January 29, 2021

Words of the Month - Indigenous Roots

         Today I’d like to take a look at some of the many words that English borrowed from Indigenous American languages.  About two thirds came straight from their source-languages to English, while just a little over a third of them were borrowed by way of another European language that had borrowed them first.  Europeans began to use indigenous words as soon as they reached the Americas, and have continued to acquire new vocabulary fairly steadily ever since, which is generally what happens whenever people come into continued contact.  Also as usual, English has borrowed the sorts of words that it lacks: new words for new things.
        For example, we have benefitted from a plethora of new foods and new words to name them, from cacao in the sixteenth century to chipotle in the twentieth.  And then there’s quinoa, which entered the English language around 1600 but didn’t become a household word until four hundred years later.

cacao - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish  (Uto-Aztecan is a fairly large language family that includes languages stretching from Nahuan (Aztecan) in southern Mexico to Northern Paiute in California and Nevada.)

maize - Arawakan via Spanish  (Arawakan is a widespread language family spoken in South America and the Caribbean, including languages of Brazil, and also Taino, the first American language encountered by Europeans.)

papaya - Arawakan via Spanish

quinoa - Quechua via Spanish (Quechua is a language family of the Andes, including the language of the Inca Empire.)

squash - Algic (The Algic family includes the Algonquian languages and was spoken along the northeast coast of America and across areas of northern Canada.)

chocolate - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

jicama - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

tomato - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

cashew - Tupi-Guarani via French (Tupi-Guarani is a language subfamily in South America.)

tapioca - Tupi-Guarani via Portuguese

chia - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

mole - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

chipotle - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

guacamole - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

        Other plants and animals are another source of fresh words, as the first thing a human does when encountering a new species is to ask what it’s called.

cayman - Cariban via Spanish (Cariban languages are spoken along the northern coast of South America.)

manatee - Cariban via Spanish

toucan - Tupi-Guarani via French

condor - Quechua via Spanish

moose - Algic

opossum - Algic

raccoon - Algic

skunk - Algic

guanaco - Quechua

jaguar - Tupi-Guarani

mangrove - Cariban via Spanish

caribou - Algic via French

peccary - Cariban

anole - Arawakan via French

mesquite - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

puma - Quechua via Spanish

margay - Tupi-Guarani via French

tamarin - Cariban via French

axlotl - Uto-Aztecan

tapir - Tupi-Guarani

quetzal - Uto-Aztecan via Spanish

chipmunk - Algic

saguaro - Uto-Aztecan

piranha - Tupi-Guarani via Portuguese

        Related to the flora and fauna are the landscapes and ecological areas that English speakers encountered in the world that was new to them.

savannah - Arawakan via Spanish

pampas - Quechua via Spanish

bayou - Muskogean via French (Muskogean languages, as this borrowed word implies, are spoken in the southeastern United States.)

cenote - Mayan

        And finally, new objects, artifacts, and customs.

quipu - Quechua via Spanish

cannibal - Cariban via Spanish

maraca - Tupi-Guarani via Portuguese

hammock - Cariban via Spanish

guano - Quechua via Spanish

moccasin - Algic

tomahawk - Algic

wigwam - Algic

tepee - Siouan (The Siouan languages are in the Great Plains area of central North America.)

kayak - Eskimo-Aleut  (You can probably deduce that the Eskimo-Aleut languages are native to the far north of North America.)

totem - Algic

toboggan - Algic via French

igloo - Eskimo-Aleut

kachina - Uto-Aztecan

inukshuk - Eskimo-Aleut

        In all this you can see patterns that reflect the history of European contact with Indigenous peoples of the Americas: that words English gained by way of Spanish come largely from Mexican and South American languages, while most of the words gained via French come from Northeastern peoples.  The earliest words are those from the Caribbean and Atlantic coast regions, while we start to gain larger influxes from Northwestern languages in the late eighteenth into the nineteenth centuries.  Whether the contact is violent or peaceful, constructive or tragic, humans still communicate, and when they communicate their languages mingle.  Of course I’ve given you just a sampling of words, representing neither the full range of languages, nor the fact that a large proportion of our borrowed words are actually proper nouns.  It’s just an enticing introduction to the grand and scintillant linguistic mosaic that we get when humans come into contact.

[Pictures: Cacauate, wood block print from La historia del Mondo Nuovo by Girolamo Benzoni, 1565 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);

The Manatee, woodcut from Sea Fables Explained by Henry Lee, 1883 (Image from here);

Skinning Caribou Inside the Iglu, linocut by Janet Kigusiuq, 1982 (Image from Inuit.net).]

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