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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Dialects

Q: Aren't all Amerindian languages related?
A: No. They are usually discussed together for convenience's sake. There are more than twenty Amerindian language families. There is no *Proto-Amerindian language, any more than there is a *Proto-Eurasian language. Cherokee and Navajo are no more closely related than English and Chinese.

Q: These 'languages' are really just dialects, right?
A: No. Dialects are mutually comprehensible. A Cherokee speaker cannot understand even one word of Navajo, or vice versa. There are some languages, such as Cree and Ojibwe--or French and Italian-- which are sufficiently similar to each other that a speaker of one language can understand some words from the other. Then there are some languages that are so closely related that linguists disagree whether they are dialects or distinct languages. In these cases, we have made a special note of the situation. However, such cases are few and far between. If there is no such note on the page of a language, there is no disagreement about it. It is a 'real' language, and it is no more a dialect of other Amerindian languages than English is a dialect of Dutch.



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