Indians north of Mexico had more than ten totally unrelated "language families."
These, in turn, were divided into more than two hundred separate languages,
none of which could be understood by the others. Some Indian languages
utilized many vowels and were smooth: for example, the Dakota Sioux;
while others, such as the Chinook, were filled with consonants and were
harsh. Indians had no written records by which to preserve or standardize
the family language.
Because of their independent nature, many
Indians would not take the trouble to learn the language of other tribes.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho lived together for centuries and neither would
learn the language of the other, but communicated by sign language.
Besides the sign language, some Indians
of different sections communicated with each other by what were known as
"trade languages," such as the Chinook Jargon in the Northwest; the Choctaw,
Chickasaw, or Mobile Language in the South; and the Comanche in the Southwest.
It had been thought at one time that Indian
languages had no formal structure, but it has now been determined that
all of them have a complete and systematic grammatical structure, capable
of expressing any thought.
Indian grammar is complicated, and the
vocabularies of most languages are large. In a survey of three languages
it was found that one had 7,000 words, another had 11,000 words and the
third had 19,000 words. While the English language has more than
130,000 words, an English speaking person rarely uses more than 10,000
In speaking, Indians often combined a number
of ideas into one word. Sometimes one word was an entire sentence.
Some verbs, too, could be used to form hundreds of different expressions.
In some tribes there were no personal pronouns,
so an Indian in speaking English might call his wife "he." Sometimes
there were "male" and "female" words. Other languages had several
plurals, such as one meaning a pile of things and the other, things scattered
around. The Eskimo had a dozen different words for "seal."
The Papago would be puzzled if asked his word for arrow. He would
want to know whether hunting arrow or war arrow was meant.
Some students claim that Indians used private
language in council, adding syllables to words, in the manner of English
pig Latin; also that medicine men frequently used a language of their
own in their chants, which could not be understood by others. Women,
too, occasionally had a different ways of saying words.
It is true that in some California tribes
the speech of men and women differed. men spoke this "woman talk"
only when conversing with women. The difference was not great, but
women usually shortened the words used by men, saying ya for yana
meaning "person," or ha for hana meaning "water."
Many Indians had poetic ways of expressing
abstract terms such as love, truth, spirit, or soul. They spoke of
the "heart being warm," meaning it was glad. A man with a "big heart"
was a brave man. The white man's written words were called "hearing
with the eye," "painted speech," or "the paper that talks."
Of about 250 languages and dialects spoken
today, navajo and Sioux have become written languages, as did Cherokee
with Sequoya's alphabet.
within this Site
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