You are on page 1of 3


Borrowings from Native American languages entered English mostly via Spanish and, since
then, they have been exported to many of the other languages. Most Native American borrowings are used
in modern English and other languages as terms that depict notions from local flora and fauna, or to
describe items of Native American life and culture.
The initial contact of English settlers in North America was with tribes who used the languages of
the Algonquian language family. As a result, many words from these languages were the first Native
American borrowings in English. In everyday use of English , we encounter many Algonquian
borrowings, some of which are:
Place names (Canadian provinces and U.S. states) :
Mississippi -originally mihcisiipiiwi "(great river)" - referring to the Mississippi River;
Michigan - originally meehcakamiwi "(great sea)" - referring to the Lake Michigan;
Wisconsin - original meaning of the word was "(grassy place)";
Missouri - “(town of the large canoes)”;
Oregon - “beautiful water”;
Massachusetts - ("place near the big little hills");
Wyoming - ("place of the big flats");
Common names for flora and fauna:
skunk- "šekākwa", from šek-, "to urinate", and -ākw, "fox";
chipmunk - originally jidmoonh, meaning ("red squirrel");
squash - type of pumpkin;
caribou - ("snow-shoveler") - A type of reindeer;
cisco (fish) - ("siscowet - greasy-bodied [fish]");
pokeweed - type of berries poisionus to mammals, compound of pocan - blood and weed;
opossum - <apasum>/<opussum>/<aposoum> ("white dog-like animal");
Items of native culture:
toboggan - "topaqan" - sled
pung - "tom-pung" - a low box-like sleigh designed for one horse;
tomahawk - (*temahākani, from *temah-, "to cut" + *-ākan, "instrument for") - now a
totem - "odoodem" ("his totem") - a representation of a person or animal which is of great spiritual value - a
totem of an ancestor ;
moccasin - shoe
wigwam -" wīkiwāHmi" - ("their house ") - native American dwelling;
Nahuatl , a group of related languages and dialects of the Aztecan branch - Uto-Aztecan
language family, indigenous to central Mexico where more than 1.5 million speak it.
Place names :
Guatemala - Central American country;
Mexico - The Aztec war god, North American country;
Common names for flora and fauna:
tomato - "tomatl";
avocado - "ahuacatl" – meaning testicle, one of many food words from Nahuatl;
cacao - “cacahuatl”, fruit/nut;
peyote - type of cactus;
cacao - “cacahuatl”, fruit/nut;
coyote – type of prairie dog;
ocelot – species of cat inhabitting Central America;
chocolate – xocolātl – “chocolate drink”, perhaps literally - bitter water;
chili – spicy food relish;
guacamole – spicy avocado paste from Central America;
mezcal – a Mexican alcoholic drink made from agave plant; refers to all agave based liquors that are not
shack – from "xacatli" - wooden hut;
Quechua is a Native American language of South America; it was the language of the Inca
Empire, today spoken in various dialects by some 10 million people throughout South America. It is the
most widely spoken of all the languages of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It has the status of an
official language in both Peru and Bolivia, along with Spanish and Aymara. Similar to Nahuatl
borrowings, a number of Quechua loanwords have entered English through Spanish :
Common names for flora and fauna:
coca - from kuka, via Spanish, best known for the drug cocaine that is extracted from it;
condor - from kuntur, via Spanish cóndor;
lima – type of been (butter bean);
llama – animal from camelidae family;
puma – cougar;
vicuna - Andean deer-like relative of the llama.
Tupac Shakur - the popular rapper - Shining Serpent or Royal Serpent in Quechua;
guano - collected droppings of seabirds, bats, and seals;
jerky - dried meat;
pampa - from pampa, "flat", fertile South American lowlands;
soroche - from sorojchi, ("mountain sickness")
Inuit is an Eskimo-Aleut language spoken in Siberia and Alaska. It is the language of the
anorak - a warm coat. Used in UK for as slang for an obsessive person;
igloo - house made from ice and snow;
kayak - "qajaq" - boat
Carib language spoken in northern South America and the Caribbean:
barbecue - wooden frame on posts - grilling food over a fire, originally on a wooden frame;
cannibal - "person, Indian" - spanish version of a Caribbean tribe;
canoe - a type of boat;
maize - “mahis”, corn plant;
hurricane - "hurakán"- tropical cyclone ;
Jamaica - ("well watered") - Caribbean island;
Words from Tupi-Guaraní languages:
jaguar - from Tupí îagûara;
cougar - ultimately corrupted from Guaraní guaçu ara;
petunia - violet or purple tropical plant;
piranha - ("scissors") , voracious South American fish;
tapioca - ("squeeze out dregs"), grains from Cassava plant used for sweets;
tapir - South American mammal with proboscis.
Apart from these three language families, we can find borrowings from other Native American
Malamute - from Inupiaq malimiut, dog breed;
Caiman - from a Ta-Maipurean language, "water spirit", aligator;
Iguana - from an Arawakan language;
Sequoia - from a Cherokee personal name;
Tobacco - from an Arawakan (probably Taino) language, possibly combined with Spanish tobaco,
meaning medicinal herbs;
poncho - a cloak from South America;
In modern English, words borrowed from Native American languages are mostly used as terms
which denote certain notions unique for territories of Americas, because terms for this notions did not exist
in English.
Crystal, D (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. CUP,