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Indigenous American Words in the English Language

World Languages
Indigenous American Words in the English Language
on July, 25 2017

Do you know any Indigenous American words off the top of your head?

When cultures collide, they invariably have a lasting impact on one another. And this often shows through in the languages they speak.

When the French arrived in the swamp lands of the American south, it was a completely foreign terrain to them. They heard the local Choctaw people refer to the swamp lands as bayuk, which simply means ‘river’ or ‘creek.’ And so was born the French word bayouque, which English colonials later adopted as bayou.

Indigenous American Languages: Living, Fragile and Extinct


Language is a living thing. It grows and changes, and it can also go extinct. A language becomes moribund when children stop learning it. After that, it can go extinct in a matter of decades. A language doesn’t become extinct until the last person to speak it dies.

Related Post: How Many Languages Are There in the World?


It’s difficult to count languages, but some estimates say there were 1,750 different languages in Latin America alone before the beginning of the European invasions. Most of these are extinct, and many dwindling. But some are quite stable, as children continue to learn them and people use them in all aspects of life.

According to the Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin American (AILLA), however, the stability of these languages is quite fragile. If children start moving away from the community to find jobs in the city, for instance, or if the government disrupts the community by building a highway through their land, this can threaten the language and push it toward extinction.

English has appropriated many Indigenous American words. When colonial invaders arrived in the Americas, their efforts to communicate with Indigenous people had a mutually impacting effect.

Over the years Indigenous American words found their way into French, Portuguese, Spanish and English. Here are some of the language groups that have contributed familiar Indigenous American words to the English vocabulary.

Eskimo–Aleut Words


The Eskimo-Aleut language family is one of the world’s primary language families. It divides into two major groups: the Aleut language, with 400 people speaking the Eastern dialects and only 60 to 80 speaking the Western and Central dialects, and the Eskimo languages.

The Eskimo languages comprise the Yupik language group and the Inuit language group. Yupik includes Central Alaskan Yupik, with 10,000 speakers; Pacific Gulf Yupik, with 400 speakers; Central Siberian Yupik, with 1,400 speakers; and Naukan, with a mere 70 speakers remaining. These languages appear primarily in western and southwestern Alaska, and in the easternmost parts of Siberia.

The Inuit languages are Inupiaq, with 3,500 speakers; Inuvialuktun, with 765 speakers; Inuktitut with 40,000 speakers; and Greenlandic, with 54,000 speakers. These languages populate northern Alaska, the upper reaches of Canada around the Hudson Bay, and Greenland.


So what Indigenous American words did we inherit from the Eskimo-Aleut family? You probably already guessed igloo, which comes from from Inuktitut. But what about kayak and malamute? And perhaps you’ve seen Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North. The titular character was named for the Inuktitut word for polar bear, Nanuq.

Chimo is a catch-all greeting similar to 'cheers,' used by the Canadian Military Engineers especially in Northern Quebec. It’s also taken from Inuktitut. The word Eskimo itself is not an Eskimo word. It is an Innu-aimun word from the Algonquian language family, an Eastern Indigenous Canadian term for 'one who laces snowshoes.'

Because it is not the Inuit’s chosen name for themselves, some consider it derogatory. Names like these, which are taken from peoples other than the ones they describe, are called ‘exonyms.’

Related Post: Tasmanian Indigenous Language Used in Modern Song


Algonquian Words

Caribou (Míkmaq for ‘snow shoveler’), chipmunk, husky (which has the same root word as Eskimo), moose, muskrat, opossum (‘white dog like animal’ in Powhatan), raccoon, skunk (which means something close to ‘urine fox’ in Massachusett), and woodchuck are all based on Algonquian animal names.

Woodchuck is a phonetic appropriation, using English words to approximate the sound of the original Indigenous American words, even though the result is meaningless. This process is called folk etymology.

Algonquian includes languages like Ottowa and Ojibwa, Potawatomi and Powhatan, Massachusetts and Mi’kmaq, Cheyanne and Cree. Speakers of the Algonquian languages were among the first to have contact with Europeans. This gave Indigenous American words from the Algonquian family a major impact on colonial English.

Many of the USA’s place names are Indigenous American words, and a considerable portion of them come directly from the Algonquian family. The Ojibwa words for ‘great river’ and ‘great sea’ are Mississippi and Michigan, respectively.

Chicago comes from the Miami-Illinois word Shikaakwa, the name of a plant you might know as an Appalachian ramp, or wild leek. And you can probably guess where Miami and Illinois from. That’s right! They’re Indigenous American words for some of the people groups of the Great Lakes region and their languages. Miami-Illinois is now extinct, but the Miami tribe of Oklahoma is making an effort to revive it.

Algonquian produced several exonyms that stuck In addition to Eskimo: Sioux is an Ottowa word instead of Sioux word, while Winnebago is a Potawatomi term meaning ‘those of the dirty water.’

The Algonquian family brought us caucus, hickory, pecan, squash, toboggan and succotash. It’s also the source of some more obviously Indigenous American words that have made their way into the English lexicon: tomahawk, totem, moccasin, wigwam and powwow are examples.

Nahuatl Words


Nahuatl is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family that people have been speaking in Mesoamerica since at least the seventh century. More recently, a number of Indigenous American words from Nahuatl have become a part of the English vocabulary, many by way of Spanish.

Āhuacatl is the root word for both avocado, and combined with mole (‘sauce’), it brought us āhuacamōlli, or guacamole (‘avocado sauce’).

In fact, a lot of culinary treats come from Indigenous American words from the Nahuatl language. If you’re having chipotle tamales with mesquite chilis, jicama and tomato, and perhaps a little chocolate chia for dessert, you’ve got a mouthful of Nahautl!

Animal names like ocelot, quetzal, and coyote are from Nahautl. We can also thank the Aztecs for Indigenous America words like shack, copal, atlatl and peyote.

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Quechua Words


The Quechua people are an Indigenous people group of the Andes. Quechua was the language of the great Incan Empire, the largest nation on earth in 1500. In fact, Inca is Quechua for ‘king.’

A considerable portion of the population of Peru still speaks Quechua today, and the Quechuan language family has provided a number of Indigenous American words that English has adopted. As with Nahautl, many of these Indigenous American words have entered the English vocabulary via Spanish, such as quinoa.

Llama, puma, and condor were all Quechua before they were English.  Jerky, pampa (‘large plain’), and guano are also Quechua Indigenous American words.

Quechua brought us ayahuasca (‘corpse rope’), cocaine and coca (not to be confused with Nahautl cacao, also styled as cocoa). And the Peruvian capital Lima is an Anglicanization of Rimaq, ‘speaking river.’

Arawakan Words


Arawakan is a large family of languages from the Indigenous people of South America. It includes many languages that have gone extinct or are badly documented, so it's difficult to understand the full scope of the language family. English has also borrowed a number of Indigenous American words from the Arawakan family.

If you like to barbecue maize or canoe through a mangrove forest, for example, thank Arawakan.

Guava, yuca, tobacco, hammock and caiman (‘water spirit’) are all Arawaken Indigenous American words. They, too, entered English via Spanish.

Zabana became savanna; cayo became cay; hurakán became hurricane, and iwana became iguana, all Indigenous American words with roots in Arawaken languages.

Tupi-Guaraní Words


The Tupi-Guaraní language family is scattered widely across South America. It includes thriving languages, such as Paraguayan Guaraní, which some eight million native speakers keep alive.

However, Tupi-Guaraní also includes many extinct or endangered languages. Xingú Asuriní, for example, has only 120 native speakers remaining (as of 2006). Omagua has 10 (2011), Anambé six (2006), and Apiaká had only one remaining native speaker in 2009.


Many English terms borrowed from Indigenous American words in the Tupi-Guaraní family made their way into English via Portuguese, French, or in some cases, both. Jaguar was a Tupinambá word that became a French word. Portuguese picked it up from French, and English borrowed it from Portuguese.

Macaw, cougar, capybara (from the Guaraní word kapibári, or ‘the grass eater’), piranha, tapir, and toucan are some of the other animals that whose English names come from Tupi-Guaraní Indigenous American words.

We can also thank the Tupi-Guaraní for cashew, maraca, cayenne, petunia, and tapioca.

Related Post: The Languages Spoken in the United States {Infographic}


Keeping Indigenous American Words In Use

This list of Indigenous American words that we use in English is far from complete. There are many other Indigenous languages and language families, and their impact on English is the subject of ongoing research.

Using these words in English helps to keep the legacy of Indigenous American cultures alive. But to really preserve Indigenous languages, they need to be taught in schools, perpetuated, translated, and protected from political threats.

Through translation and cross cultural communication, we can help to revitalize some of the languages that are dwindling. That way, Indigenous American words and customs can live on for subsequent generations.

Brian Oaster

Brian Oaster is a Content Writer at Day Translations. He has worked all over the world as an arts educator, English teacher, basket exporter, bookstore owner, fortune teller, and as the first mate of a private sailing yacht! Educated in the visual arts and an avid reader of news and literature, his focus is on international arts and culture, world religions and global politics.

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