Amerind languages

New World
Linguistic classification: Proposed language family
  • Almosan–Keresiouan
  • Hokan–Penutian
  • Central Amerind
  • Andean–Chibchan–Paezan
  • Equatorial–Tucanoan
  • Ge–Pano–Carib
Glottolog: None


Map of the area of Amerind languages.

Amerind is a hypothetical higher-level language family proposed by Joseph Greenberg in 1960 and elaborated by his student Merritt Ruhlen.[1][2][3][4] Greenberg proposed that all of the indigenous languages of the Americas belong to one of three language families, the previously established Eskimo–Aleut and Na–Dene, and with everything else—otherwise classified by specialists as belonging to dozens of independent families—as Amerind. Due to a large number of methodological flaws in the 1987 book Language in the Americas, the relationships he proposed between these languages have been rejected by the majority of historical linguists as spurious.[5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

The term Amerind is also occasionally used to refer broadly to the various indigenous languages of the Americas without necessarily implying that they are a genealogical group. To avoid ambiguity, the term Amerindian is often used for the latter meaning.


The idea that all the languages of the Americas are related goes back to the 19th century when early linguists such as Peter Stephen DuPonceau and Wilhelm von Humboldt noticed that the languages of the Americas seemed to be very different from the better known European languages, yet seemingly also quite similar to each other. When studies of American Indian languages began in earnest in the early 20th century linguists quickly realized that the indigenous languages were in fact not all that similar, but had a diversity much greater than among the languages of Europe. After a period of uncertainty about whether indigenous languages could be described and investigated by the methods applied to European languages, the first linguists began the daunting task of trying to classify the languages of the Americas by using the comparative method.

Among the most prolific and gifted linguists of his times was Edward Sapir, who was among the first to apply the comparative method to native American languages. However, contrary to current practice in historical linguistics, Sapir also often relied on "hunches" and "gut feeling" when proposing new language families. Some of these suggestions have been proven correct while others have not. Sapir entertained the idea that ultimately all languages of the Americas might turn out to be provably related and such a phenomenon as the apparent Pan-American tendency to have first person forms with a prefixed n- was suggestive for this line of thought.

Since Sapir's death in 1939, linguists have spent their time researching his proposals; typically, there have been two opposing camps in this endeavor: the so-called "lumpers" who usually look towards notions of genetic relationships, and the "splitters" who are widely critical of such proposals and expect successful family relations to be proven by the most rigorous standards of scholarship. Joseph Greenberg worked in the tradition of "lumpers" and following Sapir, was mindful of evidence not generally acceptable to those who hold that only actual linguistic reconstruction—through the comparative method—can yield reliable proof of genetic relationships between languages. In elaborating his classification of the Amerind languages, Greenberg relied heavily on Sapir's early work on the North American languages and the highly impressionist classification of South American languages by Paul Rivet.


Language Family I you he
Nahuatl[17] Uto-Aztecan no- mo- i-
Kiliwa[18] Yuman ñap may ñipáa
Karok (isolate) na 'im 'um
Quechua Quechuan ñuqa qam pay
Aymara Aymaran naya juma jupa
Mapudungun[19] (isolate) iñche eymi fey
Wichí[20] Matacoan n’lham am lham
Yine Maipurean -no - wal'a
Hup[21] Makú 'ãh m tɨ́h
Muisca Chibchan hycha mue asy
Toba Guaicuruan ayim 'am -maji
Siona Tucanoan mɨ̃'ɨ̃ p'ak'o
Chácobo Panoan ɨa mi-a ha-a
Tacana Tacanan yama miada toaweda
Selknam Chon y-ah m-ah
Yanomami Yanomaman ya wa a

The main argument for the genetic unity of most native American languages is an observed pronominal pattern in many native American languages that have first person forms with n- and second person forms with m-. This pattern was first noted by Alfredo Trombetti in 1905. This pattern was also noted by Sapir which caused him to suggest that ultimately all native American languages would turn out to be related. In a personal letter to A. L. Kroeber he wrote (Sapir 1918):[22]

Getting down to brass tacks, how in the Hell are you going to explain general American n- 'I' except genetically? It's disturbing, I know, but (more) non-committal conservatism is only dodging, after all, isn't it? Great simplifications are in store for us.

The supposed "n/m – I/you" pattern among Native American languages has attracted attention even from those linguists who are normally critical of such proposals. Johanna Nichols has investigated the distribution of the languages that have the n/m contrast and found that they are mostly confined to the western coast of the Americas, and that similarly they exist in East Asia and Oceania. This caused her to suggest that they had spread through diffusion.[23] This notion was rejected by Lyle Campbell who argued that in fact the n/m pattern was not statistically significant in either area compared to the rest of the world. Campbell also showed that several of the languages that have the contrast today did not have it historically and that largely the pattern was consistent with chance resemblances, especially when taking into consideration the statistic prevalence of nasal consonants in all the pronominal systems of the world.[5]

At right is a selection of singular Amerind pronouns from various languages, each of which are from separate well-attested families.[24][25]


The consensus among historical linguists specializing in Native American languages is that the Amerind hypothesis is unsupported by valid evidence,[5][14][26] particularly because the basis for the proposal is mass comparison, but also because of many other methodological flaws made by Greenberg in the elaboration of the hypothesis.[10][16][27][28][29][30] Critics regard this technique as fundamentally flawed, unable to distinguish chance resemblances from those due to a historical relationship among the languages and providing no means of distinguishing resemblances due to common descent from those due to language contact. In addition, critics have pointed out errors in the citation of data, including erroneous forms, erroneous glosses, unjustified morphological segmentation, attribution to the wrong language, and citation of entirely spurious forms.[7][8][9][10][13][15][16][27]

A further criticism is that, contrary to normal scholarly practice, no source references are given for the data, which in most cases come from languages for which there is no standard, authoritative source. In addition, Greenberg does not normalize the spelling of the data, so it is impossible without knowing the source of each form to know what the notation represents.[15][27]

While sympathetic to the idea of an Amerind language family, Morris Swadesh was critical of many of Greenberg's subdivisions and believed it was due to an insufficient number of comparisons by Greenberg.[31]


The 1960 proposal, in its outlines, was as follows:

  1. Almosan–Keresiouan
  2. Hokan
  3. Penutian (incl. Macro-Mayan)
  4. Aztec–Tanoan
  5. Oto-Mangean
  6. Purépecha
  7. Macro-Chibchan
    1. Chibchan
    2. Paezan
  8. Andean–Equatorial
    1. Andean
    2. Jivaroan
    3. Macro-Tucanoan
    4. Equatorial (with Macro-Arawakan and Tupian)
  9. Ge–Pano–Carib
    1. Macro-Ge
    2. Macro-Panoan
    3. Macro-Carib
    4. Nambikwara
    5. Huarpe
    6. Taruma

Below is the current state of Amerindian classification, as given in An Amerind Etymological Dictionary, by Joseph Greenberg and Merritt Ruhlen, Stanford University, 2007.

  1. North–Central Amerind
    1. Northern Amerind
      1. Almosan–Keresiouan
        1. Almosan
          1. Algic
          2. Kutenai
          3. Mosan
            1. Chimakuan
            2. Salishan
            3. Wakashan
        2. Keresiouan
          1. Caddoan
          2. Iroquoian
          3. Keresan
          4. Siouan–Yuchi
            1. Siouan
            2. Yuchi
      2. Penutian–Hokan
        1. Penutian
          1. Tsimshian
          2. Chinook
          3. Oregon
          4. Plateau
          5. California
            1. Maiduan
            2. Miwok–Costanoan
            3. Wintun
            4. Yokutsan
          6. Zuni
          7. Gulf
            1. Atakapa
            2. Chitimacha
            3. Muskogean
            4. Natchez
            5. Tunica
            6. Yukian
              1. Yuki
              2. Wappo
          8. Mexican Penutian
            1. Huave
            2. Mayan
            3. Mixe–Zoque
            4. Totonac
        2. Hokan
          1. Northern Hokan
            1. Karok–Shasta
              1. Karok
              2. Chimariko
              3. Shasta–Achomawi
                1. Shasta
                2. Achomawi
            2. Yana
            3. Pomoan
          2. Washo
          3. Salinan–Chumash
            1. Salinan
            2. Chumash
            3. Esselen
          4. Seri–Yuman
            1. Seri
            2. Yuman
          5. Waicuri–Quinigua
            1. Waicuri
            2. Maratino
            3. Quinigua
          6. Coahuiltecan
          7. Tequistlatec
          8. Subtiaba
          9. Jicaque
          10. Yurumangui
    2. Central Amerind
      1. Tanoan
      2. Uto-Aztekan
      3. Oto-Manguean
  2. Southern Amerind
    1. Andean–Chibchan–Paezan
      1. Chibchan–Paezan
        1. Macro-Chibchan
          1. Cuitlatec
          2. Lenca
          3. Chibchan
          4. Paya
          5. Purépecha
          6. Yanomam
          7. Yunca–Puruhan
        2. Macro-Paezan
          1. Allentiac
          2. Atacama
          3. Betoi
          4. Chimu–Mochita
          5. Itonama
          6. Jirajara
          7. Mura
          8. Paezan
          9. Timucua
          10. Warrao
      2. Andean
        1. Aymara
        2. Itucale–Sabela
          1. Itucale
          2. Mayna
          3. Sabela
        3. Cahuapana–Zaparo
          1. Cahuapana
          2. Zaparo
        4. Northern Andean
          1. Catacao
          2. Cholona
          3. Culli
          4. Leco
          5. Sechura
        5. Quechua
        6. Southern Andean
          1. Qawasqar
          2. Mapudungu
          3. Gennaken
          4. Chon
          5. Yamana
    2. Equatorial–Tucanoan
      1. Equatorial
        1. Macro-Arawakan
        2. Cayuvava
        3. Coche
        4. Jivaro–Kandoshi
          1. Cofán
          2. Esmeralda
          3. Jivaro
          4. Kandoshi
          5. Yaruro
        5. KaririTupi
        6. Piaroa
        7. Taruma
        8. Timote
        9. Trumai
        10. Tusha
        11. Yuracaré
        12. Zamuco
      2. Macro-Tucanoan
        1. Auixiri
        2. Canichana
        3. Capixana
        4. Catuquina
        5. Gamella
        6. Huari
        7. Iranshe
        8. Kaliana–Maku
        9. Koaia
        10. Movima
        11. Muniche
        12. Nambikwara
        13. Natu
        14. Pankaruru
        15. Puinave
        16. Shukuru
        17. Ticuna–Yuri
        18. Tucanoan
        19. Uman
    3. Ge–Pano–Carib
      1. Macro-Carib
        1. Andoke
        2. Bora–Uitoto
        3. Carib
        4. Kukura [spurious]
        5. Yagua
      2. Macro-Panoan
        1. Charruan
        2. Lengua
        3. Lule–Vilela
        4. Mataco–Guaicuru
        5. Moseten
        6. Pano–Tacanan
      3. Macro-Gê
        1. Bororo
        2. Botocudo
        3. Caraja
        4. Chiquito
        5. Erikbatsa
        6. Fulnio
        7. Ge–Kaingang
        8. Guató
        9. Kamakan
        10. Mashakali
        11. Opaie
        12. Oti
        13. Puri
        14. Yabuti

See also


  1. Greenberg & Ruhlen 2007
  2. Ruhlen 1994a
  3. Ruhlen 1994b
  4. Ruhlen 2004
  5. 1 2 3 Campbell 1997
  6. Poser & Campbell 2008
  7. 1 2 Adelaar 1989
  8. 1 2 Berman 1992
  9. 1 2 Chafe 1987
  10. 1 2 3 Matisoff 1990
  11. Golla 1987
  12. Golla 1988
  13. 1 2 Kimball 1992
  14. 1 2 Mithun 1999
  15. 1 2 3 Poser 1992
  16. 1 2 3 Rankin 1992
  17. Possessive prefixes are used. Pronouns and pronominal prefixes have an n-, t-, y-/Ø pattern.
  18. Spanish–Kiliwa dictionary
  19. Topical Mapudungun vocabulary list from the World Loanword Database
  20. Topical Wichí vocabulary list from the World Loanword Database Archived October 31, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  21. Topical Hup vocabulary list from the World Loanword Database
  22. See Sapir 1918
  23. Nichols & Peterson 1996
  24. With the Intercontinental Dictionary Series, topical vocabulary lists from different languages can be viewed side-by-side when generated using advanced browsing.
  25. See also Merritt Ruhlen's publication “First- and Second-Person Pronouns in the World’s Languages,” pp. 252–60.
  26. Goddard 1996
  27. 1 2 3 Campbell 1988
  28. Goddard 1987
  29. Goddard 1990
  30. Ringe 2000


  • Adelaar, Willem F. H. (1989). [Review of Greenberg, Language in the Americas]. Lingua, 78, 249-255.
  • Berman, Howard. (1992). A comment on the Yurok and Kalapuya data in Greenberg's Language in the Americas. International Journal of American Linguistics, 58 (2), 230-233.
  • Bonnichsen, Robson; & Steele, D. Gentry (Eds.). (1994). Method and theory for investigating the peopling of the Americas. Peopling of the Americas publications. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University, Center for the Study of the First Americans. ISBN 0-912933-09-7.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1988). [Review of Language in the Americas, Greenberg 1987]. Language, 64, 591-615.
  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Campbell, Lyle; Poser, William J. (2008) Language Classification, History and Method, Cambridge University Press
  • Chafe, Wallace. (1987). [Review of Greenberg 1987]. Current Anthropology, 28, 652-653.
  • Delbrück, Berthold (1880), Einleitung in das Sprachstudium. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte und Methodik der vergleichenden Sprachforschung, Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, OCLC: 3961260 
  • Goddard, Ives. (1987). [Review of Joseph Greenberg, Language in the Americas]. Current Anthropology, 28, 656-657.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1990). [Review of Language in the Americas by Joseph H. Greenberg]. Linguistics, 28, 556-558.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1996). The classification of native languages of North America. In I. Goddard (Ed.), Languages (pp. 290–323). Handbook of North Americans Indians (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Goddard, Ives (Ed.). (1996). Languages. Handbook of North American Indians (W. C. Sturtevant, General Ed.) (Vol. 17). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. ISBN 0-16-048774-9.
  • Goddard, Ives; & Campbell, Lyle. (1994). The history and classification of American Indian languages: What are the implications for the peopling of the Americas?. In R. Bonnichsen & D. Steele (Eds.), Method and theory for investigating the peopling of the Americas (pp. 189–207). Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University.
  • Golla, Victor. (1987). [Review of Joseph H. Greenberg: Language in the Americas]. Current Anthropology, 28, 657-659.
  • Golla, Victor. (1988). [Review of Language in the Americas, by Joseph Greenberg]. American Anthropologist, 90, 434-435.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1960). General classification of Central and South American languages. In A. Wallace (Ed.), Men and cultures: Fifth international congress of anthropological and ethnological sciences (1956) (pp. 791–794). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1987). Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1987). Language in the Americas: Author's précis. Current Anthropology, 28, 647-652.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1989). Classification of American Indian languages: A reply to Campbell. Language, 65, 107-114.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H. (1996). In defense of Amerind. International Journal of American Linguistics, 62, 131-164.
  • Greenberg, Joseph H.; Ruhlen, Merritt (2007), An Amerind Etymological Dictionary (PDF), Department of Anthropology, Stanford University 
  • Kimball, Geoffrey. (1992). A critique of Muskogean, 'Gulf,' and Yukian materials in Language in the Americas. International Journal of American Linguistics, 58, 447-501.
  • Matisoff, James. (1990). On megalo-comparison: A discussion note. Language, 66, 106-120.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Nichols, Johanna (1992), Linguistic diversity in space and time, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-58056-3 
  • Poser, William J. (1992). The Salinan and Yurumanguí data in Language in the Americas. International Journal of American Linguistics, 58 (2), 202-229. PDF
  • Rankin, Robert. (1992). [Review of Language in the Americas by J. H. Greenberg]. International Journal of American Linguistics, 58 (3), 324-351.
  • Ringe, Don (2000). Some relevant facts about historical linguistics. In: Renfrew, Colin (Ed.), America Past, America Present: Genes and Languages in the Americas and Beyond (pp. 139–62). Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994), "Evolution of Language", in Macey, Sam, Encyclopedia of Time, New York: Garland Science, ISBN 0-8153-0615-6 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994), "Linguistic Evidence for the Peopling of the Americas", in Bonnichsen, Robson; Steele, D. Gentry, Method and Theory for Investigating the Peopling of the Americas, Corvallis, Oregon: Center for the Study of the First Americans, Oregon State University, pp. 177–188, ISBN 0-912933-09-7 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (November 1994), "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose", Mother Tongue (Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory) (23): 72–73, OCLC: 35315526 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994), "Review of 'Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time' By Johanna Nichols", Anthropos, Anthropos Institute, 89: 640–641, ISSN 0257-9774 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994), On the Origin of Languages: Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy, Stanford: Stanford University Press, ISBN 0-8047-2321-4 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (March 1995), "A Note on Amerind Pronouns", Mother Tongue (Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory) (24): 60–61, OCLC: 35315526 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (March 1995), "Proto-Amerind *QETS' 'Left (Hand)'", Mother Tongue Newsletter, Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory (ASLIP) (24): 69–70, OCLC: 35315526 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1995), "On the Origin of the Amerind Pronominal Pattern", in Chen, Matthew Y.; Tzeng, Ovid J. L., In Honor of William S-Y. Wang, Taipei: Pyramid Press, pp. 405–407, ISBN 957-9268-55-X 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (January 1995), "Proto-Amerind Numerals", Anthropological Science, Tokyo: Anthropological Society of Nippon, 103 (3): 209–225, doi:10.1537/ase.103.209, ISSN 1348-8570 
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (2004), "On the Amerind Origin of the Proto-Algonquian Numeral Suffix *-a:šyeka", in Jones, Martin, Traces of ancestry: studies in honour of Colin Renfrew, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 139–142, ISBN 1-902937-25-2 
  • Sapir, Edward (1984), "Letter to A. L. Kroeber (1918)", The Sapir-Kroeber correspondence: letters between Edward Sapir and A. L. Kroeber, 1905–1925, Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, OCLC: 17922146  External link in |publisher= (help)

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/30/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.