THE WEST: The People
The West, an epic saga of the American West, chronicles the history of one of the most extraordinary landscapes on earth
It is a story of how individual and collective actions changed history and shaped a nation. The series explores the region from the times of the earliest Native Americans, all the way into the 20th century.
As this odyssey unfolds, it reveals the many cultures and individuals who converged on the West from every point on the compass. Their disparate desires, so often in conflict with each other, resulted in triumph, tragedy, and some of the most compelling stories in American history.NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGESNative American languages, languages of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere and their descendants. A number of the Native American languages that were spoken at the time of the European arrival in the New World in the late 15th cent. have become extinct, but many of them are still in use today. The classification Native American languages is geographical rather than linguistic, since those languages do not belong to a single linguistic family, or stock, as the Indo-European or Afroasiatic languages do. There is no part of the world with as many distinctly different native languages as the Western Hemisphere. Because the number of indigenous American tongues is so large, it is convenient to discuss them under three geographical divisions: North America (excluding Mexico), Mexico and Central America, and South America and the West Indies. 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. Classification A language family consists of two or more tongues that are distinct and yet related historically in that they are all descended from a single ancestor language, either known or assumed to have existed. The languages of a family are closely related in phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary. The attempts made to classify Native American languages into such families have encountered various obstacles. One is the absence of written records of these languages except in the case of Aztec and Maya. Even there the texts are comparatively few in number; the Spanish conquerors destroyed almost all the texts they found. Another problem is that most records of any linguistic value were made after 1850. Also, there are at present insufficient numbers of trained persons able to record many of the indigenous American languages and collect data, especially in Mexico and Central and South America. The absence of grammars handed down from the past, owing to either the dearth of writing or the destruction of written texts, has further hampered the study of the Native American tongues. Linguistic scholars, therefore, have to turn to native informants to gain material for the analysis of these languages. Native American languages cannot be differentiated as a linguistic unit from other languages of the world but are grouped into a number of separate linguistic stocks having significantly different phonetics, vocabularies, and grammars. Asia is generally accepted as the original home of the Native Americans, although linguistic investigations have not yet established any definite link between the Native American languages and those spoken in Asia or elsewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere. Some scholars postulate a connection between the Eskimo-Aleut family and several other families or subfamilies (among them Altaic, Paleosiberian, Finno-Ugric, and Sino-Tibetan). Others see a relationship between members of the Nadene stock (to which Navajo and Apache belong) and Sino-Tibetan, to which Chinese belongs; however, such theories remain unproved. Characteristics The languages in America N of Mexico are best known; those of Mexico and Central America are less so, and those of South America and the West Indies are the least studied. Systematic investigation has shown the Native American languages to be highly developed in their phonology and grammar, whether they are the tongues of the Aztecs and Incas or the Eskimos or Paiutes. There is great diversity among the indigenous American languages with respect to phonology and grammar. The tongue of the Greenland Eskimos, for example, has only 17 phonemes, whereas that of the Navajos has 47 phonemes. Some languages have nasalized vowels similar to those of French. Many have the consonant known as the glottal stop. Some Native American languages have a stress accent reminiscent of English, and others have a pitch accent of rising and falling tones similar to that of Chinese. Still others have both stress and pitch accents. A grammatical characteristic of widespread occurrence in Native American languages is polysynthesism. A polysynthetic language is one in which a number of word elements are joined together to form a composite word that functions as the sentence does in Indo-European languages. Thus, a sentence or phrase is expressed by one long word unit, each element of which has meaning usually only as part of the sentence or phrase and not as a separate item. In a polysynthetic language, no clear distinction is made between a word and a sentence. For example, a series of words expressing several connected ideas, such as I am searching for my lost horse, would be merged to form a single word or meaning unit