Writing on the Double Yellow Line

Militant moderate, unwilling to concede any longer the terms of debate to the strident ideologues on the fringe. If you are a Democrat or a Republican, you're an ideologue. If you're a "moderate" who votes a nearly straight party-ticket, you're still an ideologue, but you at least have the decency to be ashamed of your ideology. ...and you're lying in the meantime.

Location: Illinois, United States

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Say What?

You Sat ToMAHto, I Say Illiterate
© 2006 Ross Williams

I sent an email earlier this week to a local radio station, trying to be helpful. They were reporting on the recent school shootings in the Amish region of Pennsylvania, in Lancaster County, and just down the road a piece from Lancaster PA. The news announcer on this radio station pronounced the city and county in Pennsylvania Lan-CAST-er. I said, yes it looks like Lan-CAST-er, but the folks in Lancaster pronounce it LANK-uh-stir.

How would I know, one might ask? I grew up in upstate New York – where the cows outnumbered the people. Not many realize this, but "New York" is pronounced differently upstate than it is in The City. Everyone who's watched any television believes that New Yorkers pronounce it Noo Yawk. Which is true, yeah, if you live in the city and the surrounding tri-state area. Upstate, we lived in Nee Ork.

Growing up around Binghamton Nee Ork, I was only a few hundred miles from Amishland. As a child I was taken to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country several times. To Strasburg festivals, to Gettysburg just over the hill, and to the famous Amish family-style restaurant of the '70s called Good and Plenty. They called it LANK-uh-stir.

Then in junior high, a family moved to our school district. In this family was a kid my age who became a friend of mine. They were from LANK-uh-stir.

All this kid's new friends would – as childhood friends do – insult and degrade this new friend. "You talk funny," we would tell him; "where you from?" LANK-uh-stir, he would reply. "Oh, Lan-CAST-er breeds stupid people," we would respond. No, no, LANK-uh-stir breeds stupid people, he would say.

And we'd go through that pecking-order establishing bonding ritual every few months.

They call it LANK-uh-stir.

That's essentially what I told the radio station guy, minus the personal anecdotes: I've been there, that's what the folks who live there call it; I knew people from there fairly well, and that's what they called it. It's LANK-uh-stir.

The reply I got said, in effect, so what. It doesn't matter what they call it; it's an American english place name, it'll be pronounced the way American english-speakers pronounce it. It looks like Lan-CAST-er so they'll call it Lan-CAST-er.

Which is fine, I suppose. But it's not a very safe reply from any of the provincial snobs in the St Louis area. I remember very clearly during the Flood of '93 when, on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather mispronunciated one of the Mississippi river towns in Missouri, Cape Girardeau. Mr Rather pronuncified it Cape Zheer-ar-DOUGH, apparently thinking that, as a frenchish place name it might actually be pronounced semi-froggishly. The locals don't know frogs from toads, though, and they call it Cape Juh-RAHR-dough. But for months afterwards, St Louisans took sandbagging breaks to sneer at Dan Rather for making up idiotic pronuncifications.

Dan was apparently so shaken from this verbal disgrace that he graduated from inventing idiotic pronunciations to inventing idiotic news stories.

That being as it may, St Louisans have a whole fistful of local illiteracies over which they get sanctimoniously snooty, and for even one local resident, let alone a radio newsman, to turn up his nose at a foreign oddity with a shrug and a get lost is fairly high up on the hypocrisy ladder.

Since I can't leave these kinds of things alone, allow me to identify a fair portion of the St Louis region's illiteracies. Some may think I'm doing so just to open up the locals to undeserved ridicule. Nothing could be further from the truth: there is no ridicule of native St Louisans that is not warranted.

When the local delicacy is called "toasted ravioli" and it's not, then they bring insults on themselves. Hint, folks: "toasted" anything is toasted; that is, put in a toaster, or at least baked in an oven to approximate toasting. St Louis's "toasted ravioli" is deep-fat-fried. I don't know who they think they're fooling, but I guarantee their cardiologist ain't one of them.

When high society wedding receptions have mostaccioli as the entrée, then insults are invited. It's not even mostaccioli marinara for an added flair, just plain old overcooked fat hollow noodles with Ragu. "Putting on the Ritz" means having a second fork on the left side of the plate [Pssst! It’s for salad].

Which brings me to the first example from St Louis's limp-tongue parade: mostaccioli. An Italian would pronounce it Moh-stah-CHOH-lee, with a more or less elongated CHOH, and maybe a subtle yi added for flavor. Moh-stah-CHyiOH-lee. But we're in America, and mah-stuh-CHOH-lee, all syllables clipped and uninflected, will do fine.

Not so in St Louis. Here, it is muh-skuh-choh-lee. No syllabic stress, little attention paid to vowels, free-substitution of the consonants. Throw out the 'T', add a 'K'. One of the many, many exceptions of the "I before E" ilk, apparently. As a food using the St Louis recipe, it bears little resemblance to its component parts; as a word with the St Louis pronunciation, it bears just as little resemblance to its component letters.

I've written before and I'll write again, I'm sure, that the name of their state – Missouri – is properly pronounced with one of the appropriate vowel-sounds for 'I' where ever the ‘I’ occurs. One of those appropriate vowel-sounds is not "uh". They live in Mih-ZUR-ee.

As I said above, I grew up in Nee Ork. And that's how I pronounce it when I’m talking fast. My tongue is lazy local to where I learned to talk – which is Nee Ork. But if you don't understand me when I say "I grew up in Nee Ork" I don't get all pissy and enunciate "Neeeeeee Orrrrrrk" as if you are a simpleton. I pronounce it properly, slowly, then lazily, fast. "Newwwwww, Yorrrrrrrk! Nee Ork."

Even the rude Noo Yawkuhs will enunciate properly when asked. Oh, they may throw on a gratuitous “yoo fawkin aaa swipe!” at the end, but that’s simply their character and charm.

Not so in much of St Louis and indeed most of the state it's in. Deliberate illiteracy is seemingly a badge of honor here. Ask what state it is, they'll say MuhZURuh. Ask them again, they'll get pissy, enunciate, "Muh! ZUR! uh!" as if you're a simpleton, and toss back "MuhZURuh!" Vowels? Everything translates to a grunt, and consonants are merely the placeholder between them.

Up the river in Illinois is a city named Alton. Just north of Alton is a painting on the cliff face of a huge red-winged yellow bird, with antlers and huge talons. This is the mighty Piasa Bird, which attacked travelers on the Mississippi near the dangerous confluence of the Missouri and Illinois rivers. Strong eddies and rapids require semi-advanced technology to comprehend and cartography to avoid; but a huge, mysterious bird that lives in the heavily wooded cut in the bluff – now the setting of Elsah Illinois, a quaint river town of small cottages, cozy diners and a B&B – that was something the stone-age Miami Tribe could understand. Careful in that canoe, Hiawatha; where the three rivers meet there's a huge bird that'll eat you.

The name of this bird is from the Algonquin language. Our spelling of it is supposed to be the anglicized rendering of their phonetic utterance. But their phonetic utterance was PIE-uh-saw, and our anglicized spelling of it was taken from the original Europeans who settled the area. Those original Europeans were the Frogs, who don't spell anything right. Which is to say, they don't spell anything as it would need to be spelled in english to get the sounds one is trying to use english to get.

Piasa, in english, is properly pronounced pee-AH-suh, while those same letters [or near enough; the Frogs first wrote it "paillissa", then apparently shortened it] in french give, more or less, the desired PIE-uh-saw.

But – and this is critical – we aren't Frogs, we don't speak Froggish, and using their spellings to get an english pronunciation violates the rules of english grammar. If you want to spell it Piasa, then pronounce it pee-AH-suh; if you want to pronounce it PIE-uh-saw, then throw a 'w' on the end ... Piasaw. Really; this is third-grade literacy stuff.

And speaking of using french spellings to get english pronunciations, just north of St Louis in Missouri and close to the crook of the river where the Missouri river slams into the Mississippi is a suburb called Bellefontaine Neighbors. Bellefontaine is froggish for "beautiful waters" – which is nowhere near north St Louis. Not even 250 years ago before us planet-rapers polluted it. The river was called The Big Muddy ever since Pere Marquette stuck his lily white toe in it and pulled back a grayish brown stump.

Bellefontaine is a french word; granted, this is a [nominally] english-speaking nation, but we owe it to pronounce french, indeed all foreign words which have entered our language or usage, as if they were still foreign-like. Not to the point of strangling whole syllables off french words, or rolling the double-R-ed burritos at Taco Bell, but at least give a passing nod to the foreign-ness of the thing we're trying to say. We don't translate in our head, substitute the foreign word with a preferred term, and then pronounce "burrito" as something else.

"Welcome to Taco Bell. Can I take your order?"

"Why yes you can; give me a beef and bean pita."

Nope; that won’t fly.

The french word "fontaine" is translated to english as "fountain", and so that's how the locals pronounce Bellefontaine. Bell-fountain. There's no 'U' in the word, yet – vowels being the irrelevant nuisance that the locals would seem to think they are – one is found anyhow. A number of years ago I got into a verbal pissing contest with a local who was trying to give me directions to someplace in North County. I was to proceed on I-270 and once past Bell-fountain Road ...


"Bell-fountain Road. Once you get past Bell-fountain Road ..."

Here's a map. I can't see that anywhere. Point it out.

"Right here! Bell-fountain Road!! Once you get past there ..."

That says Bell-fon-tayne.

"It's Bell-Fountain. Can't you read? Once you get past there..."

Yes I can read. And I don't see a 'U'. If you do, point it out and I'll pronounce it. But if you don't, then the one who can't read ain't me.

That was ever so much fun, especially seeing as the guy had inadvertently pointed out my destination some time before and I no longer needed specific directions.

Anyhow. Like I told the radio news guy: the news item from those few days ago occurred in LANK-uh-stir County PA. To dismiss others' local pronunciational oddities with a sanctimonious wave of the hand is not a real wise move for the glass-housers in these parts. There’s just too much ammunition laying all over the ground, and me with good aim…