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More than just moccasins: American Indian words in English

A menagerie of words

Most English speakers could easily identify words like tomahawk, moccasin, or tepee as having Amerindian origins (from Virginia Algonquian, Powhatan, and Sioux, respectively), but indigenous American languages have given English many other words which have now become so fully naturalized that their roots often go unrecognized. In fact, fully half of the names of the US states (including Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Missouri, to name a few) are derived ultimately from Amerindian words. Even some words which appear to be thoroughly English have hidden Amerindian roots: woodchuck, which looks like a typical English compound incorporating the word wood, is actually a folk-etymological simplification of an Algonquian word (such as Naragansett ockqutchaun). Similarly, sockeye, referring to the distinctive salmon of the Pacific Northwest, reinterprets a Salish word suk-kegh.

Today, the English language blankets the United States from coast to coast, but when permanent English settlement of North America began at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, the region of the present-day United States was a diverse patchwork of hundreds of American Indian languages. When the first English-speaking settlers arrived, they encountered flora, fauna, and cultural artifacts for which they had no names in their native tongue, and the Algonquian languages spoken by the communities around the early colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts were thus the origin of many early borrowings. To take animals as an example, we have moose and skunk from Eastern Algonquian, opossum and raccoon from Virginia Algonquian, and quahog from Narragansett.

What do chocolate and coyotes have in common?

The English were relative latecomers to the Americas, so they encountered not only indigenous peoples, but also other European colonists who had already absorbed local words into their own vocabularies. Many words from North American languages made their way into English through the intermediary of another colonial language. Mesquite and coyote, which entered English via Mexican Spanish, originated in Nahuatl (also the ultimate origin of chocolate). Caribou and toboggan came to English through Canadian French, which had borrowed them from Mikmaq. And English took that most American of words, bayou, from Louisiana French, which had adapted it from Choctaw bayuk.

We are thankful for…

November is a natural time to think about the impact of American Indian languages on English: not only is it Native American Heritage Month, but also the month of the US Thanksgiving holiday, which is bound by national mythology with a semi-legendary three-day feast  shared by the English inhabitants of the Plymouth colony and their Wampanoag neighbors in 1621. Although the most emblematic foods of the contemporary Thanksgiving, turkey and cranberries, have names of European origin (despite referring to New World foodstuffs), many of the other foods which traditionally grace the Thanksgiving table show their American origins in their etymologies. For instance, the word for squash, a vital food for the early colonists, comes from Narragansett, as does succotash. The cornmeal pone is from Virginia Algonquian, and the pecan, star of many a Thanksgiving pie, comes to English from Illinois, via French.

The future

Any discussion of the impact of Amerindian languages on English must also acknowledge its obverse: the displacement and devastation of American Indian peoples and the languages they spoke which was a direct consequence of the continent’s settlement by speakers of English and other European languages. In the centuries since European colonization, many of the indigenous languages of North America have been lost, or reduced to a tiny, aging population of native speakers. Under present circumstances, the majority of indigenous languages still spoken in the United States today are not likely to survive the century, but attitudes towards American Indian languages, which once emphasized assimilation, have changed, and many communities are now seeking to revitalize their linguistic heritage. It is to be hoped that English will continue to exist alongside, and share mutual influence with, these languages for generations to come.

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