Languages spoken by the original inhabitants of the Americas and the West Indies and by their modern descendants. They display an extraordinary structural range, and no attempt to unite them into a small number of genetic groupings has won general acceptance. Before the arrival of Columbus, more than 300 distinct languages were spoken in North America north of Mexico by an estimated population of two to seven million. Today fewer than 170 languages are spoken, of which the great majority are spoken fluently only by older adults. A few widespread language families (Algonquian, Iroquoian, Siouan, Muskogean, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Salishan) account for many of the languages of eastern and interior North America, though the far west was an area of extreme diversity (see Hokan; Penutian). It is estimated that in Mexico and northern Central America (Mesoamerica), an estimated 15–20 million people spoke more than 300 languages before Columbus. The large Otomanguean and Maya families and a single language, Nahuatl, shared Mesoamerica with many smaller families and language isolates. More than 10 of these languages and language complexes still have more than 100,000 speakers. South America and the West Indies had an estimated pre-Columbian population of 10–20 million, speaking more than 500 languages. Important language families include Chibchan in Colombia and southern Central America, Quechuan and Aymaran in the Andean region, and Arawakan, Cariban, and Tupian in northern and central lowland South America. Aside from Quechuan and Aymaran, with about 10 million speakers, and the Tupian language Guaraní, most remaining South American Indian languages have very few speakers, and some face certain extinction.
Learn more about American Indian languages with a free trial on Britannica.com.