Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 78.djvu/517

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LANGUAGES OF THE AMERICAN INDIANS

written down. Documents were recorded in it and extensive grammars and dictionaries prepared. These grammars and dictionaries are perfectly correct and entirely applicable to the Aztec language as it is spoken to-day. The same is true of the various Maya dialects of Yucatan. We possess records going back two centuries and more of Eskimo, Algonkin, Iroquois and other languages of the United States and Canada as well as of South American tongues. In no instance is any notable change observable. It may in fact be doubted whether most Indian languages have changed as much in pronunciation in the last three hundred years as English has since the time of Skakespeare.

Of course the vocabularies recorded some centuries ago and those written down recently are often far from identical, but the principal differences of this sort must be laid to the imperfect and often curious systems of orthography used. Almost all Indian languages contain at least some sounds that do not occur in the languages of Europe, The Spanish conqueror or the French explorer would represent these unfamiliar sounds with different letters than the subsequent English settler or German scientist. In fact differences fully as great as those between old and modern vocabularies can be found in lists of words taken down in the same period in recent times, by different observers, particularly if these observers were of different nationality. It is probable that the superstition as regards the alleged rapid change of Indian languages is due largely to this cause.

The conservatism of American languages is brilliantly illustrated by the Athabascan family, another of the great linguistic stocks of North America. All the Athabascan dialects are remarkably close, so that a person acquainted with one could learn to understand another in a very short time. The same grammatical processes continue through all of them with almost no change. Yet some of the Athabascan tribes occupy the interior of Alaska and the northwestern parts of Canada. Two branches are in the great plains: the Sarsee, closely affiliated with the Blackfeet, and the Kiowa-Apache, almost amalgamated with the Kiowa though retaining their own speech. In New Mexico and Arizona are the Navaho and Apache. In the interior of British Columbia, just south of Puget Sound in Washington, along the coast of Oregon, and in northwestern California, are other areas, each separated from the other, in which Athabascan was spoken. The tribes belonging to the family are scattered over parts of an area measured by more than forty degrees of latitude and sixty of longitude and embracing at least half of North America. Their original center of dispersion is unknown, but wherever they came from in the first place it is clear that it must have taken them a very long time to force their way individually over thousands of miles, over mountains and rivers, and constantly crowding aside hostile tribes as they moved from one