Haida) 17, Takilman 1, Tanoan 14, Timuquanan 60, Tonikan 3, Tonkawan 1, Uchean 1, Waiilatpuan 2, Wakashan (Kwakiutl-Nootka) 37, Washoan 1, Weitspekan 6, Wishoskan 3, Yakonan 4, Yanan 1, Yukian 5, Yuman 9, Zuñian 1. Of this large number of tribes, some are of little importance, while others may be local divisions and not tribes in the proper sense of the term. This is true, for example, of two at least of the divisions of the Kitunahan family, and of not a few of the Algonquian "tribes." Some families, it will be seen, consist of but a single tribe: Beothukan, Chitimachan, Esselenian, Karankawan, Kiowan, Takilman, Tonkawan, Uchean, Washoan, Yanan, Zuhian; but of these a few (such as Zuñian and Kiowan) are very important. The amount of linguistic variations serving as an index of tribal division varies considerably, and in many cases, especially with the older writers, the delimitations are very imperfect. Researches now in progress will doubtless elucidate some of these points.


Besides the classification noted above, based on vocabulary, certain others are possible which take into consideration grammatical peculiarities, etc., common to several linguistic families. Thus, groups may be distinguished within the 56 families of speech, embracing two or more of them which seem to be grammatically or syntactically related, or in both these respects, while in nowise resembling each other in lexical content. From considerations of this sort Boas finds resemblance between several of the N.W. Pacific coast families. Grammatically, the Koluschan (Tlingit) and Skittagetan (Haida) and the Athapascan seem to be distantly related, and some lexical coincidences have been noted. The occurrence of pronominal gender in the Salishan and Chimakuan stocks is thought by Boas to be of great importance as suggesting relationship between these two families. The Wakashan (Kwakiutl-Nootka), Salishan, and Chimakuan stocks all possess suffix-nouns and inflected adverbs, similarities pointing, perhaps, to a common source (Mem. Internat. Cong. Anthrop ., 339-346. 1894).


Morphological peculiarities,. possessed in common, according to some authorities, indicate a relationship between Piman, Nahuatlan (Mexican), and Shoshonean. The Kitunahan of N. Idaho and S. E. British Columbia has some structural characteristics resembling those of the Shoshonean, particularly the method of object-noun incorporation. Gatschet, in 1891 (Karank, Inds., 1891), suggested the probability of some relationship between the Karankawan, Pakawa (Coahuiltecan), and Tonkawan. It is nearly certain also, as supposed by Brinton, that Natchez is a Muskhogean dialect. The now extinct Beothukan of Newfoundland has been suspected of having been a mixed and much distorted dialect of one or other of the great linguistic families of the region adjacent. Brinton (Amer. Race, 88, 1891) was of opinion that "the general morphology seems somewhat more akin to [Inuit] than to Algonkin examples."


The amount of material extant in the languages of the various stocks, as well as the literature about them, is in nowise uniform. Some, like the Beothukan, Esselenian, and Karankawan, are utterly extinct, and but small vocabularies of them have been preserved. Of others, who still survive in limited or decreasing numbers, like the Chimakuan, Chimarikan, Chitimachan, Chumashan, Coahuiltecan, Costanoan, Kalapooian, Mariposan, Moquelumnan, Natchesan, Pujunan, Salinan, Shastan, Takilman, Washoan, Weitspekan, Yakonan, and Yukian, the vocabularies and texts collected are not very extensive or conclusive. The Algonquian, Athapascan, Eskimauan, Iroquoian, Muskhogean, Salishan, Skittagetan, Koluschan, and Siouan families are represented by many grammars, dictionaries, and native texts, both published and in manuscript. The extent and value of these materials may be seen from the bibliographies of the late J. C. Pilling, of the Algonquian, Athapascan, Chinookan, Eskimauan, Iroquoian, Muskhogean, Salishan, Siouan, and Wakashan stocks, published as bulletins by the Bureau of American Ethnology.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 72-73.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College