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Algonquian Words in English

More words have been borrowed into English from Algonquian Languages than from all other American Indian languages combined--not surprising, since these were the first tribes encountered by English colonists and the ones they coexisted with most closely (particularly the Wampanoag, Powhatan, and Lumbee tribes, who shared their villages with beleaguered English settlers for certain periods of time.)

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There are about 150 generally used Algonquian Indian words in the English language today. This is a substantial amount of vocabulary as far as external loanwords are concerned--English contains fewer than 50 words borrowed from the much more widely used Russian language, for example. However, indigenous language contact clearly played less of a role in the history of English than of French (which fused with Cree to form the unique language Michif, as well as incorporating hundreds of indigenous words and constructions into Caribbean creoles) or Spanish (which adopted Nahuatl, Quechua, and other indigenous languages' sounds, syntax, grammar and intonation patterns into American Spanish dialects). One reason for this difference is that unlike the French and Spanish, English colonists like the Pilgrims brought their own families overseas with them, so few children were raised speaking both languages natively. The impact of Algonquian languages on English vocabulary was thus primarily limited to names of North American animals (caribou, wapiti, moose, chipmunk, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, woodchuck, terrapin, skunk,) plants (hickory, pecan, persimmon, tamarack, squash), food dishes (hominy, pemmican, succotash, pone), and American Indian cultural terms (moccasin, wigwam, tomahawk, sachem, sagamore, papoose, powwow). A few Algonquian words that have passed into more general usage are totem, caucus, and toboggan.

All these vocabulary words, however, pale in comparison to the countless places in Canada and the United States that bear Algonquian names--including eight American states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Missouri, and Wyoming), three Canadian provinces (Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba), and tens of thousands of towns and cities from Ottawa to Saskatoon, Milwaukee to Manhattan, Nantucket to Chesapeake, Olathe to Kennebunkport. Poignantly enough, there are probably more towns, rivers, and other geographical features of North America bearing Algonquian names than there are descendants of the various Algonquian tribes. Though listing them all is beyond this website's capability, several books have been written on the meaning of Indian place names in North America--we recommend Douglas-Lithgow's series on Algonquian place names in New England--Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut). There are also books available on the Indian place names of Pennsylvania and a couple about Canadian place names in general, Let's Call It Canada and Naming Canada. Somebody should write one about New Jersey, because there are at least a hundred placenames coming from Lenape there that I can think of off the top of my head (Succasunna, Rockaway, Parsippany, Hopatcong, Netcong, Hackensack, Hohokus, Whippany, Weehawken, Piscataway, Passaic...) It is in this context that Algonquian languages are most frequently on the tongues of non-native English speakers. If you live in the Northeast or Midwest United States, or almost anyplace in Canada, you have probably uttered one or two yourself today without even realizing it.



See a chart comparing Algonkian words from twenty different languages
Buy a book about English loanwords from Native American languages
Go on to Algonquian Tribes Fact Sheet




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