13 Spanish Words Rooted in Indigenous Languages

Explore the linguistic influence of indigenous languages like Nahuatl and Quechua on your daily vocabulary. Discover the rich cultural tapestry that shapes our language.

13 Spanish Words Rooted in Indigenous Languages
A market scene showcasing the cultural heritage of indigenous communities in Mexico. Image by REBECA CRUZ GALVAN from Pixabay

Language is a dynamic tapestry, woven by the threads of countless cultures and influences. Just as a mosaic gains its brilliance from the diversity of its tiles, the Spanish language in the Americas owes much of its richness to the indigenous peoples who have shaped it over centuries.

On the occasion of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, let's explore the intriguing origins and meanings of some words that have seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, originating from native languages such as Nahuatl and Quechua.

Mexico, a country teeming with cultural diversity, stands as a prime example of indigenous languages. Within its borders, 68 native peoples reside, each speaking their distinct native languages. These languages, collectively, give rise to an astonishing 364 variants.

To grasp the profound influences of indigenous languages on Spanish, we must retrace our steps through history. The linguistic composition of a nation or region is never as simple as it initially appears. Understanding the roots of words and their cross-linguistic influences necessitates delving deep into the history and culture of native peoples.

Nahuatl, a language that hails from the Aztec civilization, bequeaths us a cornucopia of words still prevalent in our vernacular today:

  1. Avocado: Derived from the Nahuatl word "áwakatl," it translates to "tree testicles." This playful description, though unconventional, aptly captures the essence of the avocado's unique shape.
  2. Cacahuete: The word "peanut" traces its lineage to "tlalcacacahuatl" in Nahuatl, which means "ground cocoa." This etymology highlights the similarity in appearance between peanuts and cocoa beans, drawing attention to the interconnectedness of diverse plant species.
  3. Chicle: When you enjoy a piece of chewing gum, you are unwittingly embracing the Nahuatl influence in your daily life. The term "chicle" finds its roots in "tzictli," meaning "chewing gum." From the ancient act of mastication to the modern-day enjoyment of a fresh piece of gum, this linguistic connection endures.
  4. Tiza: The familiar white stick of chalk, indispensable in classrooms, owes its name to Nahuatl's "tizatl," which translates to "white earth." This linguistic bridge reminds us of the historical significance of chalk as a medium of communication and knowledge dissemination.
  5. Petaca: When we think of a mat box, "petaca" immediately comes to mind. Yet, few realize that this term is an adaptation of the Nahuatl phrase "petlacalli." By unraveling its etymology, we glimpse into the past, where mats were carefully stored and transported in containers.
  6. Tomate: As we savor the juicy tomato in our culinary endeavors, we might be intrigued to discover that its name, "tomate," is derived from the Nahuatl word "tomatl," which translates to "fat water." This whimsical juxtaposition of words captures the essence of this plump fruit's watery yet nourishing nature.
  7. Apapachar: When we embrace someone wholeheartedly or tenderly, we might use the term "apapachar." This beautiful act of affection finds its roots in the Nahuatl verb "apapachoa," which signifies "to embrace with the soul" or "to soften something with the fingers." It is a reminder of the deep emotional connections shared between individuals.

Beyond Nahuatl, the Quechua language, known for its association with the Inca Empire, has also bestowed upon us linguistic treasures:

  1. Cancha: If you have ever played or watched a game on a sports court or enclosed space, you are using the Quechua term "cancha." This word encompasses the idea of an enclosure or an area designated for a particular activity.
  2. Condor: The mighty condor, a symbol of grandeur and majesty, owes its name to Quechua's "kuntur." This significant bird, with its vast wingspan and awe-inspiring presence, holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for the Quechua people.
  3. Chakra: In Quechua, "chakra" refers to a farm or estancia. This term encapsulates the connection between the land, agricultural practices, and the sustenance it provides, reflecting the vital role of farming in Quechua communities.
  4. Mate: As you indulge in a refreshing cup of mate, popular in South America, you unknowingly pay homage to Quechua's "mati," which translates to "small pumpkin." This name aptly describes the hollowed-out gourd traditionally used as a vessel for preparing and sharing mates.
  5. Pampa: When we gaze upon vast, open landscapes characterized by flatness, we might refer to them as "pampas." This word, rooted in Quechua's "pampa," evokes a sense of the expansive plains, reflecting the natural beauty of untouched terrains.
  6. Cura: The term "cura" finds its origins in Quechua's "kuraq," which refers to the head of a community in the Inca Empire. This word symbolizes the wisdom, leadership, and profound responsibility associated with the role of a community leader.

So, the next time you enjoy a luscious avocado, savor the flavor of peanut butter, or jot down notes with chalk, take a moment to reflect on the hidden stories and connections woven within these seemingly ordinary words. They are a testament to the enduring influence of indigenous languages and an invitation to cherish the heritage they impart. Let us honor the International Day of Indigenous Peoples by recognizing the linguistic gems gifted to us by these remarkable communities.

In-Text Citation: González, Alejandro, et al. "Conoce 13 Palabras Que Usas En Español Y Provienen De Lenguas Indígenas"; Once Noticias, 9 Aug. 2022, oncenoticias.digital/cultura/conoce-13-palabras-que-usas-en-espanol-y-provienen-de-lenguas-indigenas/148608.