The outstanding characteristic of North American Indian languages is their diversity—at contact Northern America was home to more than 50 language families comprising between 300 and 500 languages. Many proposals have been made to relate some or all of these to each other, with varying degrees of success. [See "Classification of indigenous languages of the Americas"]
Speakers of Algonquian languages stretch from the east coast of North America to the Rocky Mountains. The proto-language from which all of the languages of the family descend, Proto-Algonquian, was spoken around 2,500 to 3,000 years ago. A number of Algonquian languages, like many other Native American languages, are now extinct.
Although the term Athabaskan is prevalent in linguistics and anthropology, there is an increasing trend among scholars to use the terms Dené and Dené languages, which is how many of their native speakers identify it. Linguists conventionally divide the Athabaskan family into three groups, based on geographic distribution:
Chipewyan is spoken over the largest area of any North American native language, while Navajo is spoken by the largest number of people of any native language north of Mexico.
Siouan or Siouan–Catawban is a language family of North America that is located primarily in the Great Plains, Ohio and Mississippi valleys and southeastern North America with a few other languages in the east.
Siouan languages can be grouped into the Western Siouan languages and Catawban languages. The Western Siouan languages can be divided into Missouri River languages (such as Crow and Hidatsa), Mandan, Mississippi River languages (such as Dakotan, Chiwere-Winnebago, and Dhegihan languages), and Ohio Valley Siouan branches. The Catawban languages consist only of Catawban and Woccon.
The Eskimo–Aleut languages are not demonstrably related to the other language families of North America and are believed to represent a separate, and the last, prehistoric migration of people from Asia.
The Alaska Native Language Center believes that the common ancestral language of the Eskimo languages and of Aleut divided into the Eskimo and Aleut branches at least 4,000 years ago. The Eskimo language family split into the Yupik and Inuit branches around 1,000 years ago. Linguists consider the homeland of Proto-Eskimo-Aleut to be in Siberia.
The Iroquoian languages were originally spoken over a very large expanse of territory, including much of the southern Canada (Ontario and Quebec), particularly along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, through large portions of the Mid-Atlantic states, and down into the Carolinas. Liquiss
The Iroquoian languages are usually divided into two main groups: Southern Iroquoian (Cherokee) and Northern Iroquoian (all others) based on differences in vocabulary and modern phonology. All surviving Iroquoian languages are severely or critically endangered, with only a few elderly speakers remaining. The two languages with the most speakers, Mohawk in New York and Cherokee, are spoken by less than 10% of the populations of their tribes.
Northern Iroquoian (con't)
The Muskogean languages were spoken in the Southeastern United States. The Muskogean languages are generally divided into two branches, Eastern Muskogean and Western Muskogean. One documented language, Apalachee, is extinct and the remaining languages are critically endangered.
The Muskogean family consists of six languages that are still spoken: Alabama, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek-Seminole, Koasati, and Mikasuki, as well as the now-extinct Apalachee, Houma, and Hitchiti. "Seminole" is often listed as one of the Muskogean languages but it is generally considered a dialect of Creek rather than a separate language.
The Salishan languages are a group of languages of the North American Pacific Northwest. The Salishan language family consists of twenty-three languages. All Salishan languages are considered critically endangered, some extremely so, with only three or four speakers left.
The Uto-Aztecan language family consiss of over thirty languages. Uto-Aztecan languages are found almost entirely in the Western United States and Mexico. The name of the language family was created to show that it includes both the Ute language of Utah and the Nahuan languages (also known as Aztecan) of Mexico.
The Uto-Aztecan language family is one of the largest linguistic families in the Americas in terms of number of speakers, number of languages, and geographic extension. The northernmost Uto-Aztecan language is Shoshoni. Speakers of Nahuatl languages account for almost four-fifths of these.
The homeland of the Uto-Aztecan languages is generally considered to have been in the Southwestern United States or possibly Northwestern Mexico.
Before European contact, native Californians spoke over 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages! The large number of languages has been related to the ecological diversity of California and to a sociopolitical organization into small tribelets (usually 100 individuals or fewer) with a share ideology that defined language boundaries as "unalterable natural features inherent in the land."