A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[URBAN NOTE] On Tkaronto

Yesterday, Language Hat featured some Canadian Content.

A Wordorigins post on the Mohawk origin of the toponym Toronto, deriving it from “tkaronto, meaning ‘trees standing in the water,’” led me to ask for an explanation of the morphology of tkaronto, i.e., how exactly it means ‘trees standing in the water.’ Since Dave Wilton didn’t know, I thought I’d see if any of my readers do.

I was the first in the comments, linking to a 2013 Torontoist post by Patrick Metzger.

[I]t’s virtually certain that the name “Toronto” is rooted in the Mohawk language and in a location about 130 kilometres north of the present city. Historical evidence tells us that the term is from the Mohawk “Tkaranto,” meaning “where there are trees standing in the water.” It originally referred to the Narrows at Orillia, where Lake Simcoe empties into Lake Couchiching and where natives had for centuries placed saplings in the water to trap fish.

Around 1680, Lake Simcoe appeared on a French map as “Lac de Taronto.” From there the name migrated southward, with the water route from Lake Simcoe to Ontario becoming the Passage de Toronto and the present Humber River, picking up the appellation Rivière Taronto. In the mid-18th century, the French updated the spelling and doubled down on their commitment to the word by changing the name of the fort at the foot of the Humber from Fort Rouillé to Fort Toronto.

Another commenter linked to an article going into greater length. about the origins of the word

After about an hour’s drive, one reaches the city of Barrie on the northwest arm of Lake Simcoe. At over 280 square miles, this large lake is somewhat dwarfed by the Great Lakes that lie to the north, south, and west. Driving another half hour northeast, passing through the town of Orillia, one reaches the northern tip of the lake where the waters of Lake Couchiching pour into Lake Simcoe.

Now known as the Atherly Narrows, these rapids are an ideal place for fishing and have been the site of a fish weir for three or four thousand years. Several native peoples have controlled this area. When the French missionaries arrived, it was Huron land. These missionaries recorded and fell victim to the war in which the Iroquois defeated the Hurons in the seventeenth century. The Mohawks, a member nation of the Iroquois confederacy, then moved north into the area for a time until the Ojibway, in their turn, pushed them back south.

While the Mohawks were still in residence, and before the English arrived, a French cartographer adopted the Mohawk name for the fish weir at the north end of the lake. The Mohawks simply referred to the weir as “where there are trees standing in water.” Their word for poles or trees is ront, and the ancient structure was called tkaronto. The cartographer decided to adapt the name for the entire lake, so in a French map published in 1680, the large body of water was labeled Lac Toronteau.

Other comments at Language Hat were interesting, trying to provide a full etymological breakdown of the word (apparently Iroquoian languages are complex that way), wondering whether the word was originally Huron not Iroquois, and speculating as to how the word lost its “k”. Great stuff.

Incidentally, a quick Googling suggests that “Tkaronto” gave its name to a 2007 feature film about two people of First Nations background living in Toronto and to a 2011 work of street art. It still evokes the past in a community still quite young.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 25, 2014 at 1:32 am

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