Friday, February 15, 2013

United States of Languages: Mountain West

As we approach the final leg of our linguistic trip across the United States, we're in the region designated as the Mountain West. Unsurprisingly, we find ourselves in an area with a large number of mountains that is located in the West, unlike the awkward Midwest which is not in the West.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho.

If you're an American, the odds are pretty good that you've eaten a potato from the "Potato State", since nearly a third of American potatoes are grown there. English is spoken by over 90% of Idahoans, and Spanish is the second language of the state with nearly 7% of the population.

Like most states we have encountered on our trip, there is a small number of French and German speakers in Idaho, accounting for less than 1% of the population combined. Boise, the state's capital, is also home to the largest Basque community in the United States. Most of these Basque Americans are descendants of immigrants who came from the Basque regions of Spain and France in the late 1800s. They continue to preserve cultural traditions such as festivals and dances, and many also learn to speak the Basque language. 


The name Montana came from the Spanish for word for "mountain", montaña. Spanish settlers often ensured that place names would leave little to doubt, and in this case the state obviously features mountains. Despite being one of the geographically largest states, it's one of the smallest in terms of population. Its economy is focused around the land, specifically ranching, farming, and mining. In terms of languages, Montana is one of the most Anglocentric states with nearly 95% of the population speaking English. Only 1.5% of the population speaks Spanish and German, while Native American languages and French combined only account for around 3%. 


Wyoming is another large state with a very small population. In fact, it has a lower population density than every other U.S. state, excluding Alaska. There are even more people living in Washington, D.C. than in the entire state of Wyoming! Its economy is based on mineral production and tourism, mainly due to Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park. Given how sparsely populated the state is, it may not be a surprise to learn that the vast majority of Wyomingites speak English. About 4% speak Spanish at home, while half a percent speak German. 

The Las Vegas Strip... look closely
and you'll see the "Eiffel Tower"!

If its Spanish name is anything to go by, then Nevada is the snowy state. Clearly the settlers weren't thinking of Las Vegas when they named it, given that most the state is a desert. Instead, they focused on the snow-capped mountains on the edge of the state, which they called the Sierra Nevada. 

Unlike Montana and Wyoming, the state is quite diverse, both ethnically and linguistically. Over two-thirds of the state's population lives in the area around Las Vegas. Most recent immigrants to the state have come to the Las Vegas area to work in the tourism industry, specifically from Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and India. The city is now home to one of the largest Asian American communities in the entire country. 

Only 77% of Nevadans speak primarily English, with over 16% speaking Spanish at home. Tagalog, spoken by the large Filipino population, comes in third. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai are also all spoken by large numbers of Nevadans. As in Idaho, there is also a group of Nevadans of Basque ancestry, some of whom speak the language.


Named for the Ute tribe, The "Beehive State" is the most religiously homogeneous state, with over 60% of its residents being Mormons. This influences everyday life in the vast majority of the state, from politics to lifestyles. Most Utahns (don't ask us to pronounce it) speak English, though over 7% primarily speak Spanish. German and Navajo, a Native American language, account for about 1% of the state's residents combined. The language of the Ute tribe is also spoken by a small number of its members.

Bridal Veil Falls, Colorado.

Colorado literally means colored in Spanish, and was originally used by Spanish explorers to name the Colorado River due to its red silt. Eventually, the new state got the same name as the river that runs through it. The state is known for its beautiful landscape that has a bit of everything: forests, mountains, deserts, plains, canyons, and rivers. Nature lovers around the U.S. often head to the state to enjoy its scenic views. 

About 85% of Coloradans speak English, with over 10% using Spanish instead. German comes in third, with nearly 1% of the state's population. French, Vietnamese, and Korean are also spoken by some residents, and some members of the aforementioned Ute tribe may also speak their language in the state.


We've now reached the home of the Grand Canyon, which is home to the largest number of speakers of Native American languages in the contiguous states. The state boasts over 85,000 Navajo speakers, as well as more than 10,000 speakers of the Apache language. About a quarter of Arizona's land is used as the home of several indigenous tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, Zuni, and Pima tribes.  

Due to its position as a border state, Arizona is also home to a large immigrant population, with nearly 20% of Arizonans speaking Spanish. Historically, the state was sparsely populated because of its desert location, but in recent years the population has boomed, which has led to problems such as water shortages. 

New Mexico

The linguistic diversity of New Mexico is fairly similar to that of its neighboring state, Arizona. It is also home to one of the largest populations of indigenous people, with several Navajo and Pueblo tribes. Just over 4% of New Mexicans speak Navajo, while another 1.6% speak other Native American languages. The state is also home to many Spanish-speaking immigrants, mainly from Mexico. Nearly 30% of New Mexicans speak Spanish at home, giving the state the largest percentage of Spanish speakers in the entire country.

We're happy to note that New Mexico is also supportive of language diversity. It officially promotes language diversity throughout the state, encouraging students and adults to become bilingual. In 2008, the state was also the first to adopt a Navajo textbook to be used in public schools.

Tomorrow, we'll finish up our series with a look at the linguistic diversity of the Pacific West. California, here we come!