Languages of North America
The languages of North America, and of the Americas in general, can be subdivided in a number of different ways: by geographical region, political affiliation, or familial relationship. The latter method will be employed here, as it gives the best sense of the vast areas over which some languages or language families once ranged. As elsewhere in the world, political boundaries are rarely equated with linguistic ones.
So subdivided, native North American languages form six or seven super-families, leaving only a few isolated languages still defying classification. This scheme is based on the pioneering work of the American linguist Edward Sapir, some of which is still hotly debated by specialists.
Central American languages
Over the entire region, a relatively small geographical area, the language situation is highly complex: there are some 19 members of the Penutian family, 33 of the Aztec-Tanoan, around 80 of the Mayan, and 146 of the Oto-Manguean.
Languages of South America
Less is known about the languages of South America than about those of the remaining western hemisphere, yet there are many important languages in this region, including the Quechua of the Incas, which is spoken over a vast area including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. Guaraní, which along with Spanish is the official language of Paraguay, has 3 million speakers (almost as many as Norwegian).
In South America the native languages are more widely used than in either of the other two American regions and they have many speakers who may use only one of the local languages throughout their lives. Unfortunately, knowledge of the distribution and family membership of these languages is limited.
Languages within a particular family may have grown as diverse as English and French or, perhaps, as English and Russian. That said, a great number of individual languages clearly come from distinctly different origins.
COMRIE, Bernard et al. (Ed.). The Atlas of Languages. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996, p. 131-133 [Adapted].
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