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
From Narraganset (another Algonkian language)
- 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 the languages of the West Indies (notably Taino)
- 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
- 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 Inuit (also called Eskimo)
- 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 Quechua (also called Inca)
- 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
- Mukluks - Inuit boots made of sealskin or reindeer-skin.
From Nahuatl (also called Aztec)
- 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.
- 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