Pamela Munro


Handout | Audio

American Indian Languages of the Southeast: An Introduction

Among the unsung heroes of World War I are a group of Code Talkers who helped the American Expeditionary Force to win several battles in the Mousse-Argonne campaign by telephoning military information in Choctaw (Choctaw Nation 2003), an American Indian language originally spoken in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.

We know few details of these conversations. The Code Talkers must surely have mystified their German listeners in part because of their language's unfamiliar vocabulary and sound system. But undoubtedly the grammatical organization of what they said – so different from familiar European languages that speakers routinely describe it as "backwards" – also was part of the code. The Muskogean family of languages, which includes Choctaw (one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" of Oklahoma, most of whose speakers were removed from their original homelands during the 1830s), predominated geographically in the aboriginal Southeast. Many other languages of the region share extensive typological traits with Muskogean: they have subject-object-verb word order, they are basically "postpositional" (or at least non-prepositional), genitives precede possessed nouns, and adjectives follow the nouns they modify. All Southeastern languages exhibit complex morphology, especially on verbs (the majority would be classed as polysynthetic), and there is widespread use of active-stative agreement marking. Thus, although there is some variation, this Muskogean type of language might be considered more generally a Southeastern type, not only very different from English but rather unusual cross-linguistically. In this talk I will present an overview of the American Indian languages of the Southeast (Swanton 1946, Crawford 1975, Hardy and Scancarelli in press) and a brief introduction to some features of their linguistic structure. In addition to one complete family (Muskogean), the languages of the region included representatives of four other language families (Algonquian, Caddoan, Iroquoian, and Siouan) and a number of language isolates without close relatives.

These languages have contributed considerably to Southeastern linguistic patterns, most obviously as the source of many placenames that are still in use. Many of the Southeastern languages are known to us now only through earlier written or, more rarely, audio recordings. All those that are still spoken are seriously endangered (they are losing speakers much faster than they are gaining them). Their potential loss is an important humanistic, cultural, and intellectual concern, because languages reflect much of their speakers' culture and experience, because of the importance of data from little known languages for scholars from many fields, and because even the most obscure language may provide important insights into cognitive function. The indigenous languages of the Southeast are a valuable — and critically threatened — part of Southern heritage.

Crawford, James M. 1975. Studies in Southeastern Indian Languages. University of Georgia Press.
Hardy, Heather K., and Janine Scancarelli, eds. In Press. Native Languages of the Southeastern United States. University
    of Nebraska Press.
Swanton, John R. 1946. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 137.
Choctaw Nation. Accessed 18 August 2003. mmi=4&smi1=17&page=80