Why is Chihuahua pronounced Cheewawa and not Chihooahooa? First, let’s try a simple comparison: say the second pronunciation out loud – Chi-hoo-a-hoo-a. Now say the first pronunciation out loud – Chee-wa-wa. Notice how your mouth takes the same shape for the wa-wa sound for both. There is no way to say hoo-a without making the w sound; that is, -wa.
Before we begin, a little lesson in sounds.
If you are pronouncing the word Chee-wa-wa, you are saying it correctly, as that is the way it is pronounced by the people of Mexico. In Spanish, the letter i is pronounced with a long e sound. In addition, the Spanish language uses the h as an indicator before the letter u to signal the w sound, much the same way the English language uses a u indicator after a q to signal a w sound. Note that while qu is pronounced as kw, the q alone is generally pronounced like a k. Aside from being used as an indicator for the w sound, the h in Spanish is otherwise almost always silent, even when it is at the beginning of a word. So if we drop the h in Chihuahua, would we have a pronunciation change similar to what happens when we drop the u from q in English? Because the Spanish u is pronounced like the oo sound in boot, would we have the even more tongue stumbling Chee-oo-a-oo-a? By spelling the word with an hu, the originators of the word created a more flowing, and easier to pronounce word.
Understanding where the dog and the word come from is our second lesson. The dog is said to have been in an area of ancient ruins in the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, in the late 1800s. How they actually got there is a mystery that cannot be answered for lack of witnesses, but there is speculation about their descent (1, 2). In any case, the little dogs were taken home to various cities and quickly became a popular breed. The dog was given the name of the city it was found in, and the name stuck.
The word Chihuahua is of Nahuatl origin. Nahuatl is pronounced Na-wa-tel, of course. The Nahuatl dialect is spoken by the indigenous Nahuan Aztecan people of Central Mexico. In fact, some Nahuatl words are common to us in the States, as well. Some English words of Nahuatl origin include avocado, chili, chocolate, coyote, and tomato. The Spanish conquerors who settled in Mexico would have borrowed the word Chihuahua from the indigenous people who lived in that area, spelling the word to reflect their own Latin and Arabic language backgrounds. The word Chihuahua is believed to mean “the place where the water of the rivers meet.” As point of reference, the rivers that meet in Chihuahua are the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande.
So there you have it. The next time someone asks you why someone doesn’t change the spelling of Chihuahua to include the letter w, you can explain its origin. Now, shall we tackle the Xoloitzcuintli? Try saying that one three times!