The useful Native Languages of the Americas site compiles as many links as they can find:

We are a small non-profit organization dedicated to the survival of Native American languages, particularly through the use of Internet technology. Our website is not beautiful. Probably, it never will be. But this site has inner beauty, for it is, or will be, a compendium of online materials about more than 800 indigenous languages of the Western Hemisphere and the people that speak them.

I’m particularly taken with their faq page, linked on the front page from the question “Why aren’t there any links about how American Indian languages are descended from Ancient Egyptian?” Their discussion of this issue includes a very good chart explaining how languages are grouped into families and the role of coincidence:

As you can probably see even from this small amount of data, English is related to Dutch and German; Hebrew is related to Arabic and Maltese; and Ojibwe is related to Algonquin and Cree. On the other hand, if I had taken only the English word “seven” and the Hebrew word “sheva,” maybe I could have convinced you English was related to Hebrew. And if I had shown you only Hebrew “shalosh” and Arabic “thalatha,” you might not have noticed they were related.

(Via plep.)


  1. Cryptic Ned says

    I remain amazed by how people put together these theories and assumptions about languages being related based on totally nonsensical treatment of data. It’s the equivalent of using color and size to group animals taxonomically.

  2. This is a fascinating article, languagehat. Is much known about the evolution of American Indian languages? I’d be grateful if someone could suggest a good website.

  3. Michael Farris says

    The first paper I ever presented at a conference (almost 20 years ago) was sort of on this topic.
    The title (if memory serves) was “Linguistics and the Aymaralogos: Science beyond the fringe” and concerned the many colorful and varied theories of (mostly Bolivian, non-Indian) pseudo-scientists with no linguistic training who claimed that the Aymara language was the original language of Eden, related to Turkish or Japanese (or both!) etc. It was written in relation to a Bolivian guy (again non-Indian) who was getting a lot of press at the time for claiming that Aymara was an artificial language, scientifically invented for expressing ‘tri-valent logic’ (so you could answer a question with ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’ which is apparently something you can’t do in other languages…). He was also suggesting Aymara was an ideal interlanguage for computer translation. As was typical, he didn’t really know Aymara very well, his Aymara sentences in his magnum opus were judged by my teacher (native speaker from Peru) to be either gibberish or having very different meanings from what he claimed.
    After having a lot of fun at the Aymarologos’ expense, I then (cleverly I thought) discussed parallels between Aymarologo theories and a kind of indigenous Andean legend (I forget the name, but gente may have been in there somewhere) in which malovent spirits (who inhabited the sites of ruins) took the form of white men and did a lot of nasty things to Indians unlucky enough to come across them. Both phenomenon shared certain characteristics (such as crediting Andean civilization non-Indigenous sources) and could be understood as ways of coping with the psychological dislocation inherent with the manifestly unjust social situation in most of the Andes (which takes a toll on oppressor and oppressed alike).

  4. Bill Poser says

    In response to Eliza’s request, I’m afraid that I don’t know of a website that contains much detail on the relationships of native American languages. The best single reference is Lyle Campbell’s book American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford University Press, 1997) which discusses all of the languages and the issues.

  5. Cryptic Ned, I like that metaphor very much.
    Come to think of it, “grouping animals by size and color” is a lot of what’s at play in racism, racialism, and sexism, so I suppose it’s not that rare after all.

  6. It’s 2020 and the site is still there! And it still has the look and feel of early 2000’s internet. 🙂

  7. Yes, that’s pleasing and refreshing!

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