Sunday, April 19, 2015

But what about Minnehaha Falls?

Now you know how to say “Lake Superior” in the Ojibwe language (Gitchee Gumee, remember? -- literally Big Sea Water) . But in how many languages can you say “Thank you” without having to look it up?

I can say “Thank you” in 15 languages:

Thank you (English)
Gracias (Spanish)
Grazie (Italian)
Merci (French)
Obrigado (Portuguese)
Arigato (Japanese - ありがとう )
Farem nderet (Albanian)
Sheh sheh (Chinese - 謝謝 )
Tack (Swedish)
Tack (Norwegian)
Tak (Danish)
Dank u (Dutch)
Danke (German)
Spasebo (Russian - Cyrillic characters: спасибо )
Eucharisto (Greek - Greek characters: ευχαριστώ )

My accomplishment may sound impressive, but it pales into insignificance when you consider that the Ethnologue lists 7,102 languages spoken on planet Earth today.

Among the Creek and Seminole native American tribes of the southeastern U.S., “Big water” was not Gitchi Gumee but Okeechobee. How convenient, as it would have been embarrassing to Floridians to have to refer to Lake Okeechobee (which covers 730 square miles and has a maximum depth of 12 feet) as Lake Superior (which covers 31,400 square miles and has a maximum depth of 1,332 feet) . According to our old friend Wikipedia, the name Okeechobee comes from the Hitchiti words oki (water) and chubi (big) , but the oldest known name for the lake, reported by Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda in the 16th century, was -- would you believe it? -- Mayaimi (which also means -- I kid you not -- “big water”) .

Another Native American word I like is Apalachicola, which is not a carbonated beverage enjoyed by people living in the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia. It means “the people on the other side of the river” and could be used by people in Yorkshire and Lancashire to refer to one another if only the Pennines were a river instead of a mountain range.

(Used in accordance with CC-BY-SA 3.0)


  1. Interesting post Bob. You have always shown a keen interest in words. It is a passion we share. I visited Apalachicola FL in 2002 with my family. I loved that peaceful place and we ate superb baked oysters at Papa Joe's. There was a huge pile of oyster shells beyond the kitchen door. Sheffield - where I live simply means "field by the River Sheaf". In East Yorkshire there are many Viking place names such as "Brandesburton" which means "fortified farmstead of Brandr" who was presumably a Scandinavian settler.

  2. Well, knock me over with a feather, a compliment from Pudding!

    And, of course, we both know that Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a town in Wales) means "Saint Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of Saint Tysilio of the red cave" and Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapikimaungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu (a town in New Zealand) means "The summit where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, the climber of mountains, the land-swallower who travelled about, played his nose flute to his loved one"!

    Reading blog comments can be so educational....

  3. Now you've got me wondering about the Indian words for transmontane/tramontane.

  4. Snowbrush, I will try to find out and get back to you. I will concentrate my search among Indian tribes who lived near mountains (that is, not the Seminoles or inhabitants of the Great Plains.)