Indian Languages

The American languages show considerable variety in phonetics and structure. While some are vocalic and appear melodious to our ear, others contain many consonant sounds to which we are unaccustomed and which seem to give them a harsh character. Particularly frequent are sounds produced by contact between the base of the tongue and the soft palate, similar to the Scotch ch in loch, and a number of explosive l’s, which are produced by pressing the tongue against the palate and suddenly expelling the air between the teeth. Harshness produced by clustering consonants is peculiar to the northwest coast of America. Sonorous vocalic languages are found in a large part of the Mississippi basin and in California. Peculiar to many American languages is a slurring of terminal syllables, which makes the recording of grammatical forms difficult.

Contrary to the prevalent notion, the vocabularies are rich and their grammatical structure is systematic and intricate. Owing to the wealth of derivatives it is difficult to estimate the number of words in any American language; but it is certain that in every one there are a couple of thousand of stem words and many thousand words, as that term is defined in English dictionaries.

A considerable variety of grammatical structure exists, but there are a few common traits that seem to be characteristic of most American languages. The complexity of grammar is often great because many ideas expressed by separate words in the languages of other continents are expressed by grammatical processes in the languages of the Indians. The classification of words differs somewhat from the familiar grouping in Indo-European languages. The demarcation between noun and verb is often indistinct, many expressions being both denominative and predicative. Often the intransitive verb and the noun are identical in form, while the transitive verb only is truly verbal in character. In other languages the transitive verb is nominal, while the intransitive only is truly verbal. These phenomena are generally accompanied by the use of possessive pronouns with the nominal and of personal pronouns with the verbal class of words. In other cases the verbal forms are differentiated from the noun, but the close relationship between the two classes is indicated by the similarity of the pronominal forms. The intransitive verb generally includes the ideas which Indo-European languages express by means of adjectives. Independent pronouns are often compounds, and the pronoun appears in most cases subordinated to the verb.

In the singular are distinguished self (or speaker), person addressed, and person spoken of; in the plural, corresponding to our first person, are often distinguished the combination of speaker and persons addressed, and speaker and persons spoken of, the so-called inclusive and exclusive forms.

The demonstrative pronouns are analogous to the personal pronoun in that they are generally developed in three forms, indicating respectively the thing near me, near the, near him. Their development is sometimes even more exuberant, visibility and invisibility, present and past, or location to the right, left, front and back of, and above and below the speaker, being distinguished.

The subordination of the pronoun to the verb is often carried to extremes. In many languages the pronominal subject, the object, and the indirect object are incorporated in the verb, for which reason American languages have often been called “incorporating languages.” There are, however, numerous languages in which this pronominal subordination does not occur. In some the process of incorporation does not cease with the pronoun; but the noun, particularly the nominal object, is treated in the same manner. Where such incorporation is found the development of nominal cases is sight, since the incorporation renders this unnecessary.

The occurrence of other classes of words depends largely on the development of another feature of American languages, which is probably common to them all, namely, the expression of a great number of special ideas by means of either affixes or stem modification. On account of the exuberance of such elements American languages have been called “polysynthetic.” The character of the subordinated elements shows great variations. In some languages most of the ideas that are subordinated are instrumental (with the hand, the foot, or the like; with the point or the edge of something, etc.); in others they include all kinds of qualifying ideas, such as are generally expressed by auxiliary verbs, verbal compounds, and adverbs. The Eskimo, for instance, by composition of other elements with the stein “to see,” may express “he only orders him to go and see”; a Chimmesyan composition with the verb to go is, “he went with him upward in the dark and came against an obstacle.” The existence of numerous subordinate elements of this kind has a strong effect in determining the series of stem words in a language. Whenever this method of composition is highly developed many special ideas are expressed by stems of very general significance, combined with qualifying elements. Their occurrence is also the cause of the obviousness of Indian etymologies. These elements also occur sometimes independently, so that the process is rather one of coordinate composition than of subordination. The forms of words that enter composition of this kind sometimes undergo considerable phonetic modification by losing affixes or by other processes. In such cases composition apparently is brought about by apocope, or decapitation of words; but most of these seem to be reducible to regular processes. In many languages poly-synthesis is so highly developed that it almost entirely sculptresses adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

The categories of Indo-European languages do not correspond strictly to those of Indian languages. This is true particularly of the ideas of gender and plurality. Grammatical gender based on sex distinction is very rare in America. It is based on other qualities, as animate and inanimate, or noble and ignoble, and often relates only to shape, as round, long, or flat. Complete absence of such classification is frequent. Plurality is seldom clearly developed; it is often absent even in the pronoun; its place is taken by the ideas of collectivity and distribution, which are expressed more often than plurality. Tense is also weakly developed in many languages, although others have a complex system of tenses. Like other adverbial ideas tense is often expressed by affixes. Moods and voice of the verb are also sometimes undeveloped and are expressed by adverbial elements.

In the use of grammatical processes there is great diversity. Suffixes occur almost everywhere; prefixes are not quite so frequent. Infixes seem to be confined to the Siouan languages, although in fixation by metathesis occurs in other languages also. Reduplication is frequent, sometimes extending to triplication; but in some groups of languages it does not occur at all. Other forms of modification of stem also occur.

Indian languages tend to express ideas with much graphic detail in regard to localization and form, although other determining elements which Indo-European languages require may be absent. Those languages are, therefore, not so well adapted to generalized statements as to livt’ly description. The power to form abstract ideas is nevertheless not lacking, and the development of abstract thought would find in every one of the languages a ready means of expression. Yet, since the Indian is not given to purely abstract speculation, his abstract terms always appear in close connection with concrete thought; for instance, qualities are often expressed by nominal terms, but are never used without possessive pronouns according to the types of culture served by the languages we find holophrastic terms, expressing complex groups of ideas. These, however, are not due to a lack of power to classify, but are rather expressions of form of culture, single terms being intended for those ideas that are of prince importance to the people.

The differentiation of stocks into dialects shows great variation, some stocks comprising only one dialect, while others embrace many that are mutually unintelligible. While the Eskimo have retained their language in all its Minor features for cent tines, that of the Salish, who are confined to a small area is the N. Pacific region, is split up into innumerable dialects. The fate of each stock is probably due as much to the morphological traits of the language itself as to the effects of its contact with other languages. Wherever abundant reduplication, phonetic changes in the stem, and strong phonetic modifications in composition occur, changes seem to be more rapid than where grammatical processes are based on simple laws of composition. Contact with other languages has had a far-reaching effect through assimilation of syntactic structure and, to a certain extent, of phonetic type. There is, however, no historical proof of the change of any Indian language since the time of the discovery comparable with that of the language of England between the 10th and lath centuries.

A few peculiarities of language are worth mentioning. As various parts of the population speaking„ modern English differ somewhat in their forms of expression, so similar variations are found in American languages. One of the frequent types of difference is that between the language of men and that of women. This difference may be one of pronunciation, as among some Eskimo tribes, or may consist in the use of different sets of imperative and declarative particles, as among the Sioux, or in other differences of vocabulary; or it may be more fundamental, due to the foreign origin of the women of the tribe. In incantations and in the formal speeches of priests and shamans a peculiar vocabulary is sometimes used, containing many archaic and symbolic terms.

Consult Further:


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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