Native American Loanwords in Contemporary American English: History and Development

Seminar Paper, 2009

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Loanwords from Latin American Origin

3. North American Indian Loanwords

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The number of indigenous people that inhabited the American continent before the European settlers arrived is still debated about today. Based on numerous different sources, printed as well as online, it ranges from 8 million to 112 million people who lived in tribal societies.

Those tribes were often very different in the way they lived: some societies were nomad tribes, their major source of food being hunting – which was why they followed their prey. Others lived from growing maize and plants. Again others in the rocky desert regions lived in houses which they built using the natural rock foundations of the area. There were different sizes of tribes, some being rather small, and some being huge, like for example the Aztec societies or the Anasazi people. But no matter what size the population of tribe was, or how advanced they were in their way of life, there‟s one thing all of them had in common: the moment of contact with the European settlers changed their lives forever.

Today the number of Native American people in the United States, although slowly increasing again, is still considerably low: about 1.9 million people today consider themselves to be Native Americans.1 They make about one percent of the overall population of the United States of America. Throughout the last five centuries, their population was decimated by diseases and wars, caused by the invasions of European settlers. Special programs during the nineteenth century, aiming to “kill the Indian, save the man”2 have further added to not only the decimation of a race, but the loss of cultures and related to that, languages.

Yet, a lot of aspects of Native American cultures and languages live on today in the modern languages in the form of loanwords. These loanwords allow a glimpse into a unique style of life, which got lost over time.

This paper aims on looking at the different kinds of loanwords, seeing what areas of life they can be classified into and to examine when they entered the English language for the first time.

The main basis for this paper is the book “O Brave New Words!” by Charles L. Cutler3, which counts as one of the standard works where American Indian loanwords are concerned. Another paper which I want to take into account is “Native American Loanwords in American English” by Ginny Carney4, who further examines the relation of the acquiring of loanwords to the prevailing relations between settlers and Native tribes at the given time. This paper is mainly based on the book by Charles Cutler as well, therefore not much new information is being presented, but is serves mainly to make some strong points and underline the thesis and arguments that Cutler is already giving in his book.

Both works base their arguments on the central thesis that the relation between Europeans and the tribes were vital to the acquiring of new loan words. This claim in itself sounds reasonable and logical. In language contact situations, there are many factors that determine the extent to which components of another language are borrowed or not. I will go into the details of that later on since Cutler himself gives a couple of examples, but the most important factor that he mentions is the social progressiveness of the culture whose language is borrowed from. Does the new culture have anything interesting to offer, or are most of its features already known and/or outdated. This is the main point that Cutler makes when he compares the borrowing of American Indian loanwords from South or Central America to that of North American Indian tribes. In the next chapter I will have a closer look at Latin American Indian tribes, of whose language a lot of borrowing has taken place and I want to look at what kind of loanwords were borrowed and, more importantly, are still at use today. First of all though, I want to start with a graphic example of the point that both of the authors try to make with their works. On the very first pages of his book, Charles Cutler presents to us a table, which includes the number of loanwords and the year in which they were acquired.

In the picture5 we can clearly see the curves of acquisition, however, to me his way of argumentation to underline his thesis does not sound entirely convincing. Therefore, what I mainly want to do in this paper is to look at the acquiring of American Indian loanwords, and at the same time look at the historical and cultural developments of the time.

When speaking about American Indian loanwords, or rather, American Indian tribal histories in general, one has to keep in mind that there was not just one tribe which consisted of all Native American people, but rather many different tribes which varied largely in language and culture. Therefore when examining the question mentioned above, one has to take into consideration many different histories. While one tribe might have been at war with the Europeans, another might have been allied.

What Charles Cutler does is, he lists the points in history, which were crucial to Euro- American settlers, but he fails to point out the diversity of the Native American histories. This shall be the attempt that I will be making in this paper.

First I want to look at the different points and areas, listing the most important loanwords and in the second part of the paper I want to examine the cultural relations between different tribes and the Europeans to see whether Cutler‟s and Carney‟s claims of correlations between Indian-White relations and the acquiring of loanwords is justified.

2. Loanwords of Latin American Origin

A lot of loanwords from American Indian origin have been lost throughout the centuries, the use of them declining with the decline of the prevailing Native culture itself, since it was something which was used to describe a specific feature or ritual of the life of the Natives. There are still a lot of words in use which originally derived from American Indian backgrounds though. The decision to begin this paper by looking at loanwords of Latin American Origin happened not only because the colonization and language contact situations happened earlier than those in North America, but also because a lot of the words from tribes from South or Middle America are still in use today, not only in English, but in a lot of other languages as well. Even more interestingly, they are not used in connection with something uniquely Indian, but have become integrated into our daily languages that most persons would not be able to identify them as having been derived from those ancient languages and cultures. That strongly contrasts them from loanwords from North America, which are mostly used in connection with the description of some part of Indian cultures, lifestyle or rituals.

The borrowing of American Indian loanwords began as early as the first language contact, and it was actually Christopher Columbus who led the way for the acquisition of new words from the cultures of the so-called New World. Most of these loanwords from South or Central American tribes made their way into English through Spanish, since the settlers colonizing those regions were mainly from Spain. English settlements were concentrated in the area of North America.

Cutler states that the first native word ever to enter the English language was most likely the word guaiacum 6 , which appeared in the translation by T. Paynell of a Spanish medical book in 1533. It is a word of West Indian (Arawakan) origin, describing a plant whose oil was used as a cure for syphilis, and is still in use in various medical applications today.

A number of other loanwords followed from the Arawakan language family, and most of those are still in use today. Words like „ hurricaine’ , „ maize ‟, „ potatoe ‟, „ cassava ‟ or „ cannibal ‟ make clear, what kind of things the new words that entered the language were describing. It was mostly food, plants, animals or things from daily life of the Native tribes, which were simply unknown to the European cultures. Hence it was more comfortable to simply use the American Indian word for these things, than to come up with either an entirely new word, or a European equivalent which may have come close to describing the new thing.

Speakers of the Arawakan language families were the first people that European settlers encountered on the American continent. Unfortunately, the diseases which the settlers brought with them, and the new way of life that the Spanish people brought with them diminished their tribes drastically and within a century nearly all of them died – tragically a fate which many of the American Indian cultures had to suffer. Yet, the Arawakan people left behind a significant number of loanwords, a lot of which are in use on a daily basis today. Words like barbecue, tobacco7, savannah or potato for example are being used today without direct affiliation to American Indian cultures – in fact, most people would not be able to identify them as loanwords from a South American Indian tribe. Cutler lists about 300 loanwords from this specific language family. The examples that I listed were words which are still common today. The majority of the listed words name plants and animals though which are mostly used in fields of botanical research.

A perfect example of how loanwords got changed in their meaning poses the word „cannibal‟. It derives originally from the tribal name of the „caribes‟ that were alternatively called “canibas” by their Arawakan neighbors. These tribes were known to be fierce people, who usually attacked their neighbor‟s villages at dawn. When they had gained a victory, it was a ritual to allegedly eat enemy corpses on the battlefield. Cutler makes clear that these parts of the rituals are debated today8. He gives as a source some reports that Columbus had received when he explored the West Indian Islands in 1492. That tells us of course that the source of these accounts has clearly a European point of view, and might be exaggerated due to misunderstandings of ritual and cultural life and the ignorance of the Native languages – therefore a lack of means of communications. However, the original name of the tribe caribe or caniva , meant brave or daring. Through these highly debated reports which described those tribes as man-eating, violent people, the term cannibal (which the word developed into overtime) has taken on an entirely different meaning today, supporting an image of Native tribes which might have been a myth.

However, the Carib people also transmitted a number of loanwords into the English language (through Spanish). A very familiar one might be caiman, which is a special type of crocodile. Also canoe will sound familiar, although this is a word which we would still associate with American Indian cultures today (even if that might be the case only due to stereotypical representations of American Indians and their cultures in modern Hollywood movies).

Another very influential native language from Central America was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, which belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family, that was spoken in wide parts of Central and North America. North American languages which are related to Nahuatl are Shoshone and Ute for example9. The language contact with the Aztec empire started in 1517, when the Spanish discovered Mexico and Hernán Cortez began invading the new country. Over the years, the cultures mixed and formed eventually what we know as the Mexican culture today. A number of loanwords were transferred from the Nahuatl language to Spanish and from there into English, and a number of other languages all over the world.

Cutler reports cacao to be the first loanword to appear in a written English translation of Martyr, but the most widespread and commonly known one today may be chocolate , or chocolatl , which originally derived from the Nahuatl word xocoatl ( xococ meaning bitter and atl meaning water). It was traditionally a drink in the native culture, cacao beans mixed with water, maize and chili which was not only appreciated for its taste but also considered to be an aphrodisiac.10

Interestingly, this word has been taken over in most of the other languages as well. In the following I am giving a list of the different words in different languages:

Afrikaans: sjokolade, Belarusian: sakalada, Bulgarian: shokolad, Czech: cokolada, Danish: chokolade, Dutch: chocolade, English: chocolate, Estonian: sokolaad, Finnish: suklaa, French: chocolat, German: Schokolade, Greek: sokolata, Hawaiian: Kokoleka, Hungarian: csokolade, Indonesian: coklat , Italian: la ioccolata, Japanese: shokora, chokore-to, Maltese: cikkolata, Manx Gaelic: shocklaid, Norwegian: sjokolade, Polish: czekolada f, Portuguese: o chocolate, Romanian: ciocolata, Russian: sokolad, Slovak: cokolada, Spanish: El chocolate, Swedish: choklad11


1 Source: USA Today , November 29, 2006; Emily Bazar, “Native American? The Tribe Says No.”

2 Famous quotation used to describe the government policies towards Native American tribes during the second half of the nineteenth century. The term derives from a famous article by Richard Pratt, and describes the government‟s efforts to destroy Indian culture and assimilate them into the Euro-American way of life in order to make them fit for life in the industrialized civilization that mainstream America was at that time. Off-reservation boarding schools, new regulations saying that Native Americans had to live in houses with their families and farm their land, cut their hair and dress like Euro-Americans are examples for those efforts. Source: Richard H. Pratt, “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites,” Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian” 1880–1900 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973), 260–271.

3 Cutler, Charles L. O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English . Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. 1994.

4 Carney, Ginny. Native American Loanwords in American English. Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1997). University of Minnesota Press. pp. 189-203

5 Cutler, Charles, pp. 2

6 Cutler, pp. 45, Also Ginny Carney claims guaiacum to be the first loanword to ever appear, in his essay he names the same source as Cutler does.

7 Cutler lists the two words „barbecue‟ and „tobacco‟ saying that they probably derived from these languages. Especially in the case of tobacco he mentions a claim that says the word originally derived from an Arabic language.

8 Cutler, pp. 45

9 I added a map of American Indian language families at the end of this paper as a visual aid to help mapping certain cultures and tribes.

10 Cutler, pp. 48

11 Source: „Chocolate in different languages“, (as accessed on August 20, 2009)

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Native American Loanwords in Contemporary American English: History and Development
Free University of Berlin  (John-F. Kennedy-Institut für Nordamerikastudien)
Language Change II: Language Contact Phenomena and Change in English
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Native, American, Loanwords, Contemporary, American, English, History, Development
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Katharina Reese (Author), 2009, Native American Loanwords in Contemporary American English: History and Development, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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