Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Strange Names

I have fallen in love with American names,
The sharp names that never get fat,
The snakeskin-titles of mining claims,
The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,
Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

Stephen Vincent Benet
Hello Arlene
The poem above is the opening stanza of a longer poem called "American Names." In it the author, though satisfied and grateful for the years he spent in Europe, yearns to be back in America. He goes on to say that he will not forget his homeland.

"I will remember Carquinez Straits,
Little French Lick and Lundy's Lane,
The Yankee ships and the Yankee dates
And the bullet-towns of Calamity Jane.
I will remember Skunktown Plain."

I also love American names and the strange way some of them are pronouned. Pronunciations are often the result of local dialects, so that the same name in Texas will sound different from the one in California. Some of the names came from foreign countries but end up sounding completely different coming from the tongue of a local citizen. You're never sure until you hear a native say it. There's a place in this country where Brazil is pronounced BRAZZle.

I have lived half my life in New England where I got used to names like Coos (COH ahs), Berlin (BURR lin), Peabody (PEE biddy), Teaticket (Tee AT ikit), Natick (NAY dick). Truro and Swampscott are, blessedly, pronounced just the way they look.

Being also a New Yorker I'm familiar with names like Sag Harbor, Chappaqua and Tribeca (try BECK uh). People think New Yorkers have lazy speech because of things like The Bronx being pronounced DUH Bronx. Don't be fooled. It's a dialect and one New Yorker will recognize another one when he speaks, even if they're in the Gobi desert.

I did a few plays in a town called Blowing Rock, North Carolina. That's in Appalachia, where the Hill Billy's live. The nearest city is Boone (buhOON). One of the characters I played was an Appalachian, so I had to get the dialect right. I hired a dialect coach then went around town listening to the local people. There were two authentic Blue Grass musicians in the show and one of them said I sounded like I was a local person. I guess if I fooled the musicians ear I must have got it right.

Other than that experience I'm not familar with strange names and their pronunciations in the South or other places in the country. If anyone reading this has similar items to add you are welcome to put them here.

DB - Vagabond Journeys
Never give up.


Geo. said...

Here's one. I remember older Californians in the 1950s still called Lake Tahoe "Lake Tay-owe". Language and dialect were so homogenized by the media that it's pronounced "Tah-hoe" everywhere now. Interesting post. I'll be alert for other examples now.

Jon said...

Ah, what's in a name?
Names are always fascinating, and you're right - they are often pronounced differently in different states.
In Missouri, the city New Madrid is pronounced New MAADrid.
In Texas, Nevada is pronounced NaVAYda. There are many others, but I won't bore you with them.