Without Pierre

Posted July 16th, 2012 at 3:21 pm (UTC-4)
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Out west, in the land of Black Hills and jackrabbits and a mountainside carving of four famous American presidents, is a little state capital.

The state capitol looms over Pierre, which, as you see from the absence of skyscrapers and housing developments, is a small town: population just 13,600.  (Pierre Chamber of Commerce)

The state capitol looms over Pierre, which, as you see from the absence of skyscrapers and housing developments, is a small town: population just 13,600. (Pierre Chamber of Commerce)

It’s Pierre, South Dakota.  Pierre, like Pierre Cardin, the French fashion designer, you would think.

Except that everybody in that rugged north-central state pronounces it PEER.

This is curious, since the fellow for whom the capital is named was most assuredly a Pierre, not a Peer.  Pierre Choteaux ran the American Fur Company’s trading post that grew into the town.

When you ask South Dakotans, even university linguists, how Pierre became Peer, they give you rather mushy explanations. The Dakota Territory was settled primarily by Germans and Norwegians, who elbowed the few French trappers aside, they say.  These Northern Europeans didn’t fool much with the flourishes of the French language.  Or if they did, they soon got lazy and squished the two syllables of Pierre’s name into one.

Pee-AIR became PEER.

And there are a lot more such anomalies across our country.

The western state next to California is Nevada: Neh-VADD-uh.  And the nearby mountains are the Sierra Neh-VADD-uhs, too.  But the people who live a Missouri city of the exact-same name call it Neh-VAY-day.

Cities often take their names from great heroes or historical places.  Lima, Ohio, gets its from . . . well, one of these.  At least that's how the folks pronounce the name there.  (kthread, Flickr Creative Commons)

Cities often take their names from great heroes or historical places. Lima, Ohio, gets its from . . . well, one of these. At least that’s how the folks pronounce the name there. (kthread, Flickr Creative Commons)

Lima in Peru is LEE-muh.  But the town in Ohio is LY-muh, like the bean.

And there are a couple of Midwest towns named after the South American nation of which Lima is the capital: Peru, Illinois, is Puh-ROO, like the country.  But in Indiana, the old folks, at least, call their town PEE-ru.  I’m told it’s called that because the founders wanted a short name, and Miami Indians in the area had a word that sounded like PEE-roo, referring to a straight place along a river.  That fit the description of the townsite, so PEE-roo it became.

Of late, though, younger townspeople and newcomers don’t think PEE-roo sounds real dignified, so they call it Puh-ROO.  It’s Puh-ROO High School, for instance.  But they still chant a favorite cheer at sports events:

PEE-roo High, PEE-roo High,

We’re for you. That’s no lie.

Onward ever, backward never.

We’re for you, PEE-roo High!

The queen's chamber at Versailles.  Definitely NOT in Kentucky.  (Wikipedia Commons)

The queen’s chamber at Versailles. Definitely NOT in Kentucky. (Wikipedia Commons)

Those of us who’ve visited Versailles in France will never forget Vair-SYE Palace.  Ver-SALES, Kentucky, spelled Versailles just like Vair-SYE, isn’t quite so memorable.

Pity poor Des Moines, pronounced deh-MOYNE, the capital city of the Midwest state of Iowa.  Deh-MOYNE sure sounds French, and a few historians have tried to sell the story that the name comes from a group of French Trappist monks who lived on a mound over in Missouri, a good 300 km away. It would take me the rest of this posting to explain how that name stretched all the way to Iowa.

But Des Moines doesn’t really translate from the French at all.  It was apparently an attempt by the town’s settlers to Frenchify, and thus dignify, a crude name given to the French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet by native peoples.  In their language, deh-MOYNE roughly translates as “Excrement Face.”

More odd examples.  A VOA colleague, science writer Steve Baragona, spent his first five years in Bogota, New Jersey.  Not BOH-guh-taw, like the capital of Bolivia.  Buh-GO-tuh, New Jersey, sounding like a Japanese pogoda.  There’s a Vienna in Jersey, too, only the locals pronounce it VY-enna.

London, England, as many people know, lies on the Thames River.  And there’s a New London on the Thames in Connecticut.  But over here, it’s not the “Tems.”  It’s the “Thaymes.”

This is the "Secession House" in Beaufort.  You'd know it's the Beaufort in SOUTH, not North, Carolina if you knew that the South left, or seceded, from the American Union in that state prior to the U.S. Civil War.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is the “Secession House” in Beaufort. You’d know it’s the Beaufort in SOUTH, not North, Carolina if you knew that the South left, or seceded, from the American Union in that state prior to the U.S. Civil War. (Carol M. Highsmith)

There are two decent-sized port cities of the same name — Beaufort — on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.  One, in North Carolina, is BOH-furt.  The other, in South Carolina, is BYEW-furt.  Yet they’re both named after the same English duke.  He was a BOH-furt.

U.S. agents keep a sharp eye out for illegal border crossings along the Rio Grande River between Mexico and Texas.  To Mexicans, it’s the “Rio GRAWN-day,” in proper Spanish, with a couple of trills in there.  To Texans, the same river is the plain, old “Rio Grand.”

But Texans aren’t the only Americans who mispronounce it,  Far to the north in Ohio in 1847, some folks were starting a town that they called “Adamsville,” after one of the founders — only to learn that another Adamsville, Ohio, had preceded it.  They needed a new name.

According to lore, someone read in the newspaper that a war with Mexico was underway down in Texas, with heavy fighting along the Rio Grande.  He thought Rio Grande was a catchy name, and Rio Grande, Ohio, it became.  Except that nobody thereabouts had studied Spanish or heard a Mexican or Texan pronounce the name.

So they called their town RYE-oh Grand.  And it’s RYE-oh Grand to this day.  There’s even a college there by that name.

Some folks say that Ree-OH became RYE-oh just so it would rhyme with Ohio.  Don’t believe it.  It’s revisionist etymology!

I could go on — and will!

Also in Ohio, D-E-L-H-I is DELL-high.  You might say the founders were clueless about New Delhi in India, except that the Ohio township was going strong from the mid-19th Century on, and New Delhi in the Indian subcontinent wasn’t even CREATED until 1911 and given its name until 1927.  So you Delhi-ers get a pass.

This was what was left, after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, of a house on Burgundy Street in New Orleans.  Bur-GUN-dee, not the name that sounds like the wine. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This was what was left, after the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005, of a house on Burgundy Street in New Orleans. Bur-GUN-dee, not the name that sounds like the wine. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Despite New Orleans, Louisiana’s, French roots, Burgundy Street is pronounced Bur-GUN-dee; Conti Street is KON-tye; and Calliope Street is CAL-ee-ope. Charlotte, North Carolina, is pronounced like the woman’s name.  But they say Shar-LOT in the Michigan town that’s spelled exactly the same way.

I saw a note on the Web the other day that read, “I could have sworn my friend was saying her mom lived in New Bronvuhls, Texas.  Then I found out it’s New Braunfels.”

Lafayette is Luh-FAYE-it in Alabama.  There’s a lot of French spoken in “Acadian Country” in Southwestern Louisiana, where Lafayette is the big city.  So you’d think the people there would get it right.

But they call it “laffy-ETTE.”

Quite likely you’ve heard of Houston, the big Texas city.  HYEW-stin.  But the street of the same name and spelling in New York City is “HOW-stun.”  At least there’s a good explanation this time:  It’s not named for Sam Houston, the legendary Texas politician and soldier.  It’s named after some fellow name Houstoun.  I still don’t know how they got HOW-stun out of that.

New Berlin is New BURR-lin in Wisconsin.  Cairo is KAY-roe in Illinois.  And it’s BRAY-zil — even though it’s spelled Brazil — Illinois.

To me, our most curious phonetic anomaly involves two states that are quite close to each other.

One is Arkansas — ARR-kin-saw — whose last six letters (K-A-N-S-A-S), as you can see, spell the name of the other state that’s not far away:  Kansas — KAN-zus.

So why isn’t Arkansas Ar-KAN-zus?

As if to underline this headscratcher, there’s a river — a long tributary of the Mississippi— that flows southeastward through both Kansas and Arkansas.

Rafting on the Arkansas River.  Where? you ask.  In Kansas or in Arkansas?  Neither.  This was taken in the river's headwaters in mountainous Colorado.  Even though Kansas is right next door, Coloradans call the river ARR-kin-saw.  (designsbykari, Flickr Creative Commons)

Rafting on the Arkansas River. Where? you ask. In Kansas or in Arkansas? Neither. This was taken in the river’s headwaters in mountainous Colorado. Even though Kansas is right next door, Coloradans call the river ARR-kin-saw. (designsbykari, Flickr Creative Commons)

One river, but two names.  They call it the Ar-KAN-zus when it runs through Kansas.  But the same river magically becomes the ARR-kin-saw in Arkansas!  The legislature even passed a law mandating that pronunciation back in 1881.

Why aren’t both states, as well as the river, pronounced the same way?

It turns out that the states got their names from different Indian tribes that once lived close together, then moved to what is now Kansas and Arkansas, respectively.

Kansas takes its name from the Kanza people, whose tribe is pronounced CONN-zuh.

Arkansas gets its name, not directly from a tribe, but from a village that sounded like “Arcansa” in the Quapaw tongue.

You could call all of this the “Americanizing” of names, including the habit of listening to a name in a foreign or Indian language and just guessing how it might be spelled in English.

You might even call it the dumbing down of perfectly good names.

I know that there are a lot of Lanfairs, Landfairs, and Lamphers — and a few Landphairs like me — who have settled in various spots across America.  Some of their ancestors may have come from Llanfair-ym-Muallt in Wales, as did mine.  Lord help the Lanfairs and Lamphers, though, whose ancient kin came from another Welsh town:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, on the island of Anglesey.

Imagine what the founders of PEE-roo, Indiana, or PEER, South Dakota, would have done with that one!

This a viaduct in the lovely place of my ancestors: Llanfair-ym-Muallt in Wales.  It's called Builth Wells nowadays for some reason.  But that's better than Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch! (Wikipedia Commons)

This a viaduct in the lovely place of my ancestors: Llanfair-ym-Muallt in Wales. It’s called Builth Wells nowadays for some reason. But that’s better than Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch! (Wikipedia Commons)

Ted's Wild Words

These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!

Anomaly. Something abnormal or out of the ordinary.

Etymology. The study of words and their origin, not to be confused with entomology, which is the study of insects.

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Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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