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Talk the Talk: English Speech Is Within Your Reach

This week: Native Roots: Why American English is American
by Victor Greeson

Why is American English so different from British English? There are many reasons. Of course, when two groups live on separate continents, there are bound to be changes in usage over time, and that has certainly happened. Also, the standardization of the language by authorities such as dictionary makers was in the hands of different people in each country, which is partially to blame for the differences between American and British spelling. But, probably the most profound differences are in vocabulary, and the strongest force acting to make this happen is the introduction into American English of words from a variety of languages - Native American languages, survivals of African languages brought by the slaves, and the many languages brought by the various colonial and immigrant groups.

This week, we'll look at some contributions from Native American languages, some of which may be new to you, especially if you've only learned British English. Many of these words are not exactly as they were in the original languages - chocolate, for example, was originally cacahuatl in the original Nahuatl (Aztec) language. Also, some of these words were first adapted to the Spanish language - American English tobacco, for example, is derived from Spanish tabaco, which in turn is probably derived from a similar word in Taino, a language of the West Indies. Keep in mind that Native American cultures were very diverse, and the Mohawk culture of the North-East had as much in common with the Dine (Navaho) culture of Arizona and New Mexico as the culture of Iceland does with that of India. In fact, the languages of Iceland and India are more closely related!

Naturally, English-speaking colonists encountered tools, practices, and clothing for which they had no names. Whenever different cultures come in contact, they exchange many things - technologies, artifacts, ideas, knowledge, and more. When something doesn't have a name in one culture, the existing name for it will often be copied from the vocabulary of the other culture. Since there are many plants and animals in the Americas that are not found in Europe, many of the names for native species are derived from Native American languages. So, for example, the names for such common American animals as moose, skunk, chipmunk, raccoon, opossum (or 'possum), and foods like persimmon, squash, and hominy are derived from various languages in the Algonkian group, as is terrapin, the name of a fresh-water turtle. Tupi (a South American language still spoken in Brazil) gives us the names of animals such as tapir, cougar, and jaguar, the names of plants like jacaranda and petunia, and tapioca, a starch used in puddings.

Of course, Native American groups, living in a variety of climates, each developed their own forms of housing appropriate to their physical environments. Among these were the wigwam, the tepee (or tipi, or teepee), the hogan, the wikiup, the kiva, and the igloo. Other words describing native practices include (from Massachusset) wampum, a type of beads used as currency; powwow (from Narraganset powwaw or Massachuset pauwau) now generally used for a wide variety of Native American social gatherings; and potlatch (Chinook Jargon patlac), a celebration held among several northwestern nations at which prominent persons would give away, or perhaps even destroy, some of their wealth. (This has been given many interpretations.)

Regional forms of weather had their own names, so, for example, the Taino language of the West Indies has a word, hurakán, for a type of tropical cyclone encountered in the Western Atlantic. The Spanish adopted this as huracán, which became hurricane in English.

And, of course, place names across America are derived from the languages of those who knew those places first. Massachussets and Kansas are derived from the names of native peoples, as are Dakota and Omaha, and many other state, city and place names. Oklahoma means "red people" in Choctaw, Minnesota means "sky-blue waters" in Dakota, and the mighty Mississippi River's name means "great river" in Ojibwa.

Here are some other borrowings from American languages:

From Virginia Algonkian

  • Moccasins - soft leather shoes, from which we get the proverb "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins."
  • Tomahawk - A small hand-axe, suitable for throwing or for use as a weapon.
From Narraganset (another Algonkian language)
  • Succotash - (Narraganset msíckquatash) Orignally a stew of corn, fish, and beans, which nowadays more often means a simple combination of corn and lima beans.
  • Squash - (Narraganset askútasquash) The vegetable, not the game or the verb, which have other origins.
From the languages of the West Indies (notably Taino)
  • Maize - Corn. A staple food for many native groups. The importance of corn cannot be overstated.
  • Hammock - A sort of bed or resting-place which can be tied between two trees. Not all Americans have one of these in their yards (if they have a yard), but every true American wants one.
  • Potato - A root vegetable, basic to the American diet, that was seen as the salvation of the poor and hungry when it was discovered. It is starchy, and rich in copper.
  • Barbecue - A style of cooking outdoors on a framework suspended over a wood or charcoal fire, probably developed by the Arawak Indians of the Caribbean. This is now one of the typical forms of American cooking, especially during social gatherings. The ingredients and preparation differ in different parts of the country, and some people will argue passionately about what is proper barbecue. Sometimes spelled "barbeque", or even "Bar-B-Q".
  • Canoe - A light and narrow boat, pointed at the ends, which is paddled. What most people think a Native American's boat looks like.
From Micmac
  • Toboggan - A curved piece of wood which is used as a toy, to slide down snow-covered hills.
  • Caribou - A large hoofed and horned animal.
From Inuit (also called Eskimo)
  • Igloo - A dome-shaped Inuit dwelling. Usually, this word is used to refer to igloos made of ice, but these were usually only for temporary use. Permanent igloos were made from materials like wood, stone, and sod.
  • Kayak - A small boat, designed for one user, completely enclosed except for where the pilot sits, and able to easily recover from being capsized. It is steered with a special double-ended paddle.
  • Mukluks - Inuit boots made of sealskin or reindeer-skin.
From Quechua (also called Inca)
  • Llama and vicuña - Two similar species, used as beasts of burden in the Andes. (The name of the alpaca, a similar animal, is derived from a related language, Aymara.)
  • Puma - A wild cat, found in North and South America, also called cougar or mountain lion.
  • Condor - Either of two very large varieties of vulture, one of which lives in the Andes, the other in California.
  • Quinine - A bitter substance, once an important anit-malaria agent, now mostly known as the key ingredient in tonic water.
  • Coca - A plant important in the folk cultures of several South American countries. The source from which cocaine is derived. At one time, a major ingredient of Coca-Cola, which still contains trace amounts of coca-leaf extract from which the cocaine has been removed.
  • Guano - Fertilizer made from the droppings of sea birds. Now generally used to refer to excrement, especially of bats, or to related substances, especially if used for similar purposes.
From Nahuatl (also called Aztec)
  • Tomato - An American plant, whose edible fruit (it is not a vegetable, as many believe) is widely used.
  • Chocolate - If you don't know what this is, go to the store immediately, and find out!
  • Avocado - A bumpy, pear-shaped, dark green fruit, native to California and Florida, with rich, sweet flesh, used in Mexican food, notably guacamole, a garnish.
  • Coyote - An animal resembling a smaller, thinner wolf. Like wolves, coyotes howl at the moon. There are many stories and myths, in many Native American cultures, in which Coyote is a major figure, usually as a rascal or trickster who often defeats evil forces.


Do you still have unanswered questions about this topic -- or about anything else? Is there something that you would like to see an article about? Do you have advice, ideas, or experiences you would like to share with other international students? Let us know -- send us a message at: CityHall@istudentcity.com

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