I just presented a poster on Iñupiaq phonetics at a conference, and while I can’t claim it’s anything other than mediocre and a work in progress, people’s questions really drove home one fact: people, whether linguists or not, really don’t know much about the language families of North America.
Let’s take a tour, shall we? Of the languages of Alaska, anyway.
(Picture from the Alaska Native Language Center.)
- Iñupiaq, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Aleut
- The Inuit subgrouping of the Eskimo branch continues through Canada all the way to Greenland.The Yupik subgrouping of Eskimo has members across the Bering Strait in Russia.
- Na-Dene (Athabaskan)
- Ahtna, Tanaina, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an, Gwich’in, Koyukon, Tanana, Upper Tanacross, Lower Kuskokwim, Upper Kuskokwim, Upper Tanaina, and probably Tlingit and Eyak.
- Also in Canada and the contiguous United States. The most famous member of this family is, of course, Navajo (hence the inset in the picture above).
- The genetic grouping of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak is hotly debated. These are all in Southeast (what we Alaskans call The Panhandle), including over the border with Canada.
- A large camp of scholars believes that Tlingit and Eyak belong to a larger family including Athabaskan (they call it Tlingit-Eyak-Athabaskan for the time being), with Haida and Tsimshian each being isolates. See a diagram here. Others question the inclusion of Tlingit and/or Eyak in Na-Dene. As I am not versed in the historical linguistics of these languages, I really have no opinion one way or the other (yet!).
So you see, there are twenty indigenous languages comprising at least two language families. Alaska is a bit unusual compared to the rest of the continent, though, where there tend to be a lot more families scattered around. I imagine the terrain and climate have something to do with that.