Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Languages in the United States
|Language Spoken At Home (2000)|
|Chinese (all spoken varieties incl.)||0.771%|
|French (incl. Patois, Cajun)||0.627%|
|Portuguese or Portuguese Creole||0.215%|
|Other Indic languages||0.167%|
|Other Asian languages||0.152%|
|Other Indo-European languages||0.125%|
|Other Austronesian languages||0.120%|
|Other Slavic languages||0.115%|
|Other West Germanic languages||0.096%|
|Other Native American languages||0.078%|
|North Germanic languages||0.062%|
|Other and unspecified languages||0.055%|
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 three states are officially bilingual: Hawaii (English and Hawaiian), Louisiana (English and French) and New Mexico (English and Spanish). In 2000, the census bureau printed the standard census questionnaires in six languages: English, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. The English-Only movement seeks to establish English as the only official language of the entire nation.
Native American Languages
The Native American languages predate European settlement of the New World, and in parts of the U.S. continue to be spoken. Most of these languages are endangered, despite 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.
- Dakota (Sioux) 20,480
- Yupik 16,910 (not including St. Lawrence Island Yupik, counted separately, with 830 speakers, or Pacific Gulf Yupik, with 75)
- Tsalagi (Cherokee) 16,395
- Apache 13,265
- Choctaw 11,390
- Keres 11,215
These raw numbers, however, can be deceiving, as the "Apache language" number includes six related languages, some of which have only a few remaining speakers. 6,560 people reported "American Indian" as their language, and their reasons are not known. There is no count at all of O'odham (Pima-Papago) though the number of speakers is estimated in other sources at 13,000. The census counts 9,585 speakers of Pima but none of Papago. Yupik is an Alaskan language, not normally grouped with the Native American languages of the contiguous 48 states ("Lower 48").
North America is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world. As a result, the United States contains many, many different languages that have been spoken within its current borders. The following is a list of language families (some families have only two languages, while other families have large numbers of languages) indigenous to the territory of the United States. This conservative estimate totals at around 28 different families. (Note that Austronesian, Creoles, Pidgin, and Sign Languages are excluded from this list).
- Plateau Penutian
In addition to the above list of families, there are many languages in America that are not related to any other language in the world. These 24 language isolates are listed below:
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.
Also not normally considered a Native American language is Hawaiian, with 27,160 speakers. Hawaiian is an official language of the state of Hawaii, but has been largely displaced by English and was until recently a critically endangered language. Hawaiians often also use Hawaiian English Pidgin to communicate.
Languages inherited from European colonization
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.
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.
African-American Vernacular English
African-American Vernacular English, 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 it should be called a dialect or a separate language.
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 is the fifth country in the world in 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. For a detailed history of Spanish in the U.S. from 15th century on, 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.
Creole and Cajun, a variant of French, are spoken in some parts of Louisiana (part of a former French colony). There are French Canadian settlers in parts of northern New England, as well, and a sizable francophone Haitian community in Miami. More than 13 million Americans claim French ancestry, but only 1.5 million speak that language.
Languages of immigrants
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, Italian, Welsh, Czech, Polish, Chinese, Yiddish, etc. Currently, Asian languages account for the majority of languages spoken in immigrant communities: Korean, various Chinese dialects, Hindi, Telugu, Vietnamese, and Tagalog. Historically, the original languages of immigrants tend to disappear or become greatly reduced through assimilation and generational change.
Before World War I, more than 6 per cent of American schoolchildren received their primary education exclusively in German. Currently, although more than 45 million Americans claim German ancestors, only 1.5 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.  German was a second official language of the State of Pennsylvania until the late 1950s. See also: Texas German, Pennsylvania Dutchified English.
American Sign Language
American Sign Language (ASL) is the language used by many deaf people in America. Unlike Signed English, ASL is a natural language in its own right, not a symbolic representation of English. The U.S. Census Bureau did not gather data on ASL when compiling the list of "primary language at home" shown above, but estimates of the number of ASL users would place its ranking anywhere from 3rd to 10th in the list. There are at least two other important sign languages used in the United States: Martha's Vineyard Sign Language and Hawaii Pidgin Sign Language.
- Culture of the United States
- American English
- British English
- American and British English differences
- Bilingual education
- Spanish in the United States
- French in the United States
- German in the United States
- Chinese in the United States
- Portuguese in the United States
- Telugu in the United States
- Language Spoken at Home (U.S. Census)
- List of dialects of the English language
- List of official languages
- Bilingualism in the United States
- Detailed List of Languages Spoken at Home for the Population 5 Years and Over by State: U.S. Census 2000
- 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: http://www.ethnologue.com/, accessed on Dec. 7, 2004.
- Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of native North America. Cambridge: Cambrige University Press.
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