Tuesday, August 30, 2005

You say "potato," I say "potahto..."

The tradegy of hurricane Katrina cannot be debated. How awful for everyone. I am not sure there is anything light to say about the facts or the people so devastated by the storm.

But I did smile with appreciation at the variety of pronunciations I heard from various people interviewed. Northerners generally pronounce the name of the devastated Louisiana city as "New Or-LEANS." Or "New OR-lins." Broadcasters used one of those two pronunciations. But I heard natives of the place say on camera, "New Or-lee-ons." I also heard other residents say "New O-Lee-uns." And one old gentleman said, "New Oley-ahn."

Americans take possession of their language, and why not? People generally pronounce words as they heard them said when they learned to talk, in spite of what either a dictionary, teachers, or other people might "teach." So, we have Des Plaines, Illinois, pronounced by those who live there as "Des-Planes." Residents of Des Moines, Iowa, all say the name of their city as "D'-Moin." Pierre, South Dakota, is pronounced by Dakotans as "Peer." "Prescott," Arizona, rhymes with "biscuit." Many Southerners call New York City, "New Yoke." Residents of the Big Apple might say, "N'Yawk." Most Northerners are apt to put an "R" in the word "Washington." "Warsh-ington," they say. Then they are apt to be critical of someone from Texas who says "nuculer" instead of the standard "nuclear." One suspects the criticism stems from factors other than speech patterns, but that is another essay.

I don't have the answer, but I sometimes wonder why Americans cannot learn to pronounce place names as they are said by those who live in those places. We could say "Paree" as those in Paris do. Are we too arrogant to learn the native pronunciation and so insist on Americanizing the word? The winter olympics were once held in Albertville, France. The American broadcasters all prounounced the place as "Albert-vil." They interviewed dozens of Europeans each day who all said "Ahl-bare-veal." We could learn to say that. It was as if the broadcasters did not hear the people they were interviewing.

Place name pronunciations are often the result of centuries of language use and eroding change. But spelling seldom changes. For example, pronounce the name of a beautiful little town near Loch Lomond between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland: "Milngavie" is the name.

A friend told me, when I was planning a trip to Glasgow, to stop and see his sister and her husband in Milngavie, pronounced his way. I looked for the town on the map, but could find nothing that looked phonetically like his pronunciation. I asked him to point it out. He did. "Milngavie." Only he called it "Mull-GUY."

I lived in Sioux City, Iowa, officially, when I spent that year in Edinburgh. My colleagues there laughed at the Milngavie map fiasco, and one fellow wrote a limerick about it. I had been trying to get them to pronunce the name of my home town as "Soo City." They wanted to call it "Sy-Ox," as one of the Bush twins did somewhere on camera during their dad's recent campaign.

The best I was able to do was convert most of them to say "Sue," with a little twist to it. Almost "See-oo." None wanted to add the word "City" as part of the name. And they helped me to say Edinburgh almost as they did. "Eddin-burrra."

I laughed and said, "We don't say "Pitts-burrra." A Scottish friend countered, "S-I-O-U-X, Sue"? I explained that it was the French spelling of an Indian word pronounced in English by an American. He was satisfied. But still he laughed at my inability to see "Mul-GUY" in "Milngavie." So the limerick:

There was a young man from Sioux
Who was asked one day if he knioux
That the pubs in Milngavie
On Sundays are dravie.
He replied, "Yes, indeed, Sir, I dioux."

All right, then, I am changing my mind. With all the amusing interactions and mini-celebrations possible from various accents and pronunciations, why not keep on saying the words as we choose? We can applaud the variety of accents as we do all the other aspects of our varied cultures.

And we can also send good wishes with all the help possible to the people in the path of Katrina, whether they are from New Orleans, New Orlins, New O Lee Ons, The Big Easy, or any other place in the storm's vicious path. Our hearts go out to our fellow 'MareKins.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is funny how people are not comfortable pronouncng the name of cities and countries like the natives. Good luck to everyone in N'awlins!

9/12/2005 3:00 PM  
Anonymous OgdenSmapp said...

Humorous as it is to say MareKins, you might be further amused, then, to hear what a couple of Brit friends of mine say. They intentionally refer to us as "Merkins". Look it up and enjoy the laugh. :D


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