Every culture comes with a rich history. There are traditions and rituals that people perform for the first time and then become the practice of that culture. Whenever there is a collision of cultures and people from other cultures immigrate to a land that has different practices, these emerge beautifully. Also, they have a strong impact on each other. Native American words also came from different language families and have a strong impact on the people of the modern day.

Let’s talk about the French people when they arrived in southern America, they were strangers and outlanders back then. They came across the people of the Choctaw who referred to their swamp land as ‘Bayuk’. Bayuk refers to ‘a river’ or ‘creek’. The French adopted this word and named it ‘bayouque’ and English colonials later twisted it to the ‘bayou’. The United States of America is a multicultural land and it is home to 11 different and distinct cultures of the world. Similarly, more than 350 languages are spoken in the States which indicates how rich this land has been in culture. A lot of immigrants came from different lands with their cultures and traditions and these merged into a new culture.

Table of Content

  1. What are Native American words?
  2. Eskimo – Aleut words
    1. Inuit languages
  3. Algonquian words
    1. Folk Etymology
  4. Nahuatl Words
  5. Quechua Words
    1. Arwakan Words
    2. Tupi Guarani Words
  6. Final Words

What are Native American Words?

The immigrants and people who settled in the American land came with their language and found a lot of native words which were new to them. Language is a living thing. It grows, evolves, and changes gradually. If it is not active, it gets obsolete and also gets extinct. The language goes beyond the vaults when people don’t practice at home and don’t make their children learn it. When there is no learning and speaking of a language, it is barely a few decades away from getting extinct. It does not vanish until the last person who speaks it dies.

Though the language count could have a hectic task, however, as per the estimate there were more than 1750 languages in America before Europeans started their invasions. Most of the languages among these have gone extinct and others are also in the phase of extinction. However, a lot of these are stable and children keep learning these and speak in different stages of life.

Native American words come with the languages of America. The archive set for the protection of languages and native American words suggests that these languages are fragile and at risk. If children start moving away from the community for employment reasons and elders who speak these languages die, this scenario can threaten the languages in question and move them toward the edge of extinction.

There are a number of native American words in the English language. During the colonial invaders’ arrival in America, they put great effort to communicate with the native Americans. Later, over the years different cultures emerged in America such as French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English, and the communication levels got better.

Here are a few of these language families with popular words that are part of the English language and vocabulary today.

1. Eskimo – Aleut Words

Eskimo – Aleut comes from a language family which is one of the world’s most important families. It has further two major groups. 400 of the Aleut language speakers speak eastern dialects. 60 to 80 people are into western and central dialects.

Eskimo languages, however, consist of the Yupik language group and also have a connection with the Inuit language group. The Yupik group comes with central Alaskan Yupik and has 10,000 speakers.

Whereas pacific gulf Yupik has 400 speakers. Central Siberian Yupik has 1400 speakers. Moreover, Naukan has barely 70 speakers. These languages have their roots and connection in the western and southeastern of Alaska and are also reported to be around the easternmost parts of Siberia.

Inuit Languages

As Inuit languages, these are

Inupiaq tops the list with more than 3500 speakers.

Inuvialuktun has 765 speakers.

The Inuktitut has 40,000 speakers.

Greenlandic has 54,000 speakers.

People speak these languages in the upper areas of Canada around Hudson Bay and Greenland. These are also in northern Alaska.

It is an igloo and it comes from the Inuktitut. Then, there are ‘kayak’ and ‘malamute’. Also if you remember watching a movie from Robert J. Flaherty’s film 1922 with the title Nanook of the North, this titular character comes from the Inuktitut word for a polar bear which is Nanuq.

Chimo is an expressive greeting expression that has similarities to the ‘cheers’ and was used by Canadian military engineers back then in Quebec. This word also comes from the Inuktitut language. The ties of this language are strong and most people take this language as an obsolete language. However, it has a long history. Even the word ‘Eskimo’ itself is not Eskimo but an Innu-aimun word that has ties to the Algonquian language family. It is an eastern indigenous term from Canada and that is used for the ‘one who laces snowshoes’

People also often take it derogatorily, because most of it does not come from the Inuit. Names such which they take from people other than others are known as exonyms.

2. Algonquian Words

A few words which are based on the Algonquian animal names are

  • Caribou which is a Mikmaq for the snow shoveler,
  • Husky, chipmunk (it has the same root word as Eskimo)
  • Moose
  • Muskrat
  • Opossum (a white dog-like animal in the Powhatan)
  • Raccoon
  • Skunk
  • Woodchuck

As for the word woodchuck, it is a phonetic appropriation that uses English words to balance and create relevancy of the sound of the original native American words, though it leads to meaningless results. This process is also named folk etymology.

Folk Etymology

A gravitational pull and force that pulls towards making some words sound logical and reasonable is folk etymology. It addresses the effort that we put into our words to make these sound more comprehendible.

3. Nahuatl Words

Uto- Aztecan language has its main language part as Nahuatl. This language has been spoken by the people since the seventh century. A lot of American native words from the Nahuatl are now part of the English vocabulary and entered through Spanish.

The Nahuatl word for the avocado is Āhuacatl and when it gets combined with the ‘mole’, it becomes āhuacamōlli or guacamole referring to the ‘avocado sauce’.

A number of culinary treats come from the Native American words in the English language.
A few animal names which are commonly available in the English language are

  • Ocelot
  • Quetzal
  • Coyote

However, Aztecs also deserve thanks for the native American language words such as

  • Shack
  • Copal
  • Atlatl
  • Peyote

4. Quechua Words

These people came with their language from the Andes. This was the language of the great Empire of the Incan. It was the largest nation on earth back in 1500. The word ‘Inca’ is Quechua for ‘King’.

A lot of people in Peru and its population still speak this language today and this language family has given a huge number of native American words to the English language. As these words made their way to English vocabulary with the Nahuatl, they made their place in the English vocabulary via Spanish, ‘Quinoa; is one such word.

Puma, condor, and llama, all of these were all Quechua words before they became part of the English language.

Moreover Jerky, pampa, and guano are also additional Quechua native American words.

There are a few more additional words that come from Quechua these are

  • Ayahuasca (corpse rope)
  • Cocaine
  • Coca

Also interestingly, the capital of Peruvia, Lima is also an Anglicanization of Rimaq ‘speaking river’.

Arwakan Words

The native people of south America brought this large family of Arawakan. This family had a number of languages and most of these have gone obsolete or extinct and have been badly documented. Therefore, the complete information about this language family is hard to get or understand. However, an interesting fact states that the English language has also borrowed the native American words from the family of languages too which is Arawakan.

If you like to ‘barbecue’ or like to go through a ‘mangrove’ forest, these all are from the Arawakan family.

A few more words that used the Spanish language to enter the English words family are

  • Guava
  • Yucva
  • Tobacco
  • Hammock
  • Caiman

Interestingly, later zabana became ‘savanna’ and the ‘cayo’ got to become cay. Hurricane was ‘hurakan’ initially and ‘iwana’ from Arawakan became iguana. All these American native words have their roots in the Arawaken language family.

Tupi Guarani Words

This family of languages which still preserves the native American words is scattered all over there in South America. It has a thriving language such as Paraguayan Guarani and more than eight million people speak this language and helping to keep it alive. However, it further includes extinct and endangered languages such as Xingu Asurini and it has merely 120 native speakers.

  • Omagua as per the 2011 report has 10 speakers.
  • Anambe has 6 speakers.
  • Apiaka has one speaker alive.

The native American words which made their way to the English language come from the Portuguese. ‘Jaguar’ was one of these. It is a French word and was pucked by Portuguese and English further borrowed it from Portuguese.

Moreover, Macaw, cougar, and capybara come from the Guarani, and a few of the animals’ names are also native American words and which first got common in Portuguese and then became part of the English language.

These are a few of the language families which have their words in the English vocabulary. Many other native languages and their families and their influence on English as a language and subject are yet to be discussed and awaited due to ongoing research.

However, in order to keep these native American words alive, it is evident to use these words frequently. It is not enough to use and speak in daily life though. Language families should be included in the syllabus for schools and institutes so that children and people know the origin of these words and play their part in keeping native languages alive.

Final Words

Language and culture can only stay alive when there are people who speak and practice these. The English language has a lot of native American words which are commonly spoken and have a history of decades and centuries. A few of the language families have been mentioned above and a few are also in the research process. These words belong to different language families coming from native American speakers and hence hold a significant place in the English language.

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