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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY

THE LANGUAGES OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS
By Dr. A. L. KROEBER

CURATOR OF ANTHROPOLOGY, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA

THE day is past when educated people believed that the Indian languages were only random jargons of a few inarticulate sounds, without grammar or order, and so badly in need of supplementary gestures to make them intelligible that the Indians could not converse in the dark. Still farther have we got beyond the point of speaking of the Indian language, as if all tribes used essentially one and the same idiom. Such notions may yet linger among the uncultured, and now and then reflections of them still crop up in books written by authors whose knowledge is not first hand. But the progress of science has been so great in the last half century that the world now looks upon the tongues of the native Americans with newer and sounder ideas.

Probably the most important and most surprising fact about American Indian languages is their enormous number. On the North American continent there were spoken probably 1,000, and possibly even more different languages and dialects. Of South America we know less, but everything points to an equal linguistic variety on that continent. The tremendous total is astounding because the aboriginal population in both continents certainly numbered fewer millions than are to-day found in many single European countries in which only one language prevails. The twenty-five or fifty millions of American Indians possessed as many different languages as the billion or more inhabitants of the old world.

Language and History

To the historian and the ethnologist this linguistic diversity is of the utmost consequence, because it affords him his most important means of classifying the native peoples of America, and ascertaining their connections, their migrations and in part even their origins.

To the student of old-world history and ethnology, philology is also a serviceable handmaid, though to a less degree than in America. This happens, in the first place, because the languages of the eastern hemisphere are, on the whole, each more widely spread; and secondly, because history and archeology carry our knowledge of many peoples of Europe, Asia and Africa back for thousands of years—as compared with the bare four centuries since the discovery of America. History is, therefore, much more able to stand on its own feet in the old world than in the new. Nevertheless, when the historian goes back to origins.