By Laura A. Wideburg
“Why not write a Cultural Corner on chocolate?” asked Kenny Barger at the annual WITS Board meeting. “Everybody’s interested in chocolate.”
Chocolate is made from the cocoa bean, and the cocoa plant is native to the Americas. The word has become international today: chocolat in French, Schokolade in German and qiaokeli in Mandarin Chinese. Many people assume that the word is borrowed from Spanish chocolate, and it is true that Spanish was the medium from which this word entered the international arena. But the truth of the matter is that Spanish borrowed the word chocolatl from the Nahuatl language, a native language of Mexico. Nahuatl, not surprisingly, is also the language of origin for cacao (cocoa is derived from this word as well): cacahuatl.
Other words borrowed from Nahuatl which have entered the English language include tomato (tomatl), coyote (coyotl), shack (xacatli), avocado (ahuacatl) and the place names Mexico and Guatemala. Nahuatl is a major Aztec language and a lingua franca in Central America at the time of the Spanish conquest. Nahuatl is still spoken today and is one of the largest Native languages in the Western Hemisphere with almost 2 million speakers.
The sound combination “tl” in Nahuatl should be well-known to Pacific Northwesterners. It is the sound which appears in “Se-a-tl”, the Luhotsheed name for the Duwamish leader from whom the city of Seattle derives its name.
Prior to European arrival, there were thousands of Native languages spoken on this side of the planet, of which barely 300 remain as living languages spoken by at least one person. In the United States, the largest languages are Navajo (Diné), with 200,000 speakers, Ojibwe, Cree and Lakota. The languages which had the most influence on American English are Algonquin languages (including Wampanoag spoken by the Wampanoag Nation, whose people aided the Pilgrims in 1620 and who still live in Massachusetts today) and Lenni-Lenape (spoken by the Lenni and Lenape Nations previously known as the Delaware, and found in the Central Atlantic states, including the area where Washington, D.C. is now located).
Just think, every time you bite into a piece of chocolate or sip a cup of cocoa, you are using a word you have received from the Aztec Nation and the Nahuatl language!