In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Languages of the Americas

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals and Series
  • Collections

Linguistics Indigenous Languages of the Americas
Marianne Mithun
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0004


The languages indigenous to North, Middle, and South America are both numerous and diverse. Boundaries between these areas are not sharp, since languages and language families often cross political lines, but linguistically North America is traditionally defined as the area north of Mexico, Middle America as Mexico and most of Central America, and South America as parts of the Caribbean, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and everything south to Tierra del Fuego. During first contacts with Europeans, around 300 distinct, mutually unintelligible languages were spoken in North America, another 350 in Middle America, and perhaps as many as 1,500 in South America. The languages are not all genetically related. In North America, around 58 separate genetic units (families and isolates) are recognized; in Middle America, 18; and in South America, another 118. Large numbers of languages have been lost since contact, and nearly all of those still spoken are highly endangered; few will survive beyond the middle of the 21st century. The languages are also typologically diverse. Many show categories and structures that are rare or only weakly developed elsewhere in the world. Priorities in scholarship have been documentation and description of the languages, on the one hand, and understanding their genetic and areal relationships, on the other.

General Overviews

Introductory surveys tend to focus on one of the three major areas—North, Middle, or South America—or a major subarea within one of them. They usually identify the languages spoken, often their current numbers of speakers, genetic relationships among the languages, and their structural characteristics. Listed here are works that range in length from a few pages to substantial articles.

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