American Languages

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Languages Found Only in the United States

There were well over 200 languages (maybe over 300 languages) spoken in the United States. These languages exist nowhere else in the world. Many are extinct and those that are left are moribund.

Although English dialectology is interesting, I'm much more interested in non-English American languages. They tend to be much more at risk of dying than English dialects for a variety of social, political, economic, and historic reasons. I won't go into all that here. There are many books discussing language death at (mostly) university libraries.

What's also interesting is that many of my ancestors spoke languages that are now either dead or dying (though some do have very vigorous revival movements which may be helpful in the long run).

Numbers

During the historic period (about 1600 and later), Ohio has been in the odd position of having several Native American groups moving in and out of the state but none staying for very long. Further, some tribes associated with Ohio originated far from Ohio—the Delaware, Wyandot, and Ottawa. Or the main body of the tribe was in a neighboring state and only some of the group could be found in Ohio. I think of the Miami as being from Indiana although the Miami do play a role in Ohio history.

Anyway, the tribes typically associated with Ohio are the Munsee (a Delaware/Lenape group), Miami, Shawnee, Ottawa, Wyandot, and Mingo. A case could be made for adding other groups to ths list.

The Munsee, Miami, Shawnee, and Ottawa languages are Algonkian. Wyandot and Mingo are Iroquoian. Ohio only recognizes one tribe officially: The United Remnant Band of the Shawnee Nation.



One to ten in Native American languages associated with Ohio:

EnglishMunseeMiamiShawneeOttawaWyandotMingo
onengwútninkotinekotibezhigscatskát
twoníishaniišwiniišwiniizhtin,deetekní
threenxáhnihswinθwinswishaight
fournéewaniiwiniyeewiniiwinan.daghtkéi
fivenáalanyaalanwiniyaalanwinaananwee,ishwis
sixngwútaashkaakaathswinekotwa'θwingodwaaswiwa,shawyéi'
sevenníishaashswaahteethswiniišwa'θwiniizhwaaswisoo,ta,retsátak
eightxáashpalaaninθwaašikθwinshwaaswiace,taraiteknyö'
ninenóoliininkotimeneehkičaakatθwizhaangswiain,trutyuhtô
tenwíimbatmataathswimeta'θwimdaaswiaugh,saghwashê


Some sources and notes for the material above:

Delaware (Lënape)—from John O'Meara's Delaware-English English-Delaware Dictionary. Munsee (Munsiiw) is still spoken in Ontario by fewer than a half dozen elders. This is the language of the Moravian Indians of Tuscarawas County, Ohio. It was the language spoken closest to where I live in Ohio. The Delaware peoples were originally from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

A closely related language (or dialect) is Unami. It is extinct as a first language, but some learned it from elders, and language classes are sponsored by the tribe. It is spoken in Oklahoma.

This is the Lord's Prayer in Lënape:

Ki Wetochemelenk, talli epian Awossagame.
Machelendasutsch Ktellewunsowoagan.
Ksakimawoagan pejewigetsch.
Ktelitehewoagan legetsch talli Achquidhackamike, elgiqui leek talli Awossagame.
Milineen eligischquik gunigischuk Achpoan.
Woak miwelendammauwineen 'n Tschannauchsowoagannena, elgiqui niluna miwelendammauwenk nik Tschetschanilawequengik.
Woak katschi' npawuneen li Achquetschiechtowoaganüng, tschukund ktennineen untschi Medhicküng.
Alod knihillatamen Ksakimawoagan, woak Ktallewussowoagan, woak Ktallowilüssowoagan ne wuntschi hallemiwi li hallamagamik.


The prayer is found in Essay of a Delaware-Indian and English Spelling-Book, for the Use of Schools of the Christian Indians on Muskingum River by David Zeisberger. It can be found at the Schoenbrunn Village historical site giftshop (where I found mine) in the Dover-New Philadelphia area of Ohio where Zeisberger was a missionary. Or I am sure it can be found readily online. The ISBN is 1-56651-007-4. This book was clarified and copyrighted by Arthur W. McGraw in 1991.

Miami (Myaamia)The Miami-Illinois Language by David J. Costa. Costa found that there are a lot of variations between sources when it comes to Miami numbers. The above are the ones used in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He includes as variations: 'one' nkóti; 'five' nyaalanwi and myaaranwi (note that 'fifty' is yaalanomateene. I've also found yaalaanwi for 'five'); 'eight' paraare and niišomeneehki; 'nine' nkótimeneehki. Another variation of Miami numbers is here. As I hazily remember from some source, Miami died out in the 1960s in Oklahoma. Some partial speakers may have been found among the Miami of Indiana as late as the 1970s, but no formally trained linguist ever studied the language of the last speakers!

There are now a few books and a CD available through the Myaamia Project at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and the Miami Nation of Oklahoma. There is also a brief article at Endangered Languages.

Also, I just found some videos of Dr. David Costa and Daryl Baldwin on YouTube. Costa and Baldwin may be about the only fluent speakers of Miami (so far). Daryl Baldwin is speaking Miami at about 7:10 and 12:05.

Shawnee (Šaawanwa? or Sawanwa)An Introduction to the Shawnee Language by Ronald L. Chrisley. There are now probably fewer than 200 speakers of Shawnee.

Ottawa (Odawa or Nishnaabemwin)Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar by J. Randolph Valentine. He has an alternative for 'four': naanin.

Ottawa is part of Ojibwe. Ojibwe is a dialect cluster; that is, it is better described as a group of dialects or closely related languages. Ojibwe is known by a lot of different names, some of which vary depending on which dialect one is referring to: Anishnaabemowin, Anishinaabemowin, Anishinabe, Ojibwa, Ojibwe, Odaawa, Odaawaa, Ojibwemowin, Ojibway, Chippewa. There are over 150 bands of Ojibwe. One form of Ojibwe "shades into" Cree (Oji-Cree or Severn Ojibwe) so Cree is understandable to some Ojibwe. Algonquin is reckoned to be a (rather divergent) dialect of Ojibwe.

One difference between Ottawa and other forms of Ojibwe is that Ottawa tends to drop some unstressed vowels as in 'three' and 'ten' above. In Ojibwe they're niswi and midaaswi. I've also come across the Ojibwe forms bezhik for 'one', niish for 'two', niiwiin for 'four', naanwan for 'five', and (n)ingodwaaswi for 'six'. The source for much of this is native-languages.org. You can click yourself silly with the links they have there.

Ojibwe is in a strong position in terms of numbers of speakers. Some 35,000 to 65,000 people speak a form of it. Some children even learn it as a first language. Ottawa proper is only spoken by maybe only a few hundred speakers. They live mostly in Ontario around Georgian Bay and North Channel, though a few are around Sarnia, Ontario, and in Michigan.

Wyandot (Wendat)Specimen of Shawanoese & Wyandott, or Huron Language, a book(let) by Col. John Johnson. Actually, what little I have on the Wyandot language is from a reprint of Johnson's booklet or at the Wyandot Nation of Kansas site. The Wyandot Nation site includes the B.N.O. Walker wordlist with numbers from one to ten: scot, ten-deeh, sh-enk, en-dahk, wish-a, wah-sha, soo-tah-reh, ah-teh-reh, en-tro, ah-seh. I recently came across a new site called First Voices. It has wordlists in a modern orthography. The numbers one through ten are: skat, tëndih, ahchienhk, ndahk, wihch, wahia, tsoutare', a'tere', en'tron', ahsen.

The Wyandot language died out in the 1960s.

The Wyandot were moved out of Ohio in the 1840s, making them the last tribe to leave Ohio. (Some Shawnee individuals seem to have remained.) They had a mill and a small Methodist mission, both of which are still standing. They first went to Kansas and some of these people later went to Oklahoma.

As one can tell from the title of Col. Johnson's booklet, Wyandot is similar to Huron (Wendat). According to Marianne Mithun in The Languages of Native North America, the Wyandot were made up from the remnants of the Huronian groups (Huron, Tionontati (Petun), Erie, and Neutral) after a series of epidemics and wars. The Petun dialect seems to be an important element in what is now Wyandot. Here is a video in Wendat.

Mingo (Unyææshæötká') — Much can be found at Mingo Egads.The author of Mingo Egads has other forms for numbers on his site: 'four' kéí, 'six' yéí', 'eight' teknyô.

The Mingo are an Iroquoian group made up of Seneca, Delaware, Shawnee, Susquehannock, and Wyandot groups. The Seneca seem to be the most important element, however. Chief Logan was a Mingo. For a comparison with Seneca, here are the numbers 1-10 from Wallace Chafe in his Handbook of the Seneca Language (Lord only knows if the browser will pick this up): ska:t, tekhni:h, sęh, ke:ih, wis, ye:i', ja:tak, tekyǫ', tyohtǫ:h, washę:h. There are fewer than a dozen speakers of Mingo.

The Seneca-Cayuga of Oklahoma are descendants of the Mingo. Seneca-Cayuga was spoken as late as the 1980s. The numbers one to five in Cayuga are: sga:t, dekni:, ahsenh, gei:, hwihs. There are fewer than 100 speakers of Cayuga, all of them in Canada.



Other American Languages

Some American languages come from European languages. Generally, they derive from a specific dialect of a European language which may or may not be close to the standard form of the language today, and they often borrow American English words and form calques. Sadly, many of these languages are either extinct or only spoken by the elderly.

  • Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvaanisch Deitsch)—The numbers one through ten in Pennsylvania German are: eens, zwee, drei, vier, fimf, sechs, siwwe, acht, nein, zehe. There may be as many as 300,000 speakers of Pennsylvania German in the world including some Mennonites and Amish in places like Belize and Paraguay.
  • Texas German is still spoken in Texas. A newish book (2009), The Life and Death of Texas German by Hans C. Boas (ISBN: 978-0-8223-6716-1) covers what's going on in the language.
  • Wisconsin German—I don't know much about this. Many people in Wisconsin speak various forms of German, of course. All dialects of German in Wisconsin are dying out. I thought there was a form of German from some Pommeranian dialects spoken in the northern part of the state that had developed into a uniquely American form, but now I think I may have misremembered something. I'll have to look into this more.
  • Amish German—is, for the most part, the same as Pennsylvania German. Most Pennsylvania German speakers were Lutheran, German Reformed, and so on. The Amish are the ones still standing—the language having died out among all other groups except for the Amish. Pennsylvania German descends from Pfälzisch (Palatine) dialects, but the Amish in Ohio tend to come more directly from Switzerland which has its own form of German (Alemanic).
  • Cajun French—(français cadien)—spoken in Louisiana west and southwest of New Orleans. A few speakers may still be found in southeastern Texas. And,...
  • Louisiana Creole—not the same as above. It has some similarities with Haitian Creole. A paragraph at the Cajun French wiki is helpful: "Cajun French, or Colonial Louisiana French, should be considered a continuum with normative French with Louisiana vocabulary and expressions at one end and creolized Louisiana French at the other. At some point the Louisiana French becomes so creolized that it is better described as Louisiana Creole French, a separate language."
  • New England French—the French spoken in New England, mostly in Maine (over 5% of the population of Maine). This form of French is more or less the same as the dialects found across the border in Québec and New Brunswick.
  • Michif - a mix of Cree and French, spoken mostly in Canada but perhaps some in North Dakota and Minnesota.
  • Missouri French—I just came across this one. I little bit is here.
  • Jersey Dutch - spoken in Passaic and Bergen counties in New Jersey as late the early 20th Century. Two hundred speakers could be found as late as 1910. Some words and phrases were still used by the Ramapo Mountain People (also known as the Jackson Whites) into the 1970s. The Ramapo Mountain People live in the Ramapo Mountains of New York and New Jersey. David Steven Cohen wrote about them in a book called The Ramapo Mountain People in 1974. It was reprinted in 1986. Cohen has a short Jersey Dutch wordlist on p. 212. Jersey Dutch either was, or close to, what President Martin Van Buren spoke. He is the only American president whose first language was not English.
    Concerning American presidents, it may be interesting to note here that presidents Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison could speak Choctaw. Which languages presidents, or any people who are famous, spoke is rarely mentioned in biographies, it seems, unless it's something unusual. It seems President Barack Obama speaks at least enough Indonesian to express basic pleasantries. A video is here. My page on which languages American presidents may have spoken is here.
  • Mohawk Dutch—is sadly not recorded. Mohawk Dutch was spoken around Albany, New York, when the Dutch were in possession of New York in the 17th century.
  • There was also New Jersey Jargon or Delaware [Lenape] Jargon which is actually a Delaware (Lenape) based language but has some Dutch (and probably English and Swedish) words in it. There are no references to it after 1785. There are some wordlists and a catechism written in it.
  • Isleño - spoken in five or six small towns near New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina. Many Isleños ("Islanders") now live more or less all over the south with friends and relatives. Katrina's destruction wasn't just physical, it was cultural as well. The Isleños were originally from the Canary Islands and are known for their décimas, ten line songs about everyday life.
  • New Mexican Spanish - When the United States took over the southwest after the Mexican-American War, it was largely uninhabited by Europeans except for some families in a few valleys in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. They've been able to keep up the language over the generations; however, like all of the languages listed on this page, it is in decline. This language is different than what is spoken by recent immigrants from Mexico. There is a nice wiki.
  • Gullah is the language of many African Americans to this day who live on the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. There's a wiki for Gullah.
  • Afro-Seminole Creole is related to Gullah above. It only has 200 speakers.
  • Then there's Boontling, the language of Boonville, California. The wiki explains more. An article at the San Francisco Chronicle site is no more.
  • Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is extinct. It arose from a number of people with hereditary deafness on Martha's Vineyard. There is a wiki of course.
  • American Sign Language is signed by as many as 2,000,000 people. It is derived from French Sign Language. Signers of British Sign Language and American Sign Language cannot understand one another. It is no longer unique to the United States and is used in many other countries. There are several dialects.
  • Plains Indian Sign Language was (and maybe still is?) used by Native Americans in the Great Plains. It was also used some in Canada. Signers were found over an area of 1,000,000 square miles at one point.
  • Texas Silesian—is still spoken. Silesian, originally from southwestern Poland, is considered a language in its own right by Silesians, but most Poles would count it as a divergent Polish dialect. Texas Silesian has developed into its own dialect.