Indian Words in English

English really isn’t a Native American language, but virtually all of today’s Indians speak this as their first and primary language. During the past several centuries the English-speaking Europeans and their descendents who have come to occupy what is now the United States and Canada have consistently shown intolerance for other languages. Consequently, native languages have been suppressed. Native Americans have been required to learn English, and have not been allowed to use their native languages.  

In the early days of contact between Native Americans and the English-speaking colonists, the need for communication between the two groups resulted in the formation of Pidgin English. Pidgin English is a stripped down version of English which allows for basic communication. Pidgin English was primarily a trade language. During the seventeenth century, American Indians, if they learned English at all, learned it only as a medium for basic communication with alien invaders.

Another interesting aspect of the use of English and its incorporation into Indian cultures is in swearing: in general, Indian languages do not have swear words. As the Indians came into contact with English-speaking people, they acquired the art of swearing which was always done in English.

As the Europeans invaded the North American continent they encountered many things which they had never seen. Having no words to describe these things, the European colonists-English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and French-speaking-borrowed many words from the Indians.

Some of the Indian words which have been incorporated into English included words for plants, animals, and foods:

Abalone

Avocado

Caribou

Cashew

Cassava

Chili

Chipmunk

Chocolate

Condor

Cougar

Coyote

Hickory

Hominy

Iguana

Maize

Moose

Muskrat

Ocelot

Opossum

Pecan

Persimmon

Petunia

Potato

Puma

Raccoon

Skunk

Squash

Succotash

Tobacco

Tomato

Woodchuck

Some of the words described clothing and tools:

Canoe

Hammock

Kayak

Moccasin

Tipi

Toboggan

Tomahawk

Wampum

Wigwam

Some of the other words English has acquired from American Indian languages include:

Barbecue

Bayou

Buccaneer

Caucus

Chinook

Hurricane

Mackinaw

Podunk

Powwow

Quinine

Totem

“Caucus” comes into English from the Algonquian caucauasu which means “counselor” and was first recorded in print by Captain John Smith, an early English colonist.

“Buccaneer” originally meant “someone who dries meat on a wooden frame over a fire” and has its origin in the Tupi language of the Caribbean islands. It came into English through French.

This list of words is not complete, but illustrates some of the words which English has borrowed. In some cases, English has borrowed the words directly from Indian languages (most of these have come from the Algonquian languages), while in other instances the Indian words have come into English from Spanish or French.

In addition to borrowing words to describe the new wonders they were seeing, the Europeans also borrowed a number of place names. Adjacent to the United States, both Canada and Mexico are Indian names. More than half of the states in the United States bear Indian names:

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

Connecticut

Dakota

Illinois

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Nebraska

New Mexico

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Wisconsin

Wyoming

On the local level, many cities and towns, including Chicago, carry Indian place names.