American Indian Languages and English 1

American Indian languages were relatively late on the scene in terms of the development of English. Nevertheless, a number of words were borrowed from the diverse language groups that were spoken by the Native Americans subsequent to the arrival of European settlers in the New World. Some of these words were adopted as they described flora and fauna that was unfamiliar to the new colonists, such as pecan - Illinois pakani or Cree pakan "hard-shelled nut" and woodchuck - Narragansett wuchak "marten", as well as cultural artefacts, for example moccasin - Powhatan makasin "shoe". However, the native American influence goes much deeper than this: their languages live on in the names of the Canadian provinces and American states, not to mention in names of towns, cities, rivers, lakes and mountains and in other toponyms throughout the Americas and in other more surprising borrowings too. The largest source of new words comes from the Algonquian languages of the eastern seaboard of North America, where colonists from the British Isles first made landfall. Early settlers to what became New England and Virginia had a great deal of contact with Algonquian tribes as they counted on trade with the native Americans for survival in the early years of the colony, hence many native words were passed on to the bewildered newcomers, who would anglicise and shorten them, so Narragansett Algonquian askutasquash "vegetable eaten green or raw", became plain squash, for example. 

The early settlers of North America were undoubtedly brave and intrepid, but some of them clearly didn't know their arses from their elbows and it was only Indian help that saved them from starvation, so many indigenous terms for foods entered English. (The lucky natives were rewarded for their charity with the systematic usurpation of their lands along with epidemics of plague, pneumonia, influenza, smallpox and syphilis, warfare, ethnic cleansing and strong alcohol). Further south, it was a similar story as settlers from other European nations colonised Central and South America with equally catastrophic and genocidal consequences for the native populations. Spanish, Portuguese and French all borrowed from the languages with which they came into contact and later passed these words on to English. Again flora and fauna are well-represented, but there are also a large number of words specific to indigenous culture, food and way of life, as well as thousands of native place names.

This blog post will concentrate on the place names and flora and fauna that American Indian languages have passed on to English, while a subsequent blog will focus on native American words for food and drink and cultural items that have made their way into the English language. If we look at the Americas, we can see that many of the most famous of the geographical place names are of native origin and have kept the same names in English. Even apparently European names may not be as they seem. The Peruvian capital Lima, for instance, does not come from the Spanish for "lime", but from one of two Quechua words either limaq "talker" after a local oracle or else the Rimaq "talking river" nearby. Sometimes,  the origins of place names are shrouded in mystery, so alternative etymologies have been suggested. Thus, the number of US states which got their names from native American languages has been estimated at anything between 22 and 28 states. Arizona, for example has two very different proposed origins, either from the O'odham words ali "small" and ṣonak "spring"‎ or from Basque aritz ‎“oak” and ona ‎“good” - so Arizona means "small spring" or "good oak" - take your pick. If we consider the great rivers of North and South America, it is true that a lot have Spanish (Rio Grande, Magdalena, Colorado) or English names (Mackenzie, Red River, Snake River). However, many of the longest and mightiest have maintained their Indian names, including the Orinoco, Mississippi, Missouri etc.


So, let's play "spot the Native American name"!


1.   Which of these countries has a name taken from a Native American language?  questionmark 

a)   Canada    b)   Bolivia    c)   Argentina    d)   Honduras


2.   Which of these Canadian provinces has a name of Aboriginal origin?  questionmark 

a)   Alberta    b)   Nova Scotia    c)   Manitoba   d)   Newfoundland 


3. Which of these American states has a Native American name?  questionmark  

a)   Delaware    b)   Michigan    c)   Nevada    d)   Rhode Island 


4.   Which of these places in California has a Native American name?  questionmark 

a)   Malibu    b)   Sacramento    c)   Fresno   d)   Berkeley 


5.   Which Canadian city has an American Indian name? questionmark 

a)   Vancouver   b)   Calgary   c)   Quebec   d)   Montreal   


That was pretty easy, so now find the odd one out. Find the European place name among the Native American names.


1.   Which of the names of these countries is not taken from a Native American language?  questionmark 

a)   Chile   b)   Uruguay    c)   Guyana    d)   Venezuela


2.   Which of these lakes does not carry an American Indian name?  questionmark 

a)   Titicaca   b)   Huron   c)   Ontario   d)   Erie 


3. Which of these American states doesn't have a Native American name?  questionmark  

a)   Ohio    b)   Illinois    c)   Alabama   d)   Vermont


4.   Which of these rivers doesn't have a Native American name?  questionmark 

a)   Amazon    b)   Yukon    c)   Potomac   d)   Parana 


5.   Which mountain range doesn't have an American Indian name?  questionmark 

a)   Andes   b)   Appalachians   c)   Catskills   d)   Sawatch





The English names of all of the animals below come from Native American languages.  It's your turn to demonstrate your animal knowledge. To make this easier, we have divided the animals into two groups - cougar and puma are two names for the same animal, also known as a mountain lion, puma concolor.


Match the names of the animals to the pictures. 


iguana 8362 640macawllamacoyotecondorocelottapirtoucanwoodchuckmuskratjaguarcougar



  • condor
  • cougar/puma
  • coyote
  • iguana
  • jaguar
  • llama


  • macaw
  • muskrat
  • ocelot
  • tapir
  • toucan
  • woodchuck



With the second group you have two tasks. First, again match the names of the animals to the pictures.





  • alpaca
  • axolotl
  • capybara
  • caribou
  • chipmunk
  • manatee


  • moose
  • opossum
  • piranha
  • raccoon
  • skunk
  • terrapin

Now try to match the same animals to the meanings of their names in Native American languages. Some are much easier than others!


  • snow-shoveller questionmark 
  • servant of water  questionmark
  • scissors  questionmark 
  • the yellowish-red  questionmark 
  • the grass-eater  questionmark 
  • he scratches with his hands  questionmark 
  • it strips bark  questionmark 
  • woman's breast  questionmark 
  • white dog-like animal  questionmark 
  • he who urinates/squirts musk  questionmark 
  • little turtle  questionmark 
  • descending headfirst  questionmark 


Velvet Mesquite 4569430628Velvet MesquiteHaving looked at the fauna, we will now turn to the flora of the Americas, some of which will be examined in more detail in the next blog post on American Indian influence, when we look at food. The indigenous trees, plants and flowers of the Americas occupy a plethora of ecosystems, from the cays (Arawakan "low reef, island" - as also seen in the anglicised Florida keys) and bayous (Choctaw bayuk "small stream") to the savanna (Taino zabana "treeless plain") and Pampas (Quechua pampa "land, plain") not to mention mountains, deserts, tundra and rainforest. Hence, some of the names of the most iconic plants of the Americas have been borrowed by European languages with only minor modifications. The mangroves of warm coastal waters take their name from a Carib or Arawakian word which Spanish took as mangle. The -grove suffix is through English folk etymology and association with woodland groves. Other adopted American names include mesquite from these trees of Central America via mizquitl, a word in the Aztec language of Nahuatl and quinine from Quechua kina "cinchona bark". 


Historically, one of the most important plants of South and Central America has been cassava, a descendant of the Taino word for the plant kasabi. The cassava plant is a vital food source and staple of the region. Different parts of the plant can be eaten and a kind of flour can also be made from it. The roots of the plant are consumed as manioc, a word from Tupi manioka, while the squeezed, dried roots are eaten as tapioca, from Tupi tipioca "juice squeezed out of cassava roots". Linnaeus confused the yucca plant with the cassava plant, hence the Carib word for cassava, yuca has also entered English for the triffid-like house plant.


Some of the most notorious plants in the world also originate from the Americas. The beautiful petunia is a native of South America, but its name comes from the Guarani word pety "tobacco" or the Tupi word petun "smoke" as the petunia is of the tobacco family. Portuguese adopted this as petum and French took it as petun both of which described tobacco and the petunia flower itself. It is unclear whether the word tobacco is also of American origin from a Taino word meaning "roll of tobacco leaves" or "pipe for smoking" or if it is Arabic طَبَاق ‎/ṭabāq/ , a type of medicinal herb. Aymara, one of the indigenous languages of Bolivia, seems to have provided Quechua with the word cuca, taken into Spanish as coca, the source of cocaine. Coca leaves were among the original ingredients of Coca-Cola along with the cola nut. In fact, tiny amounts of cocaine remained in the recipe for Coca-Cola until 1909.


As you can see, there are some weird and wonderful origins to many of the most famous places, flora and fauna of the Americas. In the next blog on this theme, we will look at other words that English has borrowed from native American languages, most of which have been in the language for centuries! Bye for now, I will leave you with this Sioux proverb to ponder and interpret:

"There are many good moccasin tracks along the trail of a straight arrow."



Mesquite: By Homer Edward Price (Velvet-Mesquite Uploaded by Amada44) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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