Saturday, February 16, 2013

United States of Languages: Pacific West

As we reach our final destinations on our linguistic trip across the U.S., we find ourselves in the Pacific West, having run out of country to explore.

Mt. McKinley is the highest point in North America.

Known as the "Last Frontier", Alaska is famous for its huskies, snow, and unfortunately, Sarah Palin. The largest state in the U.S. doesn't border any other states and is neatly tucked away from the rest of the country off the northwest edge of Canada. Most of the population, around 85%, speak only English at home, while indigenous languages belonging to the Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene language families are spoken by over 5% of Alaskans. 

Spanish, like in most states, features as one of the most-spoken languages with almost two speakers for every one speaker of the fourth most common language in Alaska, Tagalog.


Named for the first U.S. President, Washington state is home to significant Asian American populations. The Seattle area is home to large Chinese and Japanese-speaking communities, as well as a large Indian community. The state also has a large Spanish-speaking community that comprises nearly 6% of the state's population. 

Washington is also home to several indigenous tribes, though most of their native languages are endangered. One such language is Quileute, a member of the Chimakuan language family. If the name sounds familiar, it's probably because you know too much about the popular Twilight book series, in which several characters are members of the Quileute tribe. Though the language is only spoken by a few elders, the tribal school is making attempts to teach the language to a new generation. It is an interesting language, especially because of its unique lack of nasal consonants, which are found in almost all other world languages. Hopefully, it will be preserved by the tribe, and not merely by teenagers who decide to learn it in hopes of "becoming a werewolf" like a certain constantly shirtless movie character. 

Crater Lake, Oregon.

This heavily-forested state is often known for its natural beauty, both inland and along the Pacific coast. Nearly 90% of Oregonians speak English, with Spanish being the second most-spoken language with nearly 7% of the population. There are also small numbers of German, Vietnamese, and Russian speakers. 

Historically, the state was home to many indigenous groups that spoken dozens of distinct languages, but most now speak English. Some native tribes do still use traditional languages though, such as the tribes of the Grand Ronde community, who are currently using native immersion programs to teach their children Chinuk Wawa, a pidgin used as a trade language in the area starting in the 1800s. They hope that this will help preserve the endangered language for generations to come. 


The "Golden State" is another state famed for the high levels of Spanish spoken. Just look at place names such as Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento, and you will see that historically, California is one of America's most Hispanic locations. Nearly 28% of Californians speak Spanish at home, a number which is constantly on the rise. Only 58% of California residents speak English at home, which shows just how linguistically diverse the state is. Chinese and Tagalog each boast over 2% of the state's population, followed by Vietnamese, Korean, and Armenian.

Historically, the state was one of the most linguistically diverse parts of the world due to the multitude of indigenous languages spoken in the area. However, most of these 70 or so languages are either extinct of endangered.

English has been the official language of California since 1986, though many local governments do still make an effort to provide information in other languages. A prime example of this is the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which is said to provide the written driver's license exam in over 30 languages.
Kahakuloa Head on the island of Maui, Hawaii.


By no means your typical American state, Hawaii has both English and Hawaiian as its official languages and features the Union Jack as part of its flag. Roughly three quarters of the population speak English and the rest is divided amongst Pacific Island languages, Tagalog, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and Korean.

Though immigration has effectively reduced the number of Hawaiian native speakers, the heritage remains in the place names. Visitors, particularly tourists, are encouraged to use the language, if only a couple words, such as aloha and ukulele.

We hope you've enjoyed this series as much as we have!