The American languages show considerable variety in phonetics and
structure. While some are vocalic and appear melodious to our ear,
others contain many consonant sounds to which we are unaccustomed and
which seem to give them a harsh character. Particularly frequent are
sounds produced by contact between the base of the tongue and the soft
palate, similar to the Scotch ch in loch, and a number of explosive l's,
which are produced by pressing the tongue against the palate and
suddenly expelling the air between the teeth. harshness produced by
clustering consonants is peculiar to' the N. NV. coast of America.
Sonorous vocalic languages are found in a large part of the Mississippi
basin and in California. Peculiar to many American languages is a
slurring of terminal syllables, which makes the recording of grammatical
Contrary to the prevalent notion, the vocabularies are
rich and their grammatical structure is systematic and intricate. Owing
to the wealth of derivatives it is difficult to estimate the number of
words in any American language; but it is certain that in every one
there are a couple of thousand of stem words and many thousand words, as
that term is defined in English dictionaries.
A considerable variety of grammatical structure exists,
but there are a few common traits that seem to be characteristic of most
American languages. The complexity of grammar is often great because
many ideas expressed by separate words in the languages of other
continents are expressed bygramrnatical processes in the languages of
the Indians. The classification of words differs somewhat from the
familiar grouping in Indo-European languages. The demarcation between
noun and verb is often indistinct, many expressions being both
denominative and predicative.
Often the intransitive verb and the noun
are identical in form, while the transitive verb only is truly verbal in
character. In other languages the transitive verb is nominal, while the
intransitive only is truly verbal. These phenomena are generally
accompanied by the use of possessive pronouns with the nominal and of
personal pronouns with the verbal class of words. In other cases the
verbal forms are differentiated from the noun, but the close
relationship between the two classes is indicated by the similarity of
the pronominal forms. The intransitive verb generally includes the ideas
which Indo-European languages express by means of adjectives.
Independent pronouns are often compounds, and the pronoun appears in
most cases subordinated to the verb.
In the singular are distinguished self (or speaker),
person addressed, and person spoken of; in the plural, corresponding to
our first person, are often distinguished the combination of speaker and
persons addressed, and speaker and persons spoken of, the so-called
inclusive and exclusive forms.
The demonstrative pronouns are analogous to the
personal pronoun in that they are generally developed in three forms,
indicating respectively the thing near me, near the, near him. Their
development is seinetiuces even inure exuberant, visibility and
invisibility, present and past, or location to the right, left, front
and back of, and above and below the speaker, being distinguished.
The subordination of the pronoun to the verb is often carried
to extremes. In many languages the pronominal subject, the object, and
the indirect object are incorporated in the verb, for which reason
American languages have often been called "incorporating languages."
There are, however, numerous languages in which this pronominal
subordination does not occur. In some the process of incorporation does
not cease with the pronoun; but the noun, particularly the nominal
object, is treated in the same manner. Where such incorporation is found
the development of nominal cases is sight, since the incorporation
renders this unnecessary.
The occurrence of other classes of words depends
largely on the development of another feature of American languages,
which is probably common to them all, namely, the expression of a great
number of special ideas by means of either affixes or stem modification.
On account of the exuberance of such elements American languages have
been called " polysynthetic." The character of the subordinated elements
shows great variations. In some languages most of the ideas that are
subordinated are instrumental (with the hand, the foot, or the like;
with the point or the edge of something, etc.); in others they include
all kinds of qualifying ideas, such as are generally expressed by
auxiliary verbs, verbal compounds, and adverbs.
The Eskimo, for
instance, by composition of other elements with the stein "to see," may
express "he only orders him to go and see"; a Chiuimesyan composition
with the verb to go is, "he went with him upward in the dark and came
against an obstacle." The existence of numerous subordinate elements of
this kind has a strong effect in determining the series of stein words
in a language. Whenever this method of composition is highly developed
many special ideas are expressed by stems of very general significance,
combined with qualifying elements.
Their occurrence is also the cause of
the obviousness of Indian etymologies. These elements also occur
sometimes independently, so that the process is rather one of coordinate
composition than of subordination. The forms of words that enter
composition of this kind sometimes undergo considerable phonetic
modification by losing affixes or by other processes. In such cases
composition apparently is brought about by apucope, or decapitation of
words; but c n ust. of these seec u t e he red uci b l e' to regular
processes. In many languages poly_ synthesis is so highly developed that
it almost entirely sculptresses adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.
The categories of Indo-European languages do not
correspond strictly to those of Indian languages. This is true
particularly of the ideas of gender and plurality. Grammatical gender
based on sex distinction is very rare in America. It is based oil other
qualities, as animate and inanimate, or noble and ignoble, and often
relates only to shape, as round, long, or flat. Complete absence of such
classification is frequent. Plurality is seldom clearly developed; it is
often absent even in the pronoun; its place is taken by the ideas of
collectivity and distribution, which are expressed more often than
plurality. Tense is also weakly developed in many languages, although
others have a complex system of tenses. Like other adverbial ideas tense
is often expressed by affixes. bloods and voice of the verb are also
sometimes undeveloped and are expressed by adverbial elements.
In the use of grammatical processes there is great
diversity. Suffixes occur almost everywhere; prefixes are not quite so
frequent. Infixes seem to be contiiced to the Siouan languages, although
in fixation by metathesis occurs in other languages also. Reduplication
is frequent, sometimes extending to triplication; but in some groups of
languages it does not occur at all. Other forms of modification of stem
Indian languages tend to express ideas with much
graphic detail in regard to localization and form, although other
determining elements which Indo-European languages require may be
absent. Those languages are, therefore, not so well adapted to
generalized statements as to livt'ly description. The power to form
abstract ideas is nevertheless not lacking, and the development of
abstract thought would find in every one of the languages a ready means
Yet, since the Indian is not given to purely abstract
speculation, his abstract terms always appear in close connection with
concrete thought; for instance, qualities are often expressed by nominal
terms, but are never used without possessive pronouns according to the
types of culture served by the languages we find holophrastic terms,
expressing complex groups of ideas. These, however, are not due to a
lack of power to classify, but are rather expressions of form of
culture, single terms being intended for those ideas that are of prince
importance to the people.
The differentiation of stocks into dialects shows great
variation, some stocks comprising only one dialect, while others embrace
many that are mutually unintelligible. While the Eskimo have retained
their language in all its Minor features for cent tines, that of the
Salish, who are confined to a small area is the N. Pacific region, is
split up into innumerable dialects. The fate of each stock is probably
due as much to the morphological traits of the language itself as to the
effects of its contact with other languages.
reduplication, phonetic changes in the stem, and strong phonetic
modifications in composition occur, changes seem to be more rapid than
where grammatical processes are based on simple laws of composition.
Contact with other languages has had a far-reaching effect through
assimilation of syntactic structure and, to a certain extent, of
phonetic type. There is, however, no historical proof of the change of
any Indian language since the time of the discovery comparable with that
of the language of England between the 10th and lath centuries.
A few peculiarities of language are worth
mentioning. As various parts of the population speaking„ modern English
differ somewhat in their forms of expression, so similar variations are
found in American languages. One of the frequent types of difference is
that between the language of men and that of women. This difference may
be one of pronunciation, as among some Eskimo tribes, or may consist in
the use of different sets of imperative and declarative particles, as
among the Sioux, or in other differences of vocabulary; or it may be
more fundamental, due to the foreign origin of the women of the tribe.
In incantations and in the formal speeches of priests and shamans a
peculiar vocabulary is sometimes used, containing many archaic and
Handbook of American Indians, Frederick W. Hodge,1906
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