American Indian English: Background and Development

Seminar Paper, 2009

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. History

3. The Situation Today

4. American Indian English varieties today

1. Introduction

This presentation is based on William Leap's book American Indian English, which was published in 1993. Therefore when I talk about recent developments and numbers concerning the speakers of certain dialects, my insights will be those up to 1993. If we hear the term American Indian English, the most obvious question is of course that of who speaks it? Those are mostly the people of Native American or Alaska Native descent, who live close to or on reservations, or in Indian neighborhoods. For many of them, that dialect of English is the only means of daily communications, various others are still fluent in their ancestral language.

But, as Leap mentions, there are also people who are not able to understand American Indian English - or at least claim to be unable to do so.

The most important thing, when addressing the vast subject of American Indian English, is to point out that there is not just one form, but rather numerous different dialects, depending on the language contact situation and the speech community. Contrary to common belief, there was not only one universal Native American language, which every tribe could understand. When we speak about American Indians, we do not speak about just one culture. What we today commonly summarize as the Native American people, was in fact hundreds of tribes, all different in culture, belief systems and lifestyle. And therefore also a various number of different ancestral languages.

When the first Europeans came to America, there existed more than 500 different Native American and Alaska Native languages. Some of them were quite similar, because they had the same parent language, so their relation can be vaguely compared with that of for example French, Italian and Spanish today (which had Latin as their parent language). But others were coming from completely different language families, varying greatly in syntax, grammatical structure and vocabulary - very much as today's relation of for example Arabic, Japanese and English. The visual aid at the end of this chapter is meant to show how numerous the language families of ancestral languages before European contact actually were.

The factor of those different kinds of ancestral languages, combined with the factor of the first European language the prevailing tribe had first contact with, did of course add to the way in which American Indian English dialects are spoken today. For example, whereas numerous European languages like English, French or Dutch were the first contact languages at the East Coast, the dominant contact language at the West Coast was Spanish, due to the Spanish colonization. Therefore a number of American Indian dialects on or near reservations close to the West Coast have more of a Hispanic accent to themselves today. In the following I want to describe how American Indian English developed in general, look deeper into the contact situations and explain some of the main factors that caused English to be the dominant language spoken within the Native American and Alaska Native tribes.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Source of the map: - as accessed on Feb 02, 2009 )

2. History

In the very beginnings of European contact with native cultures, only very few people of the tribes spoke English. Usually one or two learned to communicate in some form of English to then serve as a translator in situations in which English was the dominant language, such as trading or negotiations with Euro-American settlers. The predominant language within the tribes remained the original ancestral language, though, so English did not have any influence on the social life within the tribal community. (Except for maybe a few loan words taken from English for goods which were unknown to the cultures before European contact.)

In Native American cultures back then, it was common to use the language of that tribe which was most numerous in the region as a means of communication in situations that called for members of different tribes to communicate with each other. As one example, Leap lists Ojibwa here, which became a lingua franca even after the Europeans had arrived. It was mainly used by fur companies, due to the fact that most of the employees of those companies spoke as their ancestral language some Ojibwa dialect. Therefore Ojibwa became the language of use for trading in that region. (Leap: 152) Throughout the first few centuries of the European colonization, there were two key factors which had a huge influence on the way, Native American tribes would acquire the English language.

The first impact came from non-standard varieties of Black English as a result of the slave trade. Due to the fact that some tribes were either engaged in slave trade (although their concept of the position of the slaves differed hugely from the European one!), or offered refuge to slaves who had escaped or were freed, the non-standard forms of English spoken by those Afro-American people were often the first kind of English the tribes would get in contact with. Logically, those forms would have an impact on their social life, because the former slaves would actually become members of their society.

Later on, during the mid-nineteenth century, many forms of Pidgin English would have a similar effect, due to numerous Chinese workers who were working to construct the railways which often led through Indian territories and would therefore offer a lot of contact situations of Chinese people with various Native American tribes. Leap lists an example of a conversation between a Paiute tax collector and a Chinese worker on page 155: “Me Piute cappen. Me kill plenty Melicam man. Dis' my lan'. You payee me, John. No payee me, gottom me killee you.”

If I am speaking of an impact here, it is important to underline, that - even though the above named two groups did have an impact on the way American Indians acquired English - English was not a language which was spoken in everyday life yet! The turning point in the history for that to happen was the attempt of the U.S. government to educate Native American people. The idea of that education was to make Native American people fit in with Euro-American civilization. In my opinion, one statement by Richard Pratt makes clear what this educational policy actually intended to do:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead.

Kill the Indian in him, and save the man ”1

The idea was to eliminate all traces of native culture from the individuals mind. In practice that resulted in children being taken away from their families, forced to live in so called Indian boarding schools, where they received a Euro-American education. One of these schools, and probably the biggest and even today the best-known, was Carlisle Indian School, founded by Richard Pratt of whom I've just given a quotation. The conditions in these schools were beyond imagination horrible. Young children, who had never before come in contact with the Euro-American culture or English language, were brought there. Once they were on school grounds, any use of their native languages was forbidden and severely punished. Punishments varied from beatings to humiliation or even making the children wash their mouths with soap. Numerous Native American authors have written autobiographical stories or essays in which they present their experiences in those boarding schools. One of them is Leslie Marmon Silko, who published a collection of Laguna Pueblo stories and legends under the title “Storyteller”. Another remarkable author who presents a quite interesting insight and wrote at the end of the nineteenth century, is Zitkala-Sa (also known under her Euro-American name Gertrude Bonnin).


1 Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction (1892), 46-59. Reprinted in Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880-1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260-271.

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American Indian English: Background and Development
Free University of Berlin  (John-F. Kennedy Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
Linguistic Varieties and Language Practices in the USA
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American, Indian, English, Background, Development
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Katharina Reese (Author), 2009, American Indian English: Background and Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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