Languages in the United States

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Template:Life in the United States

The United States is (as of 2004) the home of approximately 336 languages (spoken or signed) of which 176 are indigenous to the area. 52 languages formerly spoken in the US territory are now extinct (Grimes 2000).


Official language status

The United States does not have an official language; nevertheless, English is the language used for legislation, regulations, executive orders, treaties, federal court rulings, and all other official pronouncements. Many individual states have adopted English as their official language, and several states and territories are officially bilingual:

and one is officially trilingual:

Native American languages are official or co-official on many of the US Indian reservations and Pueblos.

In 2000, the census bureau printed the standard census questionnaires in six languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin (in traditional Chinese characters), Vietnamese, and Tagalog. The English-Only movement seeks to establish English as the only official language of the entire nation.

Language Spoken At Home (2000)
English only 82.105%
Spanish 10.710%
Chinese (all spoken varieties incl.) 0.771%
French (incl. Patois, Cajun) 0.627%
German 0.527%
Tagalog 0.467%
Vietnamese 0.385%
Italian 0.384%
Korean 0.341%
Russian 0.269%
Polish 0.254%
Arabic 0.234%
Portuguese or Portuguese Creole 0.215%
Japanese 0.182%
French Creole 0.173%
Other Indic languages 0.167%
African languages 0.160%
Other Asian languages 0.152%
Greek 0.139%
Other Indo-European languages 0.125%
Hindi 0.121%
Other Austronesian languages 0.120%
Persian 0.119%
Other Slavic languages 0.115%
Urdu 0.100%
Other West Germanic languages 0.096%
Gujarati 0.090%
Serbo-Croatian 0.089%
Other Native American languages 0.078%
Armenian 0.077%
Hebrew 0.074%
Mon, Khmer 0.069%
Yiddish 0.068%
Navajo 0.068%
Hmong 0.064%
North Germanic languages 0.062%
Lao 0.057%
Other and unspecified languages 0.055%
Thai 0.046%
Hungarian 0.045%

Pre-colonial languages

American Indian languages

The Native American languages predate European settlement of the New World. In a few parts of the U.S.(mostly on Indian reservations) they continue to be spoken fluently. Most of these languages are endangered, although there are efforts to revive them. Conventional wisdom holds that the degree of endangerment is inversely proportional to the number of speakers, but there are many small Native American language communities in the Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico) which continue to thrive despite their small size.

According to the 2000 Census ( and other language surveys, the largest Native American language-speaking community by far is the Navajo. The largest communities are:


178,000 speakers. Navajo is one of the Athabascan languages of the Na-Den family. Along with the closely related Apache, the Navajo are relative newcomers to the Southwest, arriving only a few centuries before the Spanish.


18,000 speakers (22,000 including speakers in Canada), not counting 6000 speakers of the closely related Lakota. Dakota is a member of the Siouan language family.

Central Alaskan Yup'ik

16,000 speakers. The Yup'ik are part of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, but are not Inuit.


16,000 speakers, of the Iroquoian language family. The Cherokee have the largest tribal affiliation inthe US, but most are of mixed ancestry and do not speak the language.

Western Apache

12,500 speakers. Also of the Na-Den language family. Not mutually intelligible with Navajo, but the relationship is easy to see.


12,000 speakers. One of the Uto-Aztecan languages, along with Hopi, Comanche, Huichol, and Aztec.


11,000 speakers. One of the Muskogean language family, like Seminole and Alabama.


11,000 speakers. A language isolate, the Keres are the largest of the Pueblo nations. The Keres pueblo of Acoma is the oldest continually inhabited community in the United States.


10,000 speakers. Zuni is a language isolate mostly spoken in a single pueblo, Zuni, the largest in the US.


7,000 speakers (about 55,000 including speakers in Canada). The Algonquian language family includes populous languages like Cree in Canada.

Other languages

North America, and especially California and the Pacific Coast, is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. As a result, many different languages that have been spoken within the current borders of the United States. The following is a list of 28 language families (groups of demonstrably related languages) indigenous to the territory of the continental United States. With further study, some of these will probably turn out to be related to each other. For example, a relationship between Alsea, Coos, Siuslaw, and Wintu looks promising.

In addition to the above list of families, there are many languages in the US that are well enough known to attempt to classify, but which have not been shown to be related to any other language in the world. These 25 language isolates are listed below. With further study, some of these will likely prove to be related to each other or to one of the established families. Yuki-Wappo and Kalapuya-Takelma, for example, look promising, and Natchez is frequently classified with the Muskogean family. Others, such as Cayuse and Adai, are so poorly known that it will probably never be possible to classify them properly.

Since the languages in the Americas have been spoken here for about 17,000-12,000 years, our current knowledge of American languages is limited. There are doubtless a number of languages that were spoken in the United States that are missing from historical record.

Native American sign languages

A sign-language trade pidgin, known as Plains Indian Sign Language or Plains Standard, arose among the Plains Indians. Each signing nation had a separate signed version of their spoken language, that was used by the hearing, and these were not mutually intelligible. Plains Standard was used to communicate between these nations. It seems to have started in Texas, and then spread north, though the Great Plains, as far as British Columbia. There are still a few users today, especially among the Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Unlike other sign languages developed by hearing people, it shares the spatial grammar of deaf sign languages.

Oceanic languages


Hawaiian is an official state language of Hawaii as prescribed in the Constitution of Hawaii. The Hawaiian language is not considered a Native American language. Hawaiian has 1000 native speakers. Formerly considered critically endangered, Hawaiian is showing signs of language renaissance. The recent trend is based on new Hawaiian language immersion programs of the Hawaii State Department of Education and the University of Hawaii, as well as efforts by the Hawaii State Legislature and county governments to preserve Hawaiian place names. In 1993 about 8,000 could speak and understand it; today estimates range up to 27,000.


Samoan is an official territorial language of American Samoa. Samoans make up 90% of the population, and most people are bilingual.


Chamorro is co-official in the Mariana Islands, both in the territory of Guam and in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. In Guam, the Chamorro people make up about half of the population.


Carolinian is also co-official in the Northern Marianas, where only 14% of people speak English at home.

The colonial languages

In the 17th century, there were colonies in North America, whose languages were English(from Virginia and Nova Albion colonies), Dutch(from New Netherland), French(from New France), Spanish(from New Spain), Swedish(from New Sweden), Scottish Gaelic(from Carolina), Welsh(from Welsh Tract) and Russian(from Russian-American Company).


English was inherited from British colonization and it is spoken by the vast majority of the population. It serves as the de facto language: the language in which government business is carried out. According to the 1990 census, 97 per cent of U.S. residents speak English "well" or "very well". Only 0.8 per cent speak no English at all, as compared with 3.6 per cent in 1890. American English has some differences from British English, but these differences are fairly minor. For detailed differences in British English and American English see American and British English differences. Two cores of English speaking are on the Eastern Seaboard, which were the Thirteen Colonies chartered by the Virginia Company and Oregon Country, formerly called New Albion and settled from the Oregon Trail.

Some states, like California, have amended their constitutions to make English the only official language, but in practice, this only means that official government documents must at least be in English, and does not mean that they should be exclusively available only in English. For example, the standard California Class C driver's license examination is available in 32 different languages.


Creole and Cajun are variants of French. They are majorly spoken in the Acadiana district of Louisiana and minorly in the Mississippi River Basin. The land called Louisiana Territory was formerly part of New France and came to be a part of the USA by way of the Louisiana Purchase. There are French Canadian settlers in parts of northern New England, as well, and a sizable francophone Haitian community in Miami, Florida. More than 13 million Americans claim French ancestry, but only 1.5 million speak that language. From the addition of Louisiana until the surge of illegal immigration from Latin America, French was prime choice for a high school and/or university option of a second language. Even in public life of business and the arts, the lingua franca was indeed French. French is minimised to fashion magazines and foreign films these days, with regular American exchanges in the Cannes Film Festival.


To be written.

Scottish Gaelic

To be written.


In 1602, the government of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands chartered the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC) with the mission of exploring for a passage to the Indies and claiming any unchartered territories for the United Provinces.

In 1609, English explorer Henry Hudson attempted to find a northwest passage to the Indies, instead discovering areas of current United States and Canada, among others giving his name to the Hudson River and Hudson Bay and claiming the surrounding land for the VOC.

After some early trading expeditions, the first settlement was founded in 1615: Fort Nassau, on Castle Island, near present-day Albany. The settlement served mostly as a trade post for fur trade with the natives and was later replaced by Fort Oranje (or Fort Orange) at present-day Albany.

In 1621, a new company was established with a trading monopoly in the Americas and West Africa: the Dutch West India Company (Westindische Compagnie or WIC). The WIC sought recognition for the area in the New World - which had been called New Netherland - as a province, which was granted in 1623. Soon after, the first colonists, mostly from present-day Belgium and Germany, arrived in the new province.

In 1626, director general of the WIC Peter Minuit "purchased" the island of Manhattan from Indians and started the construction of fort New Amsterdam. In the same year, Fort Nassau was built in the New Jersey area. Other settlements were Fort Casimir (Newcastle) and Fort Beversrede (Philadelphia). In 1655, the main settlement of New Sweden, Fort Christina, was captured after the Swedes had briefly occupied Fort Casimir. Large numbers of the inhabitants of these settlements were not Dutch, but came from a variety of other European countries, including England.

In 1664, English troops under the command of the Duke of York (later James II of England) attacked the New Netherland colony. Being greatly outnumbered, director general Peter Stuyvesant surrendered New Amsterdam, with Fort Orange following soon. New Amsterdam was renamed New York, Fort Orange was renamed Fort Albany.

In a 1990 demographic consensus, 3% of surveyed citizens claimed descent from Dutch settlers. Modern estimates place the Dutch-American population at 5 million, lagging just a bit behind Scottish-Americans and Swedish-Americans.

Notable Dutch-Americans include the Roosevelts, Thomas Alva Edison, Martin Van Buren and the Vanderbilts.

Only 20000 people in the US still speak the Dutch language today, concentrated mainly in Michigan, Tennessee and Chicago.


Also inherited by British colonisation, German was not a widely spoken tongue in the colonies. Dutch, Swedish and Scottish Gaelic all became less common than German after the American Revolution. Before World War I, more than 6 per cent of American schoolchildren received their primary education exclusively in German. Currently, although more than 60 million Americans claim German ancestors, only 5 million speak the language. The Amish speak a dialect of German known as Pennsylvania Dutch. There is a myth that German was to be the official language of the U.S., but this is inaccurate, and based on a failed early attempt to have government documents translated into German. [1] ( German was a second official language of the State of Pennsylvania and majorly spoken in the Midwest until the late 1950s. See also: Texas German, Pennsylvania Dutchified English.


New Sweden, or Nya Sverige, was a Swedish colony in North America corresponding roughly to the networked region of urban sprawl around Philadelphia, containing such settlements as New Stockholm (now Bridgeport) and Swedesboro in New Jersey, as well as others in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The colony existed from March 1638 to September 1655.

The first Swedish expedition to North America was launched from the port of Gothenburg in late 1637. Samuel Blommaert assisted with the fitting-out and appointed Peter Minuit to lead the expedition. Minuit was formerly the governor of the Dutch colony of New Netherlands. The members of the expedition, traveling aboard the ships Fogel Grip and Kalmar Nyckel, arrived in Delaware Bay, a location within the territory claimed by the Dutch, in late March 1638. They built a fort on the present-day location of the city of Wilmington, which they named Fort Christina, after Queen Christina of Sweden. In the following years, approximately one thousand people from the Swedish mainland and Finland settled in the colonized establishments and townships.

Widespread diaspora of Swedish immigration did not occur until the latter half of the 19th century, bringing in a total of a million Swedes. No other country had a higher percentage of its people leave for the United States except Ireland. At the beginning of the 20th century, Minnesota had the highest ethnic Swedish population in the world after the city of Stockholm.

3.7% of US residents claim descent from Scandinavian ancestors, amounting to roughly 11-12 million people. According to SIL's Ethnologue, over half a million ethnic Swedes still speak the language. Transculture assimilation has contributed to the gradual and steady decline of the language in the US. After the independence of the US from Great Britain, the government encouraged colonists to adopt the English language as a common medium of communication, and in some cases, imposed it upon them. Subsequent generations of Swedish-Americans received education in English and spoke it as their first language. Lutheran churches scattered across the midwest started abandoning Swedish in favour of English as their language of worship. Swedish newspapers and publications alike slowly faded away.

Predicted figures of citizens with direct Swedish ancestry usually remain between 5.5 million to 6 million, or 3% of the US population.

There are sizeable Swedish communities in Minnesota, Ohio, Maryland, Philadelphia and Delaware, along with small isolated pockets in Pennsylvania, San Francisco and New York.

John Morton, the person who cast the decisive vote leading to the American Declaration of Independence, was a Finland-Swede.


The Spanish language is the second-most common language in the country, spoken by about 28.1 million people (or 10.7% of the population) in 2000. The United States holds the world's fifth largest Spanish-speaking population, outnumbered only by Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia. Although many Latin American immigrants are less than fluent in English, Hispanics who are second-generation Americans nearly all speak it, while only about 50 per cent speak Spanish. The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is predominantly Spanish-speaking. New Spain was steadily eroded in territory by Mestizo(many illegal immigrants) and American forces, from the Mexican-American War to the Spanish-American War. For a detailed history, see Spanish in the United States.

Spanglish is a pidgin of Spanish and English and is spoken in areas with large semi-bilingual populations of Spanish and English speakers, such as along the U.S. - Mexico border (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California), Florida, and New York City.


The Russian language is mostly found in Alaska and the cities of the Midwest(Chicago) and Northeast(New York City). The Russian-American Company used to own Alaska Territory, until selling it after the Crimean War. Russian had always been limited, especially after the assassination of the Romanov dynasty of tsars.

Immigrant languages

The U.S. has long been the destination of many immigrants. From the mid 19th century on, the nation had large numbers of residents who spoke little or no English, and throughout the country there have been towns and neighborhoods of cities where business, schools, and newspapers were in languages such as German, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Greek, Polish, Swedish, Czech, Japanese, Yiddish, Chinese, etc. Currently, Asian languages account for the majority of languages spoken in immigrant communities: Korean, various Chinese languages, Hindi, Telugu, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. Historically, the original languages of immigrants tend to disappear or become greatly reduced through assimilation and generational change.

The main immigrant/ex-colonial languages by number of speakers today are:

  • Spanish (22,400,000)
  • German (6,000,000)
  • Polish (3,400,000)
  • Arabic (3,000,000)
  • Korean (1,800,000)
  • Chinese (1,650,000) (mostly Cantonese)
  • Czech (1,450,000)
  • Portuguese (1,300,000)
  • Yiddish (1,250,000)
  • Armenian (1,100,000)
  • French, Cajun (1,100,000)
  • Romani (1,000,000, including 650,000 Vlax (Romanian) Romani)
  • Italian (910,000)
  • Persian (900,000)
  • Vietnamese (860,000)
  • Ukrainian (840,000)
  • Japanese (800,000)

New American languages

Several languages have been born on American soil, including creoles and sign languages.


Gullah, an English-African creole is spoken on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. It retains strong influences of West African languages, and is distinct enough to be considered a separate language from English.

African-American Vernacular English and Southern American English

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), also known as Ebonics, is a variety of English spoken by many African-Americans, in both rural and urban areas. There is considerable debate among non-linguists as to whether the word 'dialect' is appropriate to describe it. However, there is general agreement among linguists and many African Americans that AAVE is part of a historical continuum between creoles such as Gullah and the language brought by English colonists.

Not all African-Americans speak AAVE, of course, and many Anglo-Americans do. Indeed, it is generally accepted that Southern American English is part of the same continuum as AAVE. In the early 1800s, European visitors frequently observed that black and white Southerners were indistinguishable in their speech. Southern whites themselves recognized this, and many wealthy families educated their boys in the North in order to loose their 'Negro' speech. However, girls remained at home, as did the majority of whites who were poor, and they continued to speak Africanized English.

During the twentieth century many Southerners, black and white, emigrated to the northern industrial cities. While Southern whites were to a large extent integrated and lost their distinctive dialect, segregation preserved it among blacks, and it is this that has become known as AAVE.

Hawaiian Creole

Hawaiian Pidgin, more accurately known as Hawaiian Creole, is commonly used by locals and is considered an unofficial language of the state.

Sign languages

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language

Martha's Vineyard Sign Language is now extinct. Along with French Sign Language, it was one of two main contributors to American Sign Language.

American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the native language of between 100,000 and 500,000 deaf people in America. Unlike Signed English, ASL is a natural language in its own right, not a manual representation of English.

Black American Sign Language

Black American Sign Language developed in segregated schools in the south. Much like AAVE and standard English, it differs in vocabulary and grammatical structure from ASL.

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language

Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language (named after Hawaiian Pidgin English, but not itself a pidgin) is moribund.

See also Native American sign languages.

See also

External links


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Campbell, Lyle; & Mithun, Marianne (Eds.). (1979). The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Grimes, Barbara F. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnologue: Languages of the world, (14th ed.). Dallas, TX: SIL International. ISBN 1-55671106-9. Online edition:, accessed on Dec. 7, 2004.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.zh:美国语言列表

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