By Joel Delgado ’12 MS ’17
“It means fifth house in Swahili.”
“No, it means third house in Swahili.”
“They’re both wrong – it’s the name of a rich Japanese donor… or maybe it means third house in a Native American language.”
Those are just a few answers people offer when new students, faculty and staff ask when they arrive on campus: What does Owa Ehan, the name of one of FIU’s oldest buildings located adjacent to the Green Library, actually mean? And in what language?
Mark Finlayson, an assistant professor in the School of Computing and Information Sciences, joined the faculty a year ago and asked the same questions – only to be met with the same unclear and uncertain responses.
“I could never get a straight answer from anyone,” said Finlayson, who specializes in computational linguistics and artificial intelligence. “It seems it has become quite the urban legend on campus. I’ve been asking everyone what it means, and I get a different story practically every time.”
Finlayson, whose office is in the Engineering and Computer Sciences (ECS) building located next to Owa Ehan, is the chair of his school’s seminar series and would often take visiting faculty through Owa Ehan on the way to the Faculty Club for lunch. They’d always ask him what the peculiar name meant, and Finlayson would just relay one of the explanations he’d heard, which he knew wasn’t quite right.
So Finlayson decided to do some digging to solve the mystery of Owa Ehan himself and finally found some answers.
Searching the Internet didn’t turn up the answer, and Google’s Swahili-to-English translator failed to return anything for “Owa Ehan.”
In a visit to the FIU Special Collections & University Archives in late April, he discovered several documents that shed some light on the origins of the building. One of those documents was a letter sent to then-President Charles “Chuck” Perry from the Black Employees Association (BEA) in May 1975.
The BEA asked Perry to name the university’s sixth or seventh building (the latter a physical education building that never came to be) in an African language in recognition of Miami’s and FIU’s black community.
In the letter, the BEA offered a list of 10 possible names for either building in four different African languages – Twi, Yoruba, Swahili and an unnamed language of Nigeria.
The fourth language, identified by the BEA only as a language of the Benin people, turns out to be the source of the name. The BEA offered options of Owa Ewan (“House of Science”), Owa Ihiron (“Seventh House”) and Owa Ehan – translated as “Sixth House.”
Perry thanked them for their suggestions in a follow-up letter and wrote, “I will recommend the name OWA EHAN for Multi-Function IV, now scheduled to be completed in the late Fall of the 1976-1977 academic year.”
But even within the documents dug up by Finlayson, the confusion behind Owa Ehan name was already evident.
In one memorandum, Perry wrote that Owa Ehan was “Sixth House in Benin – a Nigerian language” while a press release in February 1976 announcing the State Cabinet’s approval of the construction of a sixth building at FIU stated that Owa Ehan is “Nigerian for sixth house.”
Adding to the confusion, in Beyond the Tower: The History of Florida International University, author Tom Riley writes that Owa Ehan meant “fifth house in one of the Nigerian languages.”
Over the years, as the campus continued to grow and some buildings were renamed (University House, the third building constructed on campus, became the Graham Center while the Athenaeum—the fifth building—became the Green Library), the meaning of Owa Ehan was literally lost in translation.
Although the memo answered Finlayson’s initial question, it still left the mystery of what was the language in which Owa Ehan means sixth house.
Finlayson drew on his connections from one of his fields of study—computational linguistics—and reached out to Jeff Good, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo’s Department of Linguistics and expert in Cameroonian languages. Good had attended a workshop hosted by Finlayson at FIU in March.
Good immediately identified the language as Edo – also commonly referred to as Bini – and provided Finlayson with dictionaries that contained entries for the words owa and eha as translating to “house” and ”six,” respectively.
Primarily spoken in southern Nigeria in the Edo state (Benin City is the state’s capital), there are approximately one million Edo speakers in the world today.
Good also pointed out that while the standard pronunciation of “owa” in English is probably similar to its pronunciation in Edo, the letter n in “ehan” does not indicate a consonant, but rather a nasalized vowel, meaning an in ehan is pronounced much the same way as the ant in the French word croissant.
Good had another question. It seemed to him that Owa Ehan did not mean “sixth house” as originally intended, but probably meant “six houses.” At Finlayson’s urging, Good reached out to Ronald Schaefer of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, an expert in the Edo language; he taught at the University of Benin from 1981 to 1985, beginning a linguistic investigation of the Edoid group of languages while in Nigeria.
After some investigation and consulting with native speakers living in Benin City, Schaefer confirmed that Owa Ehan translates to “six houses” or a “collection of six houses” in both its spoken and written forms. To mean “sixth house,” the correct form is “owa ne ogiehan.”
“I would expect, however, that someone who is not used to writing Bini might have proposed Owa Ehan as a ‘collection of six houses’… a collective rather than distributive interpretation of the numeral,” Schaefer added.
But while Owa Ehan doesn’t translate to Sixth House, the FIU translation of the name is still fitting. As the university’s sixth building, it was the last to be named using the university’s early system of naming buildings in different languages.
Owa Ehan was the last in a collection of six houses constructed at Modesto A. Maidique Campus before the opening of the Biscayne Bay Campus, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. Those six buildings, or “houses,” have remained the structural and foundational center of the university to this day.