Grand Opera House


Pronouncing Wisconsin Names is Hard

Wisconsin native: “Pronounce that word.” (Waukesha)
Me: “Wah-KEH-shu, wah-KEE-shu”
Wisconsin native: *laughs* “Pronounce this word.” (Winneconne)
Me: “Win-a-cone”
Wisconsin native: *laughs*

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 1.04.44 PMAnd so on…

I can’t win. Being a linguistics major and not being from Wisconsin, this place is a pronunciation nightmare. I don’t dare visit Weyauwega. I clearly can’t go to Waukesha and don’t even get me started on Oconomowoc. Which syllable gets the stress and from there, how do you pronounce it? It’s really just a shot in the dark for all of these at this point.

To be fair, though, it’s not Wisconsin’s fault. The entire English language syllable stress system is sometimes a shot in the dark. We all once pronounced epitome like “eh-pi-tohm” or placebo like “place” and “bo” at one time in our lives, right? (Latin or Greek origins can account for those, perhaps?) For the most part, you have to memorize how a word is pronounced. Some patterns can be distinguished, like if a word ends in –gy or -phy, the third to last syllable is stressed (ex: bi-OL-o-gy, ci-ne-ma-TO-gra-phy) or if a word ends in –tion, the second to last syllable is stressed (ex: con-sti-TU-tion, va-CA-tion), but even still there are exceptions. (Do you pronounce TE-le-vi-sion or te-le-VI-sion?)

These town and city names in Wisconsin that are so hard to pronounce, however, are not of English origin, which should be no surprise. Most words that come from a language we don’t know are hard to pronounce – imagine that! Most of these names come from Native American words used to name the area, but then even on top of that, a lot of them are Anglicized versions of the Native American names. In fact, the name “Wisconsin” itself is an Anglicized version of the French version of a Native American word given to what is known today to be the Wisconsin River.

A lot of these words were originally from the Ojibwe, Potowatomi or Menominee languages, which are all a part of the Algonquian language family. Stress patterns are found in Algonquian languages.

The stress patterns in Ojibwe, Potowatomi and Menominee are all slightly different because there are several factors that go into analyzing such a pattern (it involves assigning iambs and counting light or heavy syllables). Hopefully, it’s sufficient enough for me to just say that patterns exist.

Knowing this, my frustration at the difficulty of pronunciation makes a little more sense: the stress assignment of any of these words is based on a stress pattern that I am not familiar with. If I knew the pattern, it wouldn’t be so much of a guessing game! The fact that my English-speaking tendencies prime me for guessing just adds to the difficulty.

Screen Shot 2016-08-10 at 1.00.26 PM

An image of Pronounce Wisconsin.

If you’ve had trouble figuring out how to pronounce these Native American names in the area, maybe this surface-level explanation helps make you feel a bit better about mispronouncing these words! To actually learn the correct pronunciations, check out this website I happened upon while writing and reading for this blog: Somebody went around, called up all the towns in Wisconsin and recorded their pronunciations. How nice of them! Happy pronouncing :)

*Disclaimer that I’m not a historian or an expert in linguistics. There are many more specifics that go behind this blog that I don’t touch on. To not risk beginning a research paper, this blog remains at the surface level on purpose. Sources I used can be found here, here and from websites of these communities named in the blog.


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