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If you know anything about the English language, you know that we borrow a whole lot of words from a whole lot of different languages.  The European discovery of the “New World” presented a really rich opportunity for some new word acquisition.  Imagine you’re a sailor, you land on a rocky shore, and when you wander inland you see this:

What on earth do you call that thing?

Of course, there were already people living here, and they already had words for all of these strange creatures and plants and phenonema.  Which is why we get so many words from indigenous American languages!

For today’s pop quiz, see if you can figure out which English word comes from which indigenous language family.  Clicking through on the family names will give you a map of the rough distribution of the family, which might help you out a little.

Your choices are:
a) Algonquian languages
b) Arawakan languages
c) Eskimo-Aleut languages
d) Nahuatl languages
e) Quechua languages

Which family did the following words come from?

  1. Moccasin
  2. Avocado
  3. Iguana
  4. Kayak
  5. Hammock
  6. Ocelot
  7. Llama
  8. Toboggan
  9. Malamute
  10. Quinoa

Extra credit: The name for this animal comes from the Guaraní word that translates to “master of the grasses.”  What do we call it in English?


1. a) Algonquian, 2. d) Nahuatl, 3. b) Arawakan, 4. c) Eskimo-Aleut, 5. b) Arawakan, 6. d) Nahuatl, 7. e) Quechua, 8. a) Algonquian, 9. c) Eskimo-Aleut, 10. e) Quechua
Extra credit: Capybara!  Apparently its scientific name comes from the Greek for “water pig,” which doesn’t sound very nice.  This capybara prefers Master of the Grasses, thank you very much.

Wikipedia has a great compilation of words from indigenous American languages.  Did you ever wonder where we got words like “caribou,” “chocolate,” and “barbecue”? Have fun exploring!