How Indigenous Communities Have Influenced Our Language

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Our language bears witness to our history in the same way our bodies bear witness to our ancestry. While there may be traits whose origins we do not yet know or are unaware of, they are still a part of us.

Just as American society is built from various ethnic groups, the English and Spanish languages have roots in several others — from Latin and Greek to Nahuatl and Narragansett.

In fact, sometimes, the same word has different meanings and origins.

For example, the term “chucha” is used in Mexico to refer to dogs, while in Peru, it refers to a kind of clam and, as an extended metaphor, to the vulva of women.

However, the Mexican expression comes from Nahuatl, and the Peruvian from Quichua.

Here are some curious examples of the richness in our language inherited from indigenous communities.


“To squash” was already a verb when the first British colonizers arrived in North America. It came from the old French “escasser” (which means “to crush, shatter, destroy, break”), and it became “to squash” probably because it was easier to pronounce. 

The fruit, however, entered the English language around the 1640’s thanks to the Narragansett language. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the use of “squash” as fruit comes from the Narragansett askutasquash,” which means “the things that may be eaten raw” from “askut” (green, raw, uncooked) and “asquash” (eaten). 


This is a word that comes entirely from the Nahuatl and has made its way all around the world. It comes from two words: “ahuacatl” (avocado) and “molli” (sauce). 


According to different sources, the words “hurricane” and “huracán” come from the Taino language, meaning “wind center.” The word was first registered by the Spanish historian Pedro Mártir de la Anglería in the 16th Century. It was used in what was then called La Española, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, to refer to hurricanes. 

The word “Hurakan” also appears in the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, as the name of a wind god, meaning “heaven’s heart.”

Barbeque, caiman, and hammock

These three words came from Arawak-Taino words and permeated both English and Spanish. “Barbeque” comes from “barabicu” and means “meat cooked on wooden scaffolds.” “Caiman” comes from “kaiman” and “hammock” from “hamaka,” which is a fishing net. 


The name of the largest bird in Latin America comes from the Quichua “Kuntur,” meaning “the greatest of all flying birds.”

Mapache (raccoon)

The Spanish word for raccoon, “mapache,” comes from the Nahuatl “mapach.” It refers to the raccoon’s similarity to humans, meaning that “it has hands.”

Papalote (kite)

“Papalote” is a Mexican name for kites. It comes from the Nahuatl “papalotl,” which means “butterfly.” 


Apapachar is a word widely used throughout Latin America, though it probably is most frequent in Mexico and Central America. Usually, it is used to refer to cuddling someone. “Apapachar” is perhaps one of the sweetest words Nahuatl inherited to Spanish: it comes from “apapachoa” and means “to hug with your soul.” It also means “to soften something with your fingers.”

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