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Words You Need To Know

Words from New World Languages

The people of the tribes and nations who lived in the New World before the arrival of European explorers were like people everywhere: They had a name for everything! Often, the language of the newly arrived people simply absorbed the native term, imposing changes on it that would make it fit in better with the newcomers' language. Some of these terms jumped directly to English from a native language. Others traveled through some other language along the way. Though Hawaiian isn't a true New World language, it is included here because Hawaii is now a part of the United States.

Tip from the Top

All of the source languages of words in this study list are unrelated to English, and many of them are unrelated to each other. Cashew, for example, is from the native South American language Tupi, which has no connection with Hawaiian, the source of kahuna, or Algonquian, which gives us caribou. Many of these words are from languages that had no alphabet at the time of borrowing or that had their own unique writing system. The result is that introduction into English, whether direct or indirect, involved some compromise in pronunciation and spelling which often reflects the rules of English or some intermediary language.

It Feels Nice to Say It Twice

Did you ever lose a flip-flop at a wingding where all the bigwigs were eating couscous? Well, maybe not. But it would be fun to say that you did! All human languages have a feature called "reduplication." It applies to words that fit any of three patterns: (a) both syllables are identical (as in couscous), (b) the second syllable rhymes with the first (as in wingding and bigwig), and (c) the second syllable has a different vowel but the same consonants as the first (as in flip-flop). The reason that all languages have reduplicative words is that people like them! They're fun to say and easy to remember. This study list has four reduplications: powwow, mahimahi, muumuu, and wikiwiki. Such words are usually easy to spell. If the syllables are identical, they are spelled identically. If they differ only by the vowel sounds or only by the consonant sounds, then only that part of the word changes from one syllable to the next.

Now You Try

  1. 1. The two words on the study list that suggest folk etymology denote animals. Which of the following non–study-list words for plants would you think have folk etymologies?

    Hide Answer

    That's Correct! Pennyroyal, brooklime, and chickling all are results of folk etymology.

  2. 2. Cashew, persimmon, hickory, cacao, and pecan are all New World trees and have names from New World languages. Based on your knowledge of typically English words, which of the following tree names do you think are from New World languages?

    Hide Answer

    That's Correct! Catalpa and guava are from New World Languages.

Spelling Tip

Remember that words settling down in English are often spelled according to English word patterns. If you're completely unsure of how to spell a word from a New World language, you can try just "sounding it out." This strategy would work for hurricane, muskrat, wigwam, and several other words on the list.

Spelling Tip

Take note of the language(s) a word may have traveled through on its way to English, for the path to English often gives a clue about spelling. For example, if it had been up to an English speaker, the \\ sound at the end of caribou would probably have been spelled oo; but the influence of French gives us the current spelling because French usually spells this sound ou.

Spelling Tip

Coyote shows evidence of having passed through Spanish on its way to English: The voiced final e is often seen in Spanish words. Two other examples on this list are tamale and mole.

Spelling Tip

Remember what folk etymology is? Words that entered English from New World languages were prime candidates for this process. If parts of a native word sounded familiar, they were often spelled by the settlers in a familiar way, as in woodchuck. Muskrat is also probably a result of folk etymology.