Wilkes-Barre: how do you you say it?

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The city of Wilkes-Barre is only about a hundred miles north of where I've been living in the Philadelphia area for the past half century, but I've never had the slightest clue about how the name should be pronounced.  My guess has always been that it is something like "wilks-bare", but I've always been uncomfortable with that stab in the dark.

Now we have a thorough accounting of the toponymic pronunciation problem from "The Diamond City" by the Susquehanna itself:

"How should Wilkes-Barre be pronounced? Are you sure about that?" By Roger DuPuis, Times Leader (8/5/22)

The story begins way back in the middle of the 18th century with the founding of the city.

For those who don’t already know, Wilkes-Barre was laid out in 1769, when the region was still claimed by Connecticut and part of the British Empire. Its namesakes are the Rt. Hon. John Wilkes and Isaac Barré, members of the British Parliament who were sympathetic toward the American colonists.

Wilkes, arguably the more famous of the two, was a London-born radical who spent much of his younger life antagonizing the establishment, earning the enmity of King George III and other high-ranking members of British society.

Barré, meanwhile, was born in Dublin, Ireland to French Huguenot refugees. Despite his French roots, he was raised in Anglo-Irish society, served in the British Army, and later became a member of Parliament. There, Barré was an ardent supporter of the American cause.

Wilkes-Barré Preservation Society director and curator Tony Brooks, who has spent many years studying the issue, said we cannot know for sure how Barré pronounced his own name, but that even in his own time it likely would have been anglicized by the people around him in Ireland and England, sounding more like “berry” than “ba-rrray,” despite continued use of the accent aigu (é) over the e. In French, that letter sounds like “ay” or “eh.”

So, how would Wilkes-Barré have been pronounced in early America?

Brooks has found evidence that battles over the spelling and pronunciation go way back.

In 1829, the Wyoming Bank of Wilkes-Barré passed a resolution at the time of its founding that specified spelling as you see here, complete with hyphen, capital B, and the accent aigu over the e, to point to what they saw as its proper pronunciation. That, he said, suggests that the spelling and pronunciation were controversial even then, 60 years after the community was first formed.

The é persisted into the 20th century. Brooks pointed to several instances, including a check issued by the then-Borough of Wilkes-Barré in 1861….

The author traces the orthography of the name through centuries of history, with the main bones of contention being whether to capitalize the "B/b", whether to hyphenate the name, whether to fuse the two names into one, whether to write "e" or "é", and so on. 

Then we jump to the present and survey the voices of what the locals are saying now for the name of the city they themselves live in.

The people we chatted with on and around Public Square offered the usual variations: “bear,” “bar,” “barra,” or “berry.”

Even [Chris] Bohinski, a native of Wilkes-Barre Township who has always said “berry,” admits his own father sometimes said “bear.”

One group of G.A.R. Memorial Middle School students we encountered on the square admitted that they, too, used to vary in their pronunciations, until they took a tour with Brooks and learned the name’s history and proper pronunciation.

“Wilkes-BERRY” they shouted in unison.

Mayor George Brown, a lifelong resident, agreed.

“We have people mispronounce it all the time,” Brown said. “We’ve had people perform at the F.M. Kirby Center and pronounce it the wrong way. I’ll stand up and say, ‘hey, I’m the mayor, and it’s Wilkes-BERRY.”

All are welcome regardless, he added.

“Whether you call it Wilkes-BERRY or Wilkes-BAR or Wilkes-BEAR, come on out, because it’s a great city,” Brown said.

Given that the indigenes pronounce the name of their city in so many different ways, I think that I'll just continue to say it as I always have, "wilks-bear / bare".  No more orthoepic qualms over Wilkes-Barre.


Selected readings


[h.t. Barbara Phillips Long]


  1. Stephen H said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 10:16 am

    Thank you! I just drove by Wilkes-Barre last week and found myself wondering about this. And then–boom–you write a post about it. You seem to be pioneering a new field of psychic-linguistics. ;-)

  2. CuConnacht said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 10:19 am

    Isaac Barré is also the eponym of Barre, Vermont, which has no accent and which Wikipedia tells me is pronounced /ˈbæri/.

    I need to know whether the Pennsylvanians who say that they say "Berry" have the merry-marry-Mary merger, or some part of it. I would have pronounced both places like Barry, to rhyme with marry (in my non-merged dialect)

  3. Lillie Dremeaux said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 10:34 am

    I can't imagine that Barré would have been anglicized in England or Ireland as "berry."
    "Barry" makes more sense, because Barré has an "a" in it (plus, "Barry" is an English name).
    I bet that in Wilkes-Barre, "barry" and "berry" are pronounced the same, but that isn't true in Britain.

  4. Aelfric said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 11:55 am

    So, I did not grow up in Pennsylvania, but just over the New York border. We had occasion to get to Wilkes-Barre quite a bit growing up (and sometimes even Moosic!). I normally heard Wilkes-[Berry], and I can report that I certainly do have a Barry/Berry merger. Wilkes-[Bear] was used probably a bit less, but almost interchangeably. I have a distinct memory of hearing Wilkes-[Bar] and using that when trying to sound, for lack of a better term, rustic. It's kind of shocking to me that this is such an academic point: folks in the region seem to accept all variants as valid. There's my anecdata!

  5. Coby said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 12:45 pm

    The loss of the accent mark in the 19th century is probably due to the introduction of the typewriter, whose American version lacks this facility. This is how San José became San Jose, Frémont became Fremont, and so on. Since e-typing allows accents, San Jose has become officially San José again. Perhaps Wilkes-Barre could follow suit.

  6. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 1:10 pm

    Wilkes-Barry is how I've heard it pronounced by people who ought to know. (Like the previous commenters, I do not have the merry/marry merger.)

  7. Craig said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 1:49 pm

    From the doubled R and lack of an accent in modern representations, I'd always assumed it was pronounced Wilks-Bar, but I'm not surprised to learn that there was originally an accent on the final E.

    For what it's worth, the English rock guitarist Martin Barre, formerly of Jethro Tull, pronounces his name Bar, though Tull's singer, Ian Anderson, used to playfully pronounce it Bar-RAY sometimes when introducing him on stage. You can hear Barre say his own name (as Bar) n Tull's "Chateau d'Isaster tapes" from 1973, which went unreleased for many years until finally turning up on the 1993 compilation "Nightcap". I would guess his ancestors pronounced the family name Bar-RAY at one time.

    There are a lot of curious pronunciations of place names in the Midwestern US. There's a city called Versailles which the residents call Ver-SAY-leez, and one called Marseilles that is called MAR-suh-leez.

  8. Trogluddite said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 2:14 pm

    Following @Craig's musical theme: I (BrE speaker) first guessed the "bar" pronounciation, from the "bar"/"barre" alternative spellings of the word for guitar chords formed by using the index finger as a rigid 'bar' across the fretboard. According to Wikipedia, this term also derives from the accented 'barré' (French for "barred"), though there's no clue in what order changes to the English spelling and pronounciation might have happened.

  9. Trogluddite said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 2:18 pm

    Further to my previous comment. According to Ancestry.com, the etymology for the Barré family name is essentially the same…
    "topographic name for someone who lived by a gateway or barrier or in a house encircled by a fence from Old French barre 'bar obstruction'"

  10. Vanya said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 2:25 pm

    My wife is from the region, and I have also worked in Scranton
    – Wilkes-Barre. The only pronunciation I have ever heard is “Wilkes-Berry.” I would implore Professor Mair not to say “Wilkes Bear” in public.

  11. STW said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 2:33 pm

    I live just south of there in the mid 1970s and never heard anything but Wilkes Bear from the locals. It was so pervasive that, later, when living elsewhere, I heard someone talking about Wilkes Berry and I had no idea what they were talking about.

  12. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 3:21 pm

    I'm slightly disappointed that the quoted passages don't address the question of whether "Wilkes" is one syllable or two! Should I say "wilks-berry" or "wilkis-berry"?!

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 4:57 pm

    A comment and a question — « the "bar"/"barre" alternative spellings of the word for guitar chords formed by using the index finger as a rigid 'bar' across the fretboard ». I play finger-style guitar (classical and folk, both badly) and have always heard it referred to as a /ˈbær eɪ/ (French sound with English stress). And the question — who or what is "the Susquehanna" ? Google sheds no light on the matter.

  14. martin schwartz said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 5:08 pm

    CuConnacht's important observation seems insufficiently appreciated. It's pointless to say "sounds like Wilks-Berry' or the like if one doesn't indicate her/hi pronunciation of "berry". For me, as a New Yorker, marry, Mary, and merry are different, and I have
    Barry /bæri/ rhyming with marry /mæri/ and not homophonous
    with berry or bear E.

  15. David P said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 5:20 pm

    My wife's parents, post-World-War II immigrants, were given (by, I suppose, a Jewish service organization) a free ticket to the destination of their choice once they cleared U.S. customs. They were supposed to go to Roxbury, the Boston suburb, where a cousin lived, but with their heavy accents the train station ticker seller heard it as Wilkes-Barre. That's how my wife ended up growing up in Scranton.

  16. John Swindle said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 5:22 pm

    @Philip: Wikipedia under Wilkes-Barre says "The Susquehanna River flows through the center of the valley and defines the northwestern border of the city."

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 10, 2022 @ 5:47 pm

    I say Wilkes-BEAR/BARE and have never to the best of my recollection been corrected by anyone insisting on an alternative. OTOH, I have spent the vast majority of my life living 100 miles away from W-B, so my sense of the matter is regional but not actually local. I may have learned that pronunciation from some combination of my father-and-uncles-on-that-side, who grew up in Pennsylvania but to be fair not in that exact corner of Pennsylvania.

    The most interesting thing I have read about Wilkes-Barre in recent years is this, which at first skim depicts the region as deeply dysfunctional and pathetically alcoholic but on second skim depicts the region as knowing something important about human connection and solidarity that seemingly more economically successful parts of the U.S. don't know about: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/drinking-alone

  18. M. said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 12:24 am

    How is the demonym Wilkes-Barrean pronounced in Wilkes-Barre?

    How is New Orleans pronounced in New Orleans?

  19. Easterly said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 2:40 am

    I've heard Wilkes-Barruh from folks in the region. Wilkes-Berry, too. But then I've also heard: "Gimme couple, two, tree haadaags. One wi' relik, one wi' naat."

  20. Trogluddite said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 5:52 am

    @Philip Taylor: Your comment about "bar chord"/"barre chord" made me wonder whether the "bar" pronounciation/spelling might be a modern innovation of rock/pop musicians (that being the milieu of my own attempts at making music). However, Google Ngram Viewer shows that the "bar" spelling dates back at least as far as the 1880's in American English and the Early 20th Century in British English. The numbers are too small to confidently say much more.

  21. bks said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 7:37 am

    Grew up 200 miles north of there in the 60's and it was always Wilkes-Berry per the local radio/TV news.

  22. languagehat said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 8:04 am

    The only pronunciation I have ever heard is “Wilkes-Berry.”

    Same here (meaning the last word is disyllabic — I have the merger, so for me Berry and Barry are the same and I wouldn't notice the difference), and with respect, the pronunciation of random people named Barre, let alone nouns that happen to be spelled the same way, is irrelevant. People are ornery, and I'm sure there are locals who say it every which way, but the disyllabic pronunciation is the historically correct one and still in heavy local use, so I'm not sure what would motivate one to deliberately choose to use the monosyllabic alternative.

  23. Mark P said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 8:05 am

    I have wondered how to pronounce the name. As to the accent on the final e, I have read that the only city name with an accent mark that the Postal Service recognizes is Cañon City, Colorado. That might not be accurate but, hey, I read it on the internet.

  24. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 8:16 am

    hat: one might well be motivated to use the monosyllabic alternative if that's what one had predominantly heard growing up, as I did (or at least think I did, although it's somewhat circular). I can't specifically recall ever hearing anyone refer aloud to Barre, Mass., Barre, Wis., or Barre, Vt., and can't recall having occasion to refer to them aloud myself, so I have no meaningful sense as to those pronunciations.

    The "barre" in "barre chord" is in my experience homophonous with "bar," but so is the "barre" used in ballet classes, which is another sense of the same loanword from French. FWIW this suggests to me that BARE/BEAR is not the obvious clueless "spelling pronunciation" of the second element of Wilkes-Barre, so there is likely some other origin for that variant pronunciation.

  25. chris said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 1:10 pm

    the disyllabic pronunciation is the historically correct one

    If by this you mean similar to the French, then I would expect that *a* disyllabic pronunciation is more historically correct, but don't both "berry" and "Barry" have the wrong vowels? I don't actually speak French but from what I know about its vowels, I would expect something more like "bar-ray". Which apparently has little to no usage by the actual locals.

    Anyway, historical correctness isn't necessarily worth a hill of Lima beans. Languages change and that includes proper nouns.

    P.S. Before reading this I would have guessed "bar" because I didn't know that there had ever been an accent, but it's not like English pronunciations are systematic enough that I'd be shocked to be corrected.

  26. Kris said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 3:17 pm

    Scranton Wilkes-Barre has a AAA baseball team which I've seen multiple times. The PA announcers have always pronounced it wilks berry (rhyming with milk's dairy – FWIW bury/berry/Barry all have the same pronunciation for me, the vowel quality of "air"). PA announcers and other broadcasters for that matter are typically given pronunciation guides for players' and teams' names or anything else there might be uncertainty about for pronunciation, so I assume this is the "official" pronunciation at least as far as the team's owners are concerned. I would probably raise a mental eyebrow if I heard a monosyllabic pronunciation of Barre, but be content with probably any reasonable pronunciation of the "a" in Barre. That said, I'm not local to that area.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    August 11, 2022 @ 11:04 pm

    This former Pennsylvanian (but not Wilkes-Barréan) has always called it Wilks-Bare. I don't recall having heard it, though, even though I've been to Scranton (once).

  28. Biscia said,

    August 12, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    I grew up in Eastern PA, though further south, and throughout the '80s I heard Bear, Barruh and Berry, though Berry was probably most common. I have a complete merry/marry/Mary merger and so did most of the people in my area.

  29. Oatrick said,

    August 13, 2022 @ 3:35 pm

    My grandmother (immigrant from Poland, approx 1910) grew up around W-B/Nanticoke, & i recall her pronuncifying it as Wooksbruh, or wooksberruh with an “er” (not “air”). I recall some variations from other relatives, but the “Wooks” part was pretty constant. If i ran a pub in Scranton i’d call it Wilkes Bar, So people could send all the out-of-towners to me!

  30. Wally said,

    August 14, 2022 @ 12:16 pm

    Here is Lawrence Welk saying berry and who could be more authoritative than Lawrence Welk

    Tho I don’t know if he was the vocalist here
    And Wikipedia claims that while he was born in North Dakota he didn’t speak English until he was 21


  31. Jerry Packard said,

    August 17, 2022 @ 7:56 pm

    In my dialect it would be ‘barry’ not ‘berry’.

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