Friday, August 9, 2013

The Meaning of Minnehaha

Q: Does the name Minnehaha mean Laughing Waters?

A: No. In his popular 19th-century poem "Hiawatha," Longfellow named his heroine Minnehaha and translated it as Laughing Water. Longfellow took most of the Indian words in "Hiawatha" from a book of Ojibwe legends, and they are reasonably accurate, but in the case of Minnehaha, he made an error. Minnehaha comes from the Dakota Sioux name of a waterfall, mnihaha (also spelled mniaa or mnixaxa... the "h" sounds are pronounced raspily, like the "j" in "jalapeño.") This means "water of the falls" or, more literally, "curling waters."

The idea that "haha" sounded like laughing probably came from an English speaker either playing a joke or inventing a meaning. It's possible that it could have been an honest mistranslation, though, since the Dakota word for "laugh" is the rather similar-sounding iha.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American names
Dakota language
Words in Hiawatha

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