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November 29, 1998 - Native American Influence on English - 2002-02-12

INTRO: As they prepared for their Thanksgiving holiday dinner on Thursday, our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble, looked into the contributions of native Americans -- starting with the food on the table.

MUSIC -- "Corn Dance"

AA: We're listening to the Cherokee Indian "corn dance," and it honors a crop that we can all thank the Indians for -- corn, or maize. When English colonists began arriving in what is now the eastern United States, native Americans taught them how to grow corn.

RS: In fact, a good corn harvest helped save the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. So when the colonists held the first Thanksgiving feast that year, they invited dozens of Indians to join them. But, Indian contributions did not stop with corn. Anthropologist Jack Weatherford has complied a bumper crop of Indian words added to our culinary vocabulary and beyond.


"Today around the world we do use words such as 'potatoes,' 'tomato,' and 'maize' to signify some of these foods. Some of the words such as 'succotash' is still there today with the combination of corn and beans that the Indians of that area used. But oddly, one of the words that I think that we'd recognize right away that they brought with them wasn't the name of one of the foods, but it was the name of something that they did.

"And that is when they all got together in order to sit down and make a decision of some sort. They didn't just do it by vote, they did it by consensus. And there was no real word for that in the English language. They had to pick up then the Algonquin word and that was 'caucus.' They formed a caucus to discuss an issue, and we to this day especially in American politics use the word caucus quite commonly."

AA: Jack Weatherford is an anthropologist at Macalaster College in Minnesota. He says Americans use thousands of native words in everyday speech -- from place names like Seattle and Connecticut to names of rivers, streams and mountains, to names of plants and animals.

RS: Jack Weatherford suggests that even the affirmation "OK," now almost universally used, may have roots in Native American language. In his book "native roots" he discusses just how embedded Indian words are in American English:


JACK WEATHERFORD: "And these vary from words such as chocolate and OK, all the way up to jaguar, hurricane, blizzard, canoe. There are many words from different aspects of life that now become a part of internationalized English.

AA: "Like the idea that this winter kids could be putting on their anorak or parka, getting on their toboggan and going through the snow never realizing those words come from the native American."

JACK WEATHERFORD: "Yeah, some words such as toboggan and parka, haven't really spread around the world, but they are certainly popular in North America in the heavy snow areas. And there are other words such as canoe that are part of the language of the world. When the colonists arrived in America they encountered a new landscape. It was a new world, and you can use your words for that, and they would often would take European words and European names of animals or birds or trees and apply it to the American landscape, but they soon found that could really be quite dangerous in some ways. For example, if you encountered the storm that we call now in contemporary English, a hurricane, if you thought of that as just a tempest, as Shakespeare did, you wouldn't understand what a hurricane was at all, and you might mistake the lull in the middle of the hurricane for the end of the hurricane."

RS: So, the settlers learned pretty fast that they'd better use the Indian words or they could get in real trouble.

AA: The strongest linguistic exchange came early, during the sixteen and seventeen hundreds. Then came oppression of the Indians, moving them onto reservations and forcing them to aculturate by prohibiting them from speaking their native languages.

RS: Yet, the US military used Navajo Indians as "code-talkers" during World War Two in the Pacific. The Japanese could never decipher the Navajo language.

AA: Something else to think about is the word "Yankee" -- as in "Yankee Doodle," the New York Yankees baseball team, or Americans in general. The etymology of this common, and not always complimentary, name for Americans is unclear. Jack Weatherford points out one possible source. As early as the 1600s, he says, the Delaware Indians referred to the English as the yankwis, or yanwako, meaning English snake.

RS: No comment.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.