Native American languages have greatly contributed to the vocabularies of European languages.

Native American Languages

Scholars can only guess at the total number of languages once spoken by Native Americans; many of these languages disappeared before they could be documented. When the Europeans arrived on the North American continent in the late 15th century, about 300 distinct languages were in use. Little more than half of these languages survive today and the number of languages continues to diminish as fewer and fewer children learn to speak them. In Middle America (Mexico and Central America) experts have identified approximately 300 languages, of which about half are still spoken. Only about 350 of an estimated 1500 native languages in South America are still spoken. These, too, are disappearing rapidly.

The colonists were fascinated with the exotic beauty of Indian tongues. William Penn wrote:

“I know not a language spoken in Europe that has words of more sweetness of greatness, in accent or emphasis, than theirs.”

Indians found a poetry in the American landscape: Mississippi, Susquehanna, Rappahannick, Potomac, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Klickitat.

 Native American Additions to English

Native American languages have greatly contributed to the vocabularies of European languages, especially place names and terms for plants, animals, and items of native culture.


The largest number of English nouns borrowed from Native American languages come from Algonquian languages, the languages first encountered by English settlers. Among these nouns are caribou, chipmunk, hickory, hominy, moccasin, moose, opossum, papoose, persimmon, powwow, raccoon, skunk, squash, toboggan, tomahawk, and totem. Eskimo languages contributed such words as igloo, and kayak. The term teepee or tipi originates from the Sioux word for dwelling.

From Nahuatl, spoken in Middle America, come avocado, cacao, cocoa, chile / chili, chocolate, coyote, tamale, tomato, and many others. Contributions from South American languages include jaguar, cashew, tapioca, and toucan from Tupinamba; alpaca, condor, jerky, llama, puma, and quinine from Quechua; and barbecue, canoe, guava, hammock, hurricane, iguana, maize, papaya, and potato from Maipurean (Arawakan).

Native American Words

  • Canoe   A narrow, light-weight boat made of wood
  • Cradle board  A small wooden frame made to carry a baby
  • Farmers   People who grew food
  • Gatherers   People who collected most of their food from plants
  • Hut   A house made of dried straw or grass
  • Kachinas   Spirits the Hopi Indians believed in
  • Lodge   A large wooden building used to house many people
  • Long house   A large multiple-family home made of poles covered with tree bark
  • Potlatch   A ceremony that lasted many days
  • Pueblo   A village that included clay and rock homes built on top of each other
  • Tepee   A cone-shaped tent made of tall poles covered with bark or animal skins
  • Toboggan   A long and narrow sled
  • Totem Pole   A tall wooden pole with carvings of natural objects, such as animals. An animal symbol for a family or an individual. Europeans used coat-of-arms (aristocratic tradition), Ojibwa Indian totem. Totem more democratic – more than a symbol, a way of life. Animal a sacred protector – group identity. They never hunted, killed or ate their totem animal.
  • Tribe   A community of Native Americans who share common interests and beliefs
  • Wigwam   A single-family home made of bent poles and covered with tree bark
  • Tomahawk   Hatchet, pickaxe. Algonquian Indian equivalent of sword and axe. Chief weapon in hand-to-hand combat, also tool for digging and chopping.
  • Pow wow   1) a shaman or magician; 2) a council meeting, conference. Today: name for an Indian gathering featuring traditional music and dance.
  • Wampumpeag (wampum)   Massachusetts Indians used a string of white shell beads in trading. The Plymouth Pilgrims used in trade.
  • Squaw   Woman, young woman, queen, lady from Algonquin tribe often used humorously or negatively.
  • Scalp   An Indian method of confirming and commemorating kills in battle. They cut off the man’s scalp, with hair, carrying it home as an honored trophy.
  • Warpath   A pathway regularly followed by Indians when going to war. “Warrior’s Path”. On the warpath (anyone preparing for battle).
  • Breechcloth   Piece of cloth covering one’s buttocks. American Indian male dress in summer – patch of cloth.
  • Indian file   Indians taught settlers how to walk in the woods – one after another.
  • Peace pipe   Long-stemmed ceremonial pipe smoked (and passed around) after negotiating peace treaties.
  • Caucus    “caw-cawwas-soughes” a private political meeting making decisions behind closed doors.
  • Indian Summer    A short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.
  • Paleface   From James Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Made it a household word. Earlier “whiteskins”, “redskins”.
  • High Muckamuck   A person who assumes an air of importance. Chinook Indian jargon. High = plenty, muckamuck = food. Even Mark Twain picked it up: “High-You-Muck-a-Muck and King of Wawhoo”.

    Origin of the Names of 28 U. S. States Derived from Native Nations

  • Alabama  Indian for tribal town, later a tribe (Alabamas or Alibamons) of Creek confederacy.
  • Alaska  Russian version of Aleutian (Eskimo) word, alakshak, for “peninsula”, ‘great lands”, or “land that is not an island”.
  • Arizona  Spanish version of Pima Indian word for “little spring place’, or Aztec arizuma, meaning “silver-bearing”.
  • Arkansas  French variant of Quapaw, a Siouan people meaning “downstream people”.
  • Connecticut  From Mohican and other Algonquin words meaning “long river place”.
  • Delaware  Named for Lord De La Warr, early governor of Virginia; first applied to river, then to Indian tribe (Lenni-Lenape), and the state.
  • Hawaii  Possibly derived from native word for homeland, Hawaiki or Ohyhee.
  • Idaho  A coined name with an invented Indian meaning: “gem of the mountains”; originally suggested for the Pike’s Peak mining territory (Colorado), then applied to the new mining territory of the Pacific Northwest. Another theory suggests Idaho may be a Kiowa Apache term for the Cmanche.
  • Illinois  French for Illini or land of Illini, Algonquin word meaning men or warriors.
  • Indiana   Means “land of Indians”.
  • Iowa   Indian word variously translated as “one who puts to sleep” or “beautiful land”.
  • Kansas   Sioux word for “south wind people”.
  • Kentucky   Indian word variously translated as “dark and bloody ground”, “meadow land” and “land of tomorrow”.
  • Massachusetts   From Indian tribe named after “large hill place” identified by Capt. John Smith as being near Milton, Mass.
  • Michigan    From Chippewa words mici gama meaning “great water”, after the lake of the same name.
  • Minnesota   From Dakota Sioux word meaning “cloudy water” or “sky-tinted water” of the Minnesota River.
  • Mississippi   Probably Chippewa; mici zibi, “great river” or “gathering-in of all the waters”. Also: Algonquin word, “Messipi”.
  • Missouri   An Algonquin Indian term meaning “river of the big canoes”.
  • Nebraska   From Omaha or Otos Indian word meaning “broad water” or “flat river”, describing the Platte River.
  • North & South Dakota   Dakota is Sioux for friend or ally.
  • Ohio   Iroquois word for “fine or good river”.
  • Oklahoma   Choctaw coined word meaning red man, proposed by Rev. Allen Wright, Choctaw-speaking Indian, said: Okla humma is red people.
  • Tennessee   Tanasi was the name of Cherokee villages on the Little Tennessee River. From 1784 to 1788 this was the State of Franklin, or Frankland.
  • Texas   Variant of word used by Caddo and other Indians meaning friends or allies, and applied to them by the Spanish in eastern Texas.
  • Utah   From a Navajo word meaning upper, or higher up, as applied to a Shoshone tribe called Ute.
  • Wisconsin    And Indian name, spelled Ouisconsin and Mesconsing by early chroniclers. Believed to mean “grassy place” in Chippewa. Congress made it Wisconsin.
  • Wyoming    The word was taken from Wyoming Valley, Pa., which was the site of an Indian massacre and became widely known by Campbell’s poem “Gertrude of Wyoming”.