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5 Things to Know About Native American Languages Spoken in the 21st Century

native American languages
Archie Thompson, who died in 2013 at the age of 93, was a Yurok tribal elder and one of the last known active speakers raised in the native tribal language of Yurok. Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The U.S. Census Bureau published a compilation of four years worth of data in 2011 to paint a picture of the state of Native North American languages. While the report, titled "Native North American Languages Spoken at Home in the United States and Puerto Rico: 2006 to 2010," made headlines and drew attention to the diversity of languages spoken among Native North Americans, it didn't illustrate the often-overlooked nuances between indigenous speakers.

Here are 5 facts you may not know about some of the most common native North American languages today.

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1. "Navajo" Is the Most Common Native Language, but the Name Is Not Totally Accurate

The census stated that nearly 170,000 people speak Navajo, but that term isn't entirely accurate. "Navajo is a Southern Athabaskan language and a part of the larger Athabaskan or Dene language family (other members of the Southern Athabaskan branch include all the Apache languages)," Anthony K. Webster, professor in the University of Texas at Austin Department of Anthropology and Department of Linguistics and affiliate faculty in the Native American and Indigenous Studies Program, says via email. "Related languages can be found on the Pacific Coast (Tolowa, Hupa) and in Canada and Alaska."

Samantha Cornelius, adjunct professor in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington, also points out that the term "Navajo" as it refers to language isn't quite correct. "Navajo is an exonym," she says via email. An exonym, in case you're not familiar, is a name given to a place, person or thing by an outsider. "Recent papers on the language and works produced by the community use the name 'Diné bizaad' [or Dineh bizad, in an alternate spelling]: 'people's language.' "Navajo people are Diné, which just means 'people.'"

Native American languages
"Dineh Bizad" is the Navajo language handbook, still used to teach the language to beginners.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

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2. The Reported Number of "Native Speakers" Can Be Deceiving

While the census indicated a relatively high number of Navajo or Diné bizaad speakers, Webster says the stats should be taken with a grain of salt. "Such self-identified numbers should always be used with caution, since it begs several questions, including — and rather importantly — what it means to claim to be a speaker," he says. "Much research in linguistics and linguistic anthropology have asked questions about what it means to be a speaker — and it isn't so simple as 'knows the language' — because, as can be imagined, that begs questions as well."

According to Webster, we ought to be cautious about throwing the term "speaker" around since there are a lot of factors affecting if, how, and why someone identifies as one. "We should be careful with thinking of 'speaker' as a neutral term," he says. "Likewise, for a variety of reasons, people may or may not want to identify in such a manner (questions of speakers is not a linguistic question, it is a social question). Among the reasons, of course, is racism towards Navajos and the devaluing of Navajo language and culture over the decades. So to say that there are 169,000-plus speakers of Navajo, while seemingly precise, actually is rather ambiguous concerning what that actually means.

"With that caution in mind, the language is used primarily in the American Southwest and on and around the Navajo Nation (which covers parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico)," Webster says. "But Navajos live in all 50 states and they also live in a variety of countries around the world, so Navajo is not exclusively spoken or written on the Navajo Nation; Navajos use it when they call relatives, or Skype, or whatnot, or with friends and family. Likewise, you see Navajo on Twitter and Facebook (it is a written language); not all of these people live on the Navajo Nation."

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3. People Are Preserving Native Languages in Many Different Ways

"Like many Native American languages, many Navajos are concerned that young people are not learning the language at a rate that will insure its persistence," Webster says. "But there are efforts to teach the language in schools (from early education to courses in high school to courses in college, including at Diné College), and a number of language materials have been produced over the years. There is the very good technical grammar and dictionary by the late Robert Young and the late William Morgan — 'The Navajo Language.' There is also some literature written in Navajo — the poetry of Rex Lee Jim, of Laura Tohe (currently Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation), and of others, is sometimes written in Navajo. Jim, the former Vice President of the Navajo Nation, recently published a book of poetry in Navajo and English."

"One can hear the language on the radio — on, for example, the Navajo Nation radio station, as well," Webster says. "One can also see public signs in Diné bizaad on the Navajo Nation."

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4. Overarching Labels on Native Languages Don't Represent the Variety Within Categories

According to the census, there are 13,063 native speakers of "Apache," but that category is much broader than the poll indicates. "Apache is also a wide umbrella — there are many 'Apachean' languages, which include Diné bizaad, but no single language called Apache," Cornelius says.

"Apache actually covers a number of different languages," Webster says. "The largest — that is the one with the most speakers — is Western Apache and that's spoken in San Carlos and White Mountain (in Arizona), for example. My understanding is that there are over 10,000 speakers."

But those aren't the only two categories of Apache, according to Webster. "There are other Apache languages — Jicarilla Apache, spoken in northern New Mexico, on the reservation there; Mescalero Apache, Chiricahua Apache and Lipan Apache — spoken to varying degrees on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in south central New Mexico; and Plains Apache — spoken, again to varying degrees, in Oklahoma," he says. "All these languages are related historically (and related as well to Navajo) — think, for example, of English and German or Spanish and French. All of the Apache Tribes have language revitalization programs — that is, they are working to teach future generations of Apaches the language."

And while the census cited nearly 19,000 Yupik speakers, experts say that's an umbrella term as well that deserves a bit more clarification. "Yupik is the name of a language family, not a single language," Cornelius says. "Yupik refers to central Alaskan Yup'ik, which is the Yupik language (and indigenous language of Alaska) with the largest number of speakers. They are also the most populous Alaska native group."

Finally, while the term "Sioux" is the name for a confederacy of several native tribes, there are linguistic differences between these tribes. "Sioux, as far as I know, is a historic term that covers several languages/dialects that may or may not be mutually intelligible, including Lakota and Dakota," Cornelius says. "Lakota has several robust language revitalization efforts (Lakota Language Project, Lakota Language Consortium), which are separate from Dakota revitalization (Dakota Language Project) in coordination with Carleton College [in Minnesota]."

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5. In the Age of COVID-19, Native Languages Are Proving Their Longevity and Resilience

"Both the Navajo and various Sioux Tribal governments have been in the news recently concerning their responses to COVID-19," Webster says. "They have asserted their sovereignty and the responsibility of keeping their people safe in the face of this global pandemic; the value of elder speakers of the language, of those with knowledge, is often quite important — certainly for Navajos that I know — and protecting their elders, protecting their relatives, is for many a priority. That history of racism recurs here as well.

"So it is a testament to the resilience of generations of Navajos that there is still a Navajo language being spoken today," Webster continues. "One cannot understand the present status of Native American languages without understanding that history of the United States."

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