English Dialects: How They Know You're Not a Local
Tricky Pronunciations Weed Out the Wannabes
My old college English professor Don Norton had a love for the nuances of English usage like nobody I have ever met before or since. He was particularly interested in the way dialects and usage affected our daily existence. He was a storyteller, too, which made a possibly mundane topic interesting to everyone else.
One of my favorite stories Professor Norton related was about a petty criminal who was being chased down by cops in rural Utah. The local police officers had gotten a call describing the suspect, and they thought they saw him so they pulled him over. The suspect said, "No officer, I'm not the man you're looking for, I've lived in Hurricane all my life." Immediately the cops knew they had their man. How did they know? He pronounced Hurricane like the tropical storm, instead of the way the locals did, "Her-uh-kin"
When we moved to Arizona, we encountered similar issues with pronouncing the name of a historic town north of Wickenburg, where I lived for six years. The name of the town was Prescott. But if you pronounced it Press-cot, that marked you as an outsider. The locals call the place Presskit (rhymes with biscuit). Arizona is full of unusual place names. One of these names is Tempe. My husband told me about a coworker who was recently sharing a desire to go to college at Arizona State University in Temp. She wondered if Temp was anywhere near the airport, because she would probably want to come home quite a lot. My husband responded, "You'll have no problem, Temp-EE is only about 10 minutes from Sky Harbor International."
In Arizona, a basic knowledge of Spanish may also help you fit in, since the Spanish conquerers who made Arizona a Spanish, then Mexican territory hundreds of years ago gave it its glorious names. But many a snowbird arrives in style, ready to fire up the barbeque and the air conditioner, only to massacre the pronunciation of Native American or Spanish place names. Ajo is pronounced Ah-hoh, not A-joe, and saguaro is pronounced sa-wa-roh. Of course that usually doesn't last long, and most Arizonans have been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. It's part of what separates the locals from the tourists.
Southwesterners don't have a corner on the massacred place name market, though. When I was growing up in Abilene, Texas, we lived near a street called Chachalacha. And how was THAT pronounced? Chuck-uh-luck-uh. And what about Chillicothe. Will someone please tell me how to pronounce the name of this town in central Illinois?
Nathan, my husband, thinks the easiest place to tell the natives from the visitors is Louisiana. New Orleans? Oh no, it's NAHlins, mes cheres. And while you're visiting Lafayette, a place Nathan used to call home, make sure to go out and see the Christmas lights in Nacogdoches just over the border in far eastern Texas. But remember Nacogdoches isn't pronounced NACHO-DOE-CHEESE, it's Nack-Uh-Dish. And thank goodness. Of course, the locals there have had a long time to get the name right. It's the oldest town in Texas, after all.
We are still attempting to get the pronunciation right on several places here in Iowa. One is Menard's, a local large-scale tool company. MAY-nerds or Min-NARDS? The cajun in my husband votes for the second pronunciation, but since this is an area where a town called Milan is pronounced MY-lan, I'll vote for the first.
Then there is the pronuciation of people's names, which I addressed once in a hub titled What Should I Name My Daughter? Siobahn and Other Baby Naming Disasters . We named my third child Evangeline. A beautiful flowing name and the heroine of a lovely poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But how to pronounce it? Evangel-LYNN, Evangel-LINE, or Evangel-LEEN? Well, truth be told, in our family it depends on the day and the person. We never quite decided. My husband calls her EvangeLINE and I waver back and forth between the first two. My new friend who is from the South actually brought up the third pronunciation. She has a good friend back home by that name.
© 2010 Carolyn Augustine