The languages in America N of Mexico are best known; those of Mexico and Central America are less so, and those of South America and the West Indies are the least studied. Systematic investigation has shown the Native American languages to be highly developed in their phonology and grammar, whether they are the tongues of the Aztecs and Incas or the Eskimos or Paiutes. There is great diversity among the indigenous American languages with respect to phonology and grammar. The tongue of the Greenland Eskimos, for example, has only 17 phonemes, whereas that of the Navajos has 47 phonemes. Some languages have nasalized vowels similar to those of French. Many have the consonant known as the glottal stop. Some Native American languages have a stress accent reminiscent of English, and others have a pitch accent of rising and falling tones similar to that of Chinese. Still others have both stress and pitch accents.
A grammatical characteristic of widespread occurrence in Native American languages is polysynthesism. A polysynthetic language is one in which a number of word elements are joined together to form a composite word that functions as the sentence does in Indo-European languages. Thus, a sentence or phrase is expressed by one long word unit, each element of which has meaning usually only as part of the sentence or phrase and not as a separate item. In a polysynthetic language, no clear distinction is made between a word and a sentence. For example, a series of words expressing several connected ideas, such as "I am searching for my lost horse," would be merged to form a single word or meaning unit. Edward Sapir, a major scholar in the field of Native American languages, first presented the following, much-quoted word unit from Southern Paiute: wiitokuchumpunkurüganiyugwivantümü, meaning "they-who-are-going-to-sit-and-cut-up-with-a-knife-a-black-female- (or male-) buffalo." It is thought that the numerous aboriginal tongues showing polysynthesism may originally have been the offshoots of a single parent language.
The existence of gender as found in Indo-European languages is encountered infrequently in indigenous American tongues. In the Algonquian languages, nouns are classified as animate and inanimate. Noun cases like those of Latin occur in some languages, but a lack of case distinction similar to English usage is more common (at least N of Mexico). A number of Native American tongues have a form for the plural of the noun that differs from the singular form, but many others have the same form for both, as in the English noun sheep.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.