Linguistic contributions

English has long had the largest lexicon, or roster, of vocabulary items, of any language on Earth, in large part because of frequent borrowings from other tongues, especially from Latin, Greek, Old Norse, and French. However, the multicultural nature of the United States, especially from the mid-nineteenth century onward, facilitated the adaptation of borrowed words and phrases into American English at an even greater rate than had been the case in England, the country from which the language derived.

Before the English language was implanted in North America, most of its foreign linguistic influences had been the inadvertent results of military conquests or had come from deliberate attempts at language-engineering by scholars. In the North American colonies and later in the independent United States, changes in the language were more spontaneous and more organic. They were natural outgrowths of the intermingling of peoples from all over the world. The scope of immigrant influences on American English is perhaps best illustrated by examining contributions from the Romance languages of immigrants from countries such as France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the many Latin American nations and from the Germanic languages of immigrants from German-, Dutch-, and Scandinavian-speaking countries. Most of the words that have entered American English from the Romance languages pertain to folkways, food, and place names of both natural and artificial locations.Linguistic contributionsLinguistic contributions[cat]LANGUAGE ISSUES;Linguistic contributions[03230][cat]CULTURE;Linguistic
[cat]ARTS AND MUSIC;Linguistic contributions[03230]

Folklorists employ the term “folkways” to encompass a wide array of professions, social roles, lifestyle issues, customs, dress, recreation, and folk beliefs. Many French immigrants;linguistic contributionsFrench terms that have found their way into American English reflect the lifestyles and beliefs of immigrants in regions bordering on Quebec in the northeast and in Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana in the south. Examples include

voyageur, trapper or trader who travels long distances

traiteur, folk healer or herbalist

lagniappe, gift or act of kindness extended to guests as a token of cordiality

fifolet, spirit or witch manifesting a nighttime phosphorescence

loup garou, werewolf or similar creature of the night

gris-gris, protective magic devices

Similar terms from Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsSpanish include

quincienera, celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday

•buckaroo, term for cowboy adapted from the Spanish vaquero, literally “cattler”

curandero, folk-healer, the Spanish equivalent of traiteur

Words for items of apparel also feature prominently in Spanish loanwords in American English. Examples include poncho, serape, and “ten-gallon hat.” The latter originated when English-speakers mistook the Spanish word galan for the braid on a hatband for the English word “gallon” for a liquid measurement. Many other words related to the folkways of Spanish-speaking immigrants pertain to items used in ranching, such as “lariat” from Spanish la reata for rope or noose. Folk music also has contributed many words, such as “mariachi” for the exuberant form of Mexican immigrants;linguistic contributionsMexican music featuring string and wind instruments originally played at marriages–the English word to which the name of the music is directly related. Names of instruments used in mariachi music have also found their way into English. “Guitar” comes from the Spanish guitaron for large guitar.

Among the most readily recognized words from Italian immigrants;linguistic contributionsItalian are names for crime syndicates, such as Mafia“Mafia” and “Cosa Nostra.” During the late nineteenth century, American English adopted the Italian paisano (sometimes rendered paisan in English) for peasant or worker as a jocular term for buddy or compatriot.

Romance Food and Formations

Words from Romance languages denoting foodstuffs and structures have flooded American English since the founding of the United States, but most especially since the nineteenth century. Italian words for pasta dishes such as “macaroni” and “spaghetti” entered the English language in England, but after millions of Italians immigrated to the United States during the nineteenth century, Italian restaurants became so commonplace that such Italian terms become more common in American usage than in British English. During the early twentieth century, “pizza” became an American staple, as did a number of coffee drinks of Italian immigrants;linguistic contributionsItalian origin such as “espresso,” “cappuccino,” and “latte.”

Spanish Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsgave American English words such as “taco,” “tequila,” “enchilada,” and “burrito.” In numerous cases, the dishes were as much American-European hybrids as were the words themselves. For example, enchiladas are a Mexican immigrants;linguistic contributionsMexican-American creation, neither fully Spanish nor even wholly Mexican. American pizza has little in common with the Italian dish after which it is named. Many of the Franco-American food terms in American English come from French immigrants;linguistic contributionsFrench, French Caribbean, and French Canadian cooking in the American South, especially in Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana. Examples include roux, a rich stock for sauces and gravy, and jambalaya, a meat-and-rice dish whose name came into English from Catalan by way of Spanish into Louisiana French. The thick, rich soup known as chowder is a French Canadian innovation in New England cooking terminology.

Place Names

As numerous as cuisine-related loanwords are in American English, Romance language names for types of places–both geographical and architectural–are equally common. Mexican Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsSpanish has given southwestern American English terms such as

•“hoosegow” (jail), which comes from juzgado (place of the judged ones)

•“arroyo,” a direct Spanish borrowing for a type of dry riverbed common in the Southwest

•“mesa,” a flat, raised area of land from the Spanish word for table

From CajunsCajun French immigrants;linguistic contributionsFrench, the dialect of French Canadian immigrants to Louisiana, contributed “bayou” for swamp and “levee” for the earthworks used to protect lowlands from flooding. Another French contribution that has much wider usage in American English is “bureau.” The word originally was used for a bedroom desk or dresser; then it was extended to a piece of office furniture, and finally to an office and the agency it housed. In this later sense, both “bureau” and its derivative, “bureaucracy,” were borrowed not only by international English but also by a number of other languages.

Germanic Contributions

Borrowings into American English from the Germanic languages followed pathways similar to those from Romance languages. Food-related words have been common. From German immigrants;linguistic contributionsGerman have come “strudel,” “noodle,” “sauerkraut,” “pretzel,” and the coffee-related equivalent of English “teatime,” “kaffeeklatsch.” Dutch has given American English “cruller” for a type of pastry and the even more commonly used word “cookie,” which was unknown in British English before it was introduced from American English. The equivalent British term has long been “biscuit.” The British “biscuit” came from an Old French immigrants;linguistic contributionsFrench word for “twice-baked” pastries. In American English, the same word underwent a semantic shift to designate round, scone-like portions of bread. The Dutch cookie then filled the niche vacated by “biscuit.”

A surprisingly large number of Germanic borrowings have been words denoting types of people; many of these words are derogatory in nature. German immigrants;linguistic contributionsGerman examples include “bum” for a lazy or idle person, from the verb bummeln (to loaf). Yiddish;loanwordsYiddish, the German dialect used primarily by Jews, gave American English a veritable flood of insulting terms. “Yekl,” “klutz,” “schlemiel,” “schlimazel,” “schmo,” “schmuck,” and “schnook” all connote stupidity or ineptitude to some degree. However, perhaps the most enduring and widespread insult from Germanic immigrant languages is the ubiquitous “dumb.” For centuries, the homonymic English word “dumb” had meant mute; however, in every other populous Germanic language, spoken collectively by millions of immigrants, a near-identical word meant stupid or foolish. Examples include German’s dumm and Swedish and Danish’s dum. The Old English word “dumb” simply borrowed the meaning of its many Germanic cousins.

Not all such Germanic borrowings are negative. “Boss” from Dutch and “ombudsman” from Swedish are both neutral. Yiddish’s “mensch” for a good-hearted individual is positive. At the same time, the Romance languages have contributed some insulting terms. American English’s “bimbo” for an attractive but unintelligent person is from bambino, Italian immigrants;linguistic contributionsItalian for baby. “Boob” and “booby” probably derive from Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsSpanish bobo for a fool or clown.

Other Types of Contributions

The Romance and Germanic languages are not the only immigrant languages that have made significant contributions to American English. For example, “egg foo young” and “chow mein” are examples of words derived from Chinese for food dishes that were actually devised by Chinese immigrants in the United States. Likewise, “kolache,” a pastry popular among Czech immigrants;linguistic contributionsCzechs and Slovaks, has evolved in the United States into a sweeter sort of treat reminiscent of American cinnamon rolls while at the same time developing a name that is a singular form in English although derived from a plural form in Czech.

Immigration has left traces on facets of American English that go beyond mere items of vocabulary. For example, among English speakers in areas where dialects of French immigrants;linguistic contributionsFrench have long been common, for example, Louisiana;French immigrantsLouisiana, one sometimes hears questions formulated without insertion of the default auxiliary verb “do.” Instead of asking “How did your clothes get wet?” a person might say “How your clothes got wet?” The latter sentence structure imitates French syntax. Another example of imitating French phrasing is the rapid-fire repetition of an adjective to suggest intensity, as in “It is hot-hot today.”

In regions in which many Americans are bilingual English and Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsSpanish or else in close contact with such speakers, one often hears “leave” used with “to” to indicate a destination, for example, “They are leaving to school” instead of the standard “They are leaving for school,” a structure imitative of Spanish, which employs the single-letter preposition a (to) in such circumstances.

Another phrase-structure affected by languages of immigrants may be the tag question–making a statement and immediately adding a brief yes/no question seeking confirmation or denial. In formal English, such questions involve complex formulations. For example, the tag on the simple statement, “Roger is drunk” requires copying over the verb (“is”), choosing the appropriate pronoun (“he”), and reversing the polarity of the statement (positive in this case) to negative, thus yielding, “Roger is drunk, isn’t he?” In contrast, most European languages, including members of the Romance and German immigrants;linguistic contributionsGermanic families, forego such linguistic acrobatics by simply appending to a declarative statement a single word meaning “yes” or “no,” for example si or no in Spanish, ja or nein in German. During the twentieth century, informal variants of tag questions became increasingly popular in American English, as in “Roger is drunk, right?” Such practices are likely patterned after similar constructions in many immigrant tongues. A peculiarity of grammar in the speech of the American South, the so-called
“double modal” constructions such as “might could” or “might should” instead of “might be able” and “perhaps should,” may be legacies of Scottish immigrants;linguistic contributionsScottish immigrants, as such wording was once common in Scotland.


American morphology–aspects of English pertaining to roots and stems of words–and pronunciation also bear the imprint of immigration. For example, American English has borrowed the common noun ending -o from Romance languages to append to English roots, yielding such hybrids as “weirdo” and “wino.” During the late 1990’s, the Spanish immigrants;linguistic contributionsItalian immigrants;linguistic contributionsItalian/Spanish noun suffix -ista came into similar use, yielding hybrid words such as “fashionista,” a term for a person obsessed with clothing trends.Linguistic contributions

Further Reading

  • Baron, Dennis. Grammar and Good Taste. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982. Definitive discussion of the trends in what is considered appropriate and inappropriate in American English and the forces that have shaped American concepts of linguistic correctness and propriety.
  • Baugh, Albert, and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2002. Chapter 11 of this book offers a thorough assessment of the forces that have shaped American English and the place of American English in relation to world English.
  • Bryson, Bill. Made in America. New York: Perennial, 1996. Highly enjoyable best-seller about American English with much information about the contributions of various groups of immigrants.
  • Finegan, Edward, and John Rickford, eds. Language Variation in North American English. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Scholarly but accessible overview of variations within North American English.
  • Marckwardt, Albert. American English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Although originally published during the 1950’s, this book remains the standard study of the English language in the United States.
  • Millward, Celia. A Biography of the English Language. 2d ed. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 1996. Exemplary textbook on the history of the English language. Chapter 9 provides a concise review of the special features of American English.

Dutch immigrants


French immigrants

German immigrants

Italian immigrants

Language issues


Mexican immigrants


Scandinavian immigrants