Iowa town names

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I'm in Ames, home of Iowa State University.  The next town down the road is Nevada.  What?  Yes, but it's /nəˈvdə/ nə-VAY-də, not /nɪˈvædə/ nih-VAD; Spanish: [neˈβaða], and the locals I've met know the difference.  The same thing holds for Madrid, which is on the other side of Ames; it is /ˈmædrɪd/, not /məˈdrɪd/ mə-DRID, Spanish: [maˈðɾið].

From what they told me, Iowans do the same thing with many other exonyms.

Selected readings


  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 9:24 am

    Not really restricted to Iowa, in my experience. Ask an Ontario Canadian how he or she would pronounce the names of "Weber" (a street in Waterloo-Kitchener), "Delhi", "Baden" and so on …

  2. Jonathan Lundell said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 9:27 am

    Likewise New Madrid, of the eponymous 19C quake. Cairo.

    I’ve been spending some time in Wichita, where we find the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, pronounced ar-KAN-zas. Apparently Arkansas the state had competing pronunciations until the silent-s version was made official by legislative act.

    Of course there’s Paris TX, but we do the same thing to the French one…

  3. mg said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 9:32 am

    Same with Michigan – near Ann Arbor, Milan is pronounced MY-lan.

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 9:41 am

    The use of shibboleths is widespread. Harry Truman noted that you could tell if someone was from Cleveland by where they put the stress in "Plain Dealer." I lived for a time in a section of Rochester NY called char-LOTTE. Chili, NY, the suburb next door is pronounced CHAI-lie. The list could go on indefinitely.

    From the online Merriam-Webster page for shibboleth:

    "The Bible's Book of Judges (12:4-6) tells the story of the Ephraimites, who, after they were routed by the Gileadite army, tried to retreat by sneaking across a ford of the Jordan River that was held by their enemy. The Gileadites, wary of the ploy, asked every soldier who tried to cross if he was an Ephraimite. When the soldier said "no," he was asked to say shibbōleth (which means "stream" in Hebrew). Gileadites pronounced the word "shibboleth," but Ephramites said "sibboleth." Anyone who didn't pronounce the initial sh was killed on the spot. When English speakers first borrowed shibboleth, they used it to mean "test phrase," but it has acquired additional meanings since that time."

  5. Robert Coren said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 10:00 am

    A friend used to live (and still owns property) in Perry, NY, which is in Wyoming County; the first time I saw "Wyoming" in something she had written I did a double-take. As far as I know it's pronounced the same way as the state.

  6. Allan from Iowa said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 10:33 am

    Tripoli, Iowa is not pronounced with any sounds conventionally written with the letter I.

  7. Ralph J Hickok said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 10:58 am

    Driving from the Indianapolis airport to my daughter's home in Illinois, one passes through Brazil (pron. "Brazzle") and Peru (pron. "Pay-roo").

  8. Jason M said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 11:15 am

    The way Americans pronounce French place names has always amused.

    In St. Louis, Des Peres is really about as close as you can get to the French pronunciation (both S’s silent). And Chouteau Street is pronounced Show-doh or Show-toh but really not that far off. Could be SHOE-toh I guess.

    But then you have Des Moines, Iowa, with the S’s silent à la française. The Moines part has silent “S” unless you’re affecting a rural Iowan accent like some of my Southeastern Iowan family, in which case, only the first “S” is silent. The “Moine” part is of course nothing like modern Île-de-France pronunciation, but I suppose we should compare vs the accent of the original French furriers and trappers (or monks?) who named the place. Anyone know?

    And then there’s the full on Americanization exonym pronunciation as Pennsylvanians do to Du Bois.

    Is there a moral or at least a pattern to the exonym pronunciation story? My favorite, non place name pronunciation in American standard is what we do to “lingerie” — nothing like our usual orthography-to-pronunciation rules and nothing like the French either!

  9. Bloix said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 12:24 pm

    Robert Coren –
    There are at least three eastern Wyomings, all of which predate the western state's use of the word: the Wyoming Valley, in Pennsylvania; Wyoming County, NY; Wyoming County, West Virginia. The word is from a Lenape word referring to plains or flat land. The western state, for some reason, borrowed it. The westerners took the pre-existing pronunciation from the easterners.

  10. K said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 2:56 pm

    I'm sure many of these pronunciations have their histories. I was taught that W.E.B. Du Bois (or his ancestors) intentionally changed the pronunciation to Du Boyce to "stick it" to the French Du Bwah slaveowners they had inherited the name from.

  11. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 3:17 pm

    I know nothing of Mr Du Bois (or his ancestors) but when I started work my first boss was an Assistant Engineer called Mr de Bois. On our first day he informed us that his name was pronounced /də ˈbɔɪz/ and not, as we might otherwise have thought, /də ˈbwɑː/. I am 99.999% certain that neither he nor his forbearers inherited the family name as a result of enslavement.

  12. Laura Morland said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 3:43 pm

    I know it's not how the natives pronounce it, but in the San Francisco Bay Area we refer to our neighboring state as "nə 'vadə" / "nuh-VAH-duh" … using the schwa in the first and last syllables, as those Iowans do.

  13. Robert C said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 5:00 pm

    I live in New Jersey, the home of Bogota (Bu-GOAT-a), Iselin (IZ-lin), and Secaucus (SEE-caw-cus)

  14. Terry K. said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 5:04 pm

    Same in Missouri. /nəˈveɪdə/ and New /ˈmædrɪd/ (and New /ˈmædrɪd/ fault).

  15. Martin Schwartz said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 6:14 pm

    @ Dick Margulis: Thanks! I was under the oft-repeated notion
    that shibboleth derives from the Hebrew for 'ear of grain' (which is attested, as are many excellent cognates in other Semitic languages), but from the Biblical context of Gileadites and Ephraimites, where a crossing over is involved, the homonymous
    word for 'torrent' (attested in Psalms) is the more likely reference.
    That the word in question referred to grain was emphasized in my
    mind by often recalling that when I was ca. 13-14 years old the
    Yiddish-speaking father of a friend (coincidentally?) told us that
    that the Russo-Ukrainian word kukurúza 'maize' was a potentially fatal test-word, since Jews pronounced the r as velar rather than trilled. In any event, it is interesting that the letter taken writing Hebrew alphabet from its Semitic alphabetic prototype can stand for
    either š or ś (s), the distinction eventually being made by a dot
    respectively on the right or left top of the letter. Curiously enough,
    folksy Northern Yiddish (Litvak) has ś vs. Southern (and Standard) Yiddish š, but I doubt that thereby anyone has called Litvaks Ephraimites, but what do I know?
    Martin Schwartz

  16. Richard Belaire said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 6:23 pm

    In interstellar space, you have the Orion (O rye un) constellation. In Michigan, we have Orion (Ore eon) Township — north of Detroit.

  17. Steve Morrison said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 8:09 pm

    There is also a suburb of Cincinnati named Wyoming.

  18. Mark S. said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 9:45 pm

    @Jonathan Lundell: I have family in both Kansas near the ar-KAN-zas and Oklahoma, which has the AR-kan-saw. Same river, different pronunciations.

    It might be interesting to see how far into Oklahoma the ar-KAN-zas pronunciation extends (e.g., into Ponca City?). In Tulsa, the river is definitely the AR-kan-saw.

  19. Thomas Rees said,

    May 13, 2023 @ 11:29 pm

    @Laura Morland: It’s our toponym, and we can pronounce it as we please. The Sierra Nevada isn’t in Nevada, and while the Basin and Range province has its own scenic charms, “snowy” isn’t the first adjective I’d use to describe it.

  20. John Swindle said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 1:34 am

    My uncle who lived in Wyoming pronounced it /vaɪˈoʊmɪŋk/. Admittedly he wasn't born there.

  21. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 5:41 am

    I think that we might reasonably have been expected to infer your second sentence, John

  22. Mark S. said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 6:34 am

    Also in Oklahoma:
    * Boise City (/ˈbɔɪs/)
    * Prague (/ˈpreɪɡ/)
    * Miami (/maɪˈæmə/)

  23. Ralph J Hickok said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 7:50 am

    There's also a Wyoming in Rhode Island.

  24. David Marjanović said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 8:45 am

    Same with Michigan – near Ann Arbor, Milan is pronounced MY-lan.

    That's the traditional English pronunciation. It has also happened in German – where the result was then reinterpreted as Mailand, literally "May country", which makes perfect sense because northern Italy is the place where they have spring instead of summer, and spring was equated with May during the Little Ice Age.

  25. Robert Coren said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 9:51 am

    @Ralph J Hickok: There's also a Peru in western MA, and I think it's pronounced PEE-roo.

  26. Taylor, Philip said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 12:42 pm

    David M — When you say, in reference to "near Ann Arbor, Milan is pronounced MY-lan", "That's the traditional English pronunciation", are you referring to (a) American English, (b) British English, or (c) some other variant ? I ask because, as a native speaker of <Br.E>, the sound /ˈmaɪ læn/ is completely unknown to me — I know of Milan only as /mɪ ˈlæn/, and have never heard it pronounced otherwise.

  27. Morten Jonsson said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 1:35 pm

    @Taylor, Philip

    In The Tempest, Milan is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, so presumably MY-lan: "Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?"

  28. RfP said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 3:02 pm

    This San Francisco Bay Arean pronounces Nevada (for both the state and the mountain range) with a short “a” in the middle, as in “pat,” while rhyming the third syllable of Colorado with “pot.”

    I wonder how common that is—and how many people around here might do it the other way around. That is, “pot” for Nevada and “pat” for Colorado.

    I’m sure either of these is in the minority compared to people who pronounce them both with the same penultimate vowel.

  29. Richard Belaire said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 4:29 pm

    We have a granddaughter attending college in Wyoming, Michigan, just to the west of Grand Rapids — borders in fact touch.

  30. Peter Taylor said,

    May 14, 2023 @ 5:49 pm

    Thomas Rees wrote:

    The Sierra Nevada isn’t in Nevada

    No, it's in the south of Spain. Or maybe the is the wrong word to use.

  31. KeithB said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 9:09 am

    I have lived in New Mexico for 15 years, and I still don't know how to pronounce "Cuba" – either CYU-ba or coo-ba.

  32. Philip Anderson said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 1:24 pm

    @Morten Jonsson
    In The Tempest, I have always heard MI-lan, with the first syllable stressed but short, followed by a schwa; otherwise, Philip Taylor says. I would guess that the Italian stress influenced the English pronunciation.
    Milan< Mediolanum, which was also the Roman name for Whitchurch in Shropshire – a good Celtic name, meaning middle of the plain, showing the loss of ‘p’ in the Celtic languages.

  33. Rodger C said,

    May 15, 2023 @ 5:26 pm

    AY-thens, KY.

  34. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 2:16 am

    My BFF called me on pronouncing Vacaville (CA) with Spanish a's in the first two syllables, and informed me that most people pronounce them with the "a" from cat. I don't care. I still hear it in my head with Spanish vowels. ¡Spanglish rules, baby! And of course, San José's pronunciation is pure Spanglish. (The new BART map has a bit of printed Spanglish: the all-caps city name is missing the accent on the e, which the station names have it.)

  35. Chas Belov said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 2:24 am

    As a side note, I once considered writing a play called "Sibboleth" but decided not to because if anyone searched Google for it, Google would probably would have responded "do you mean shibboleth?". (Actually, I just tried it and that's what Google did.)

  36. Terry K. said,

    May 16, 2023 @ 9:49 pm

    Though I can imagine the first two syllables Vacaville being pronounced with two Spanish A sounds, rather than (similar, but not the same), the vowel in father followed by a schwa, I cannot imagine anyone actually pronouncing both syllables with the vowel in "cat", rather than reducing the 2nd to a schwa. Though I cam imagine someone might in their head think of it as the "cat" vowel twice.

  37. RfP said,

    May 17, 2023 @ 12:03 pm

    @Terry K.

    Good catch!

    No one around here pronounces Vacaville with two “cat” vowels. But most people would think of it that way when comparing it to the Spanish-influenced pronunciation.

  38. Grunschev said,

    May 17, 2023 @ 5:29 pm

    Then there's Buena Vista, CO, which locals pronounce Byoo-nah Vista. Just down the road is Salida, Sah-lie-dah.

  39. RfP said,

    May 17, 2023 @ 5:51 pm

    In the S.F. Bay Area city of Alameda, Byoo-nah Vista Ave. intersects Ver-sales (Versailles) Ave.

  40. ajay said,

    May 19, 2023 @ 3:57 am

    In The Tempest, Milan is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, so presumably MY-lan:

    Or "MILL-an"? In the Folio it's spelled "Millaine" and when I've seen it live they've always gone with "MILL-an". 9:30 in this recording, for example. "Thy father was the Duke of Milan and a prince of power".

  41. ajay said,

    May 19, 2023 @ 3:58 am

    Sorry, recording here.

  42. Chas Belov said,

    May 19, 2023 @ 9:14 pm

    @Terry K and RfP: No, you're right. What my friend said was first a as in cat and second a as in schwa. But I'm sticking with the Spanglish version.

    I remember having a disagreement with a coworker over the pronunciation of César Chávez on our buses. The voice said Cesar Shavez (SEE-zar SHAW-vez), and I complained that it should be a CH sound (SEE-zar CHAW-vez). My coworker – who had decision power over the announcements at the time – said that this is the English pronunciation not the Spanish, so it should be SH.

    Had I been thinking about it, I would've corrected that Spanish would have been say-SAR CHAW-base. However, I'd guess we got complaints about it, as, years later, the buses now use the CH sound for their announcements.

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