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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.


  • Background 1
  • Pronouns 2
  • Reception 3
  • Classification 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


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, and generally there have been two opposing camps in this endeavor: the so-called "lumpers" who are generally favorably inclined towards notions of genetic relationships, and the "splitters" who are generally critical of such proposals expecting successful family relations to be proven by the most rigorous standards of scholarship. Joseph Greenberg worked in the tradition of "lumpers" and following Sapir he accepted kinds of evidence that are 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]

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
  8. Chibchan
  9. Paezan
  10. Andean–Equatorial
  11. Andean
  12. Jivaroan
  13. Macro-Tucanoan
  14. Equatorial (with Macro-Arawakan and Tupian)
  15. Ge–Pano–Carib
  16. Macro-Ge
  17. Macro-Panoan
  18. Macro-Carib
  19. Nambikwara
  20. Huarpe
  21. Taruma
  22. 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
    2. Northern Amerind
    3. Almosan–Keresiouan
    4. Almosan
    5. Algic
    6. Kutenai
    7. Mosan
    8. Chimakuan
    9. Salishan
    10. Wakashan
    11. Keresiouan
    12. Caddoan
    13. Iroquoian
    14. Keresan
    15. Siouan–Yuchi
    16. Siouan
    17. Yuchi
    18. Penutian–Hokan
    19. Penutian
    20. Tsimshian
    21. Chinook
    22. Oregon
    23. Plateau
    24. California
    25. Maiduan
    26. Miwok–Costanoan
    27. Wintun
    28. Yokutsan
    29. Zuni
    30. Gulf
    31. Atakapa
    32. Chitimacha
    33. Muskogean
    34. Natchez
    35. Tunica
    36. Yukian
    37. Yuki
    38. Wappo
    39. Mexican Penutian
    40. Huave
    41. Mayan
    42. Mixe–Zoque
    43. Totonac
    44. Hokan
    45. Northern Hokan
    46. Karok–Shasta
    47. Karok
    48. Chimariko
    49. Shasta–Achomawi
    50. Shasta
    51. Achomawi
    52. Yana
    53. Pomoan
    54. Washo
    55. Salinan–Chumash
    56. Salinan
    57. Chumash
    58. Esselen
    59. Seri–Yuman
    60. Seri
    61. Yuman
    62. Waicuri–Quinigua
    63. Waicuri
    64. Maratino
    65. Quinigua
    66. Coahuiltecan
    67. Tequistlatec
    68. Subtiaba
    69. Jicaque
    70. Yurumangui
    71. Central Amerind
    72. Tanoan
    73. Uto-Aztekan
    74. Oto-Manguean
    75. Southern Amerind
    76. Andean–Chibchan–Paezan
    77. Chibchan–Paezan
    78. Macro-Chibchan
    79. Cuitlatec
    80. Lenca
    81. Chibchan
    82. Paya
    83. Purépecha
    84. Yanomam
    85. Yunca–Puruhan
    86. Macro-Paezan
    87. Allentiac
    88. Atacama
    89. Betoi
    90. Chimu–Mochita
    91. Itonama
    92. Jirajara
    93. Mura
    94. Paezan
    95. Timucua
    96. Warrao
    97. Andean
    98. Aymara
    99. Itucale–Sabela
    100. Itucale
    101. Mayna
    102. Sabela
    103. Cahuapana–Zaparo
    104. Cahuapana
    105. Zaparo
    106. Northern Andean
    107. Catacao
    108. Cholona
    109. Culli
    110. Leco
    111. Sechura
    112. Quechua
    113. Southern Andean
    114. Qawasqar
    115. Mapudungu
    116. Gennaken
    117. Chon
    118. Yamana
    119. Equatorial–Tucanoan
    120. Equatorial
    121. Macro-Arawakan
    122. Cayuvava
    123. Coche
    124. Jivaro–Kandoshi
    125. Cofán
    126. Esmeralda
    127. Jivaro
    128. Kandoshi
    129. Yaruro
    130. KaririTupi
    131. Piaroa
    132. Taruma
    133. Timote
    134. Trumai
    135. Tusha
    136. Yuracaré
    137. Zamuco
    138. Macro-Tucanoan
    139. Auixiri
    140. Canichana
    141. Capixana
    142. Catuquina
    143. Gamella
    144. Huari
    145. Iranshe
    146. Kaliana–Maku
    147. Koaia
    148. Movima
    149. Muniche
    150. Nambikwara
    151. Natu
    152. Pankaruru
    153. Puinave
    154. Shukuru
    155. Ticuna–Yuri
    156. Tucanoan
    157. Uman
    158. Ge–Pano–Carib
    159. Macro-Carib
    160. Andoke
    161. Bora–Uitoto
    162. Carib
    163. Kukura [spurious]
    164. Yagua
    165. Macro-Panoan
    166. Charruan
    167. Lengua
    168. Lule–Vilela
    169. Mataco–Guaicuru
    170. Moseten
    171. Pano–Tacanan
    172. Macro-Gê
    173. Bororo
    174. Botocudo
    175. Caraja
    176. Chiquito
    177. Erikbatsa
    178. Fulnio
    179. Ge–Kaingang
    180. Guató
    181. Kamakan
    182. Mashakali
    183. Opaie
    184. Oti
    185. Puri
    186. Yabuti
    187. See also


      1. ^ Greenberg & Ruhlen 2007
      2. ^ Ruhlen 1994a
      3. ^ Ruhlen 1994b
      4. ^ Ruhlen 2004
      5. ^ a b c Campbell 1997
      6. ^ Poser & Campbell 2008
      7. ^ a b Adelaar 1989
      8. ^ a b Berman 1992
      9. ^ a b Chafe 1987
      10. ^ a b c Matisoff 1990
      11. ^ Golla 1987
      12. ^ Golla 1988
      13. ^ a b Kimball 1992
      14. ^ a b Mithun 1999
      15. ^ a b c Poser 1992
      16. ^ a b c 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
      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. ^ a b c Campbell 1988
      28. ^ Goddard 1987
      29. ^ Goddard 1990
      30. ^ Ringe 2000
      31. ^ [2]


      • 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.
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      • 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.
      • 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.
      • 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 (1995), "On the Origin of the Amerind Pronominal Pattern", in Chen, Matthew Y.; Tzeng, Ovid J. L., In Honor of William S-Y. Wang,  
      • Sapir, Edward (1984), "Letter to A. L. Kroeber (1918)", The Sapir-Kroeber correspondence: letters between Edward Sapir and A. L. Kroeber, 1905–1925,  

      External links

      • Google.books: Greenberg, Joseph. 'Language in the Americas'. 1987. ISBN 0-8047-1315-4
      • The home page of Merritt Ruhlen, one of the advocates of the Amerind hypothesis.
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