classify languages into families according to their origins.
For example, English, German, Russian, Greek, Hindi, and
many other languages of Europe and Asia belong to the Indo-European
language family because they all descend from a single language
known as Proto-Indo-European.
Native American languages into families presents a number
of challenges because so little written documentation exists
for many of the languages. As a result, experts must infer
much of what is known about the early development and characteristics
of these languages from modern information.
first general classification was suggested in 1891 by American
geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell. On the basis
of superficial similarities he noticed among vocabularies,
he proposed that the languages of North America constituted
58 independent families.
the same time, American anthropologist Daniel Brinton proposed
80 families for South America.
two classifications of language families form the basis
of subsequent classifications.
In 1929 American linguist and anthropologist Edward Sapir
tentatively proposed classifying these language families
into 6 large groups in North America and 15 in Middle America.
In 1987 American linguist Joseph Greenberg hypothesized
that the indigenous languages of the Americas could be grouped
into 3 superfamilies: Eskimo-Aleut,
Na-Dené, and Amerind. The postulated Amerind superfamily
was said to contain the majority of Native American languages
and be divided into 11 branches.
However, nearly all specialists reject Greenberg's classification.
As linguists learn more about Native American languages,
they can better distinguish between similarities in vocabulary
and grammar that result from borrowings and similarities
that are the consequences of a common ancestral language.
classification most linguists endorse today places about
55 independent language families in North America, 15 in
Middle America, and about 115 in South America.
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