How Native American Culture Influenced the American English Language

Laura Mundow • Language HistoryComments (16)

As the end of Native American Heritage Month draws closer, we look at how the hundreds of native languages influenced the English of the settlers.

Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

Image Credit: @ Think Stock dot com

In the early 1400s, North America was a thriving hive of linguistic diversity, with languages as comparably disparate as English and Chinese spoken alongside each other. In fact, the continent’s language was several times more diverse than that of Europe, which was dominated by Romance and Germanic languages.

Nine language families were spread across the North American map: Algic, Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Uto-Aztecan, Athabaskan, Salishan, Eskimo-Aleut, and Mayan. Around 250 languages were spoken in the US alone, and languages within the same family were rarely mutually intelligible. Linguists theorize that this staggering diversity could date back to the migration of different tribes from Asia to America.

A sea change swept North America with the arrival of the Europeans. The Native American population plummeted, and with it, its languages. Today, most Native American languages are dead or dying, with just three languages spoken by more than 50,000 people in the continental US: Navajo, Cree and Ojibwe.

While the influence of languages like French and Greek on the English language is much discussed, the influence of Native American languages from the continental US on English is less well-charted territory. But as we will see, the impact of these languages is clear not only in America’s placenames, but in other vocabulary, phrases and word construction.

1. Placenames

More than half of US states – 26 – take their names from Native American languages: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

Many of these names are derived from geographical features, such as Kentucky, which comes from an Iroquoian word meaning “at the meadow,” Michigan, which comes from an Ottawan word meaning “large water,” and Ohio, from a Senecan word meaning “beautiful river.” Still others are named after tribes or villages, such as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arkansas.

A vast array of city, town and county names come from Native American languages, including Chicago, which is derived from a French interpretation of a Miami-Illinois word for “wild onion.” Other examples include Manhattan, Poughkeepsie, Seattle, Topeka, Miami, Malibu and Tucson.

The very way Europeans named places was changed by Native American influence. In Christian Europe, places were generally named after people, especially religious figures. However, the Europeans adopted the Native American custom of naming areas after animals. This change is illustrated by placenames like Deer Creek, Turkey Island, Turtle Lake and Buffalo.

2. The First Americanisms

Native American languages played a vital part in splitting the English language into UK English and American English. The Europeans encountered much in the New World that was not in the Old, and so they did not have names for new animals, plants, tools and practices.

The colonists often adopted the Native American term wholesale into English. Other times, they changed the word so it fit in more naturally with the sounds of English. Thus, isquontersquash was changed to squash, and segunku to skunk.

English borrowings from Native American Languages:
Animals: moose, skunk, chipmunk, raccoon, possum, terrapin, caribou, cisco, woodchuck
Trees and Plants: pecan, mahogany, hickory
Foods: persimmon, squash, hominy, pone, pemmican, succotash
Housing and Transportation: wigwam, teepee, igloo, toboggan, canoe, kayak
Miscellaneous: chinook, bayou, tomahawk, moccasin

The Curious Case of Yankee:
One school of thought argues that “Yankee” came from a Native American mispronunciation of the word English. Another argues that it came from a Native American mispronunciation of the French word Anglais. Still others argue that it came from Dutch or Scottish. The confusion neatly illustrates how much Native American influence has been obscured by the mists of time.

3. Phrasal Flair

Some Native American phrases and concepts were coopted into English, often with their meaning tweaked or transformed. For example, the concept of an afterlife was described as a “happy hunting ground” by many Plains tribes. “Bury the hatchet” comes from an Iroquoian ceremony in which war weapons were buried in the ground to symbolize peace. “On the war path” originally referred to the path followed by Native Americans who were traveling to battle the enemy. Other phrases with similar pedigree include scalp hunting, war paint and Great Spirit.

In his 1919 book “The American Language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Native American languages have a penchant for vividly descriptive names and phrases, like Rain-in-the-Face and Voice-like-Thunder. This particular linguistic leaning influenced American English, most notably in the term “stick-in-the-mud,” which came into general use in the 18th century.

4. New Word Formation

Quick Language Fact: Polysynthetic languages are languages in which words are composed of several parts, each of which has independent meaning. Many – but not all – Native American languages in North America are classified as polysynthetic languages. For instance, in the Caddo language spoken in Oklahoma, the word di’ch’áhyahdán’áh means “they pulled out something round.”

The English language is not classified as a polysynthetic language. However, the polysynthesis of Native American languages influenced the Europeans, who began making new noun compounds out of two or more proper nouns.

Examples of these new compound nouns include rattlesnake, bloodroot, peanut, bullfrog, firewater, catfish and bootleg.

It’s clear that Native American languages influenced American English more than they’re sometimes given credit for. Can you add any placenames, vocabulary or phrases to our list?

16 Responses to “ How Native American Culture Influenced the American English Language ”

  1. jacqueline says:

    Admiro esa raza. es bella

  2. John Whittington says:

    Oklahoma came from the Cherokee words Oka Heuma meaning ‘our home’ in English. Mississippi came from the Cherokee words Misha Yippi meaning ‘big water’ in English. Ohio came from the Ohio Indian word meaning ‘Beautiful Water’.

  3. I like knowing about the Indian people.

  4. adriana green says:

    You must be kidding to include this ridiculous stock image of a white guy with face paint for this piece. Could you seriously not find a more appropriate pic?

    • Pimsleur Approach says:

      We sincerely apologize that the image was offensive. We have replaced the image and we hope you find this one more pleasing.

      Thank you for your comment and making it known that some found the image to be inappropriate.

  5. ron burke says:

    is there a sit,or a cd on how to speak any native lang

  6. Katerina says:

    The Cherokee Nation is also working to preserve it’s language. Recognized as the “Civilized Nation,” its people had it’s own alphabet. Although many lost their lives in the trail of tears march, many integrated into the “white man’s” world and later became known as Melungeons.

  7. William Toney says:

    I am told that ,My Family came fromm Roan mountain TN,I am said to be Irish& Cherokee, Would like to learn more.

  8. Charlin Diver says:

    A couple years ago Duluth, Mn was having a contest with the word “iron” in names of cities. The city Biwabik was left out, which means “iron” in Ojibwe.

  9. I spent my early childhood in Click Holler, east sided of lower Paint Rock River valley. As lad in the 1930s my paternal grandmother regaled me with the stories passed down to her through some generations. I learned that the early white settlers were received in peace & hospitality.There was a large extent of inter-marriage so that when President Jackson initiated the inhumane and criminal of removing the natives from their homeland, the “trail of Tears”, meant the ripping apart of families and friendships, individuals and family members forced to decide to renounce their heritage and move west or to deny half of their heritage and remain as acceptable citizens. Although my early childhood spanned from the late 1920s to my move to college in 1944, The Trail of Tears was still much alive and 50% or more of the local population was recognized as having a Noble Cherokee heritage.

  10. Glenda says:

    I grew up in Waxhaw, North Carolina – named after the Waxhaws Indian tribe. Right across the state border from Waxhaw is a little town called Catawba -named after the Catawba Indians. The Waxhaws are gone, but the Catawbas are still an active tribe.

  11. Dani says:

    I don’t know where some of this information came from, but for instance, there are far more Native languages spoken in the continental U.S. than just Ojibwe, Cree, and Navajo. I personally know people who each speak one of the six Haudenosaunee languages. Also, this article does not mention that many languages are being brought back. They are not dead, just hidden because the elders were taught not to speak their languages or else they would be severely punished. The elders are unwilling to speak for this fear of repercussions, but this is slowly changing.

    • jacob Eagleshield says:

      Appreciate your input. I myself am Haudenosaunee. (Seneca mother,Mohawk father.) and I speak all six ‘Iroquoian’ languages of the confederacy,plus Cherokee. I have also learned one of the Lakota dialects,Dene,and Hawaiian.

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