It is not possible to determine exactly how many languages were spoken in the New World before the arrival of Europeans or how many people spoke these languages. Some scholars estimate that the Western Hemisphere at the time of the first European contact was inhabited by 40 million people who spoke 1,800 different tongues. Another widely accepted estimate suggests that at the time of Columbus more than 15 million speakers throughout the Western Hemisphere used more than 2,000 languages; the geographic divisions within that estimate are 300 separate tongues native to some 1.5 million Native Americans N of Mexico, 300 different languages spoken by roughly 5 million people in Mexico and Central America, and more than 1,400 distinct tongues used by 9 million Native Americans in South America and the West Indies.
By the middle of the 20th cent., as a result of European conquest and settlement in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps two thirds of the many indigenous American languages had already died out or were dying out, but others flourished. Still other aboriginal languages are only now being discovered and investigated by researchers. Some authorities suggest that about one half of the Native American languages N of Mexico have become extinct. Of the tongues still in use, more than half are spoken by fewer than 1,000 persons per language; most of the speakers are bilingual. Only a few tongues, like Navajo and Cherokee, can claim more than 50,000 speakers; Navajo, spoken by about 150,000 people, is the most widely used Native American language in the United States. By the end of the 20th cent. 175 Native American languages were spoken in the United States, but only 20 of these were widely known, and 55 were spoken by only a few elderly tribal members; 100 other languages were somewhere between these extremes. Mexico and Central America, however, have large aboriginal populations employing a number of indigenous languages, such as Nahuatl (spoken by about 1.5 million people) and the Mayan tongues (native to about 4 million people). In South America, the surviving Quechuan linguistic family, which includes far more native speakers than any other aboriginal language group in the Americas, accounts for some 12 million speakers. Another flourishing language stock of indigenous South Americans is Tupí-Guaraní, with about 4 million speakers.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.