American Indian languages            American Indian tribes            What's new on our site today!

Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: Language Complexity

Q: Are Amerindian languages simpler and more primitive than European languages?
A: No. Actually, no human language is 'simpler' than another--linguistic analysis consistently shows identical semantic content being carried by the same amount of morphosyntactic structure cross-linguistically. Besides, if one Amerindian language has a feature which someone claims is 'simpler' than English, you can bet the farm that one of the other 800 has the same feature more 'complex' than English. I saw one site claiming that Algonquian languages have 'childlike' noun syntax. (Algonquian languages do tend to be verb-based.) Whoever has taken this as evidence of English superiority over the Algonquins had better be prepared to submit humbly to the Inuit, though, since Inuktitut has about four times the noun phrase complexity of English.

Q: Is it true that Amerindian languages have no word for time, love, honesty, etcetera?
A: No. I do not know of any Amerindian language lacking words for time, love, or honesty. This statement is usually made by people who are trying to dehumanize Indians as savages incapable of abstraction, love and honesty (or sometimes by New Agers who are trying to exalt Indians as noble savages incapable of abstraction, love and honesty). Sometimes the statement is rendered technically true by playing with phrasing. The word 'time' is a verb in Mi'kmaq, for example, so there isn't an exact translation for English 'time', even though a Mi'kmaq speaker can clearly express the same concept of time passing that an English speaker can.

Q: But don't Indians conceptualize time differently than Westerners?
A: Well, yes and no. Cherokee have a different time concept from Mayans, and Germans from Greeks. But we all have words for time and its passage.

Q: Okay, then can you give some examples of time words in Amerindian languages?
A: Sure. The three languages that seem to suffer from this myth the most are Algonquin (because a New Age guru claimed that the Algonquins have no word for time), Hopi (because a linguist in the 1950's claimed that the Hopis had no words for the passing of time), and Lakota Sioux (because a missionary in the 19th century claimed that the Lakotas couldn't conceptualize time passing). The moral here is that New Age authors, missionaries, and even linguists don't necessarily know how to have a basic conversation in a language before they start talking about it.

Algonquin temporal expressions include: pidjinago (yesterday), awasonago (day before yesterday), wabang (tomorrow), piskab (right away), Niki-Kizis, Kawasikotodj-Kizis, Wabigon-Kizis (names of three of the traditional lunar months), inganiba kabetibik (I will sleep all night), wewibitwada, nongam nikiwagad (let's hurry up, it's getting dark now.)

Hopi temporal expressions include: taavok (yesterday), qaavo (tomorrow), lootok (day after tomorrow), tooki (last night), Kyelmuya, Kyaamuya, Paamuya (names of three of the traditional lunar months), um hisat tiitiwa? (when were you born?), ason nu noosani (I will eat later).

Lakota Sioux temporal expressions include: ihtalehan (the previous day), ihinhanna (the next day), Wiocokanyan, Tiyoheyunka, Istawicayazan (names of three of the traditional lunar months), ecana aglihunniktelo (he will come back soon), tkonskiya ye anpetutahena (finish your work before the day is done).

Note that these are not words borrowed from English or newly invented; you can see the same words in old legends and stories. So much for that then.

Q: Do Amerindian languages come from outer space, the spirit world, or the lost island of Atlantis?
A: No. The people I have seen making these claims usually do not present any linguistic or historical evidence, instead citing a dream they had or something an alien told them. This is because there is no linguistic or historical evidence. Amerindian languages, like other languages, came from our human ancestors. As for the evidence of dreams and spirituality, it is hypocritical to promote white spirituality as superior to scientific evidence, but scientific evidence as superior to Indian spirituality. If you are more interested in religious beliefs than scientific knowledge, then you should listen to Indian religious beliefs about their own origins. There is no Indian spiritual tradition supporting the idea that Amerindian languages came from aliens or mermen.

Q: Is it true that all Amerindian languages [insert verb phrase here]?
A: No. Unless you were going to end your sentence "are spoken in the Western Hemisphere." There is no distinguishing linguistic trait shared by all Amerindian languages. They are not all related to each other.



Previous question: Are there problems with being bilingual?
Next question: When did Native Americans come to America?
Back to the Infrequently Asked Questions index
Language of the day: Lenape



Native American Words * Native American Art * Native American Names

Would you like to help support our organization's work with endangered American Indian languages?

or buy some books through this link:


Native Languages of the Americas website 1998-2007 * Contacts and FAQ page