I was born and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin. That’s just south of Milwaukee, north of Chicago, and southeast of Waukesha — all of which I had no trouble pronouncing from a young age. That chewy, bouncy way of speaking came naturally.
Or so I thought.
On a recent road trip through my home state, I spotted some of our stranger town names. I’d seen them written out on the map, but soon realized that the further outside the Greater Milwaukee bubble I went, the less confident my pronunciation became.
Sure, I knew how to say Sheboygan. But what about Neshkoro? Kaukauna? Wauzeka? Was I sure I could properly pronounce Osceola? Trempealeau? Mazomanie?
Umm, not so much.
Then I moved to the other side of the state. I’m not far from a town called Muscoda, which anyone would assume is pronounced musk-OH-duh, right? Wrong. Very wrong! It’s MUSK-uh-day. Nearby Gratiot is GRASH-it. My French-class pronunciation of Prairie du Chien earned me a few blank stares.
That got me thinking. Why can’t I pronounce all the place names in my own home state?
Embarrass is both a metaphorical and literal place in Wisconsin.
My husband was born and raised in Racine. My hometown borders that city, which I’ve always pronounced ray-SEEN. My husband calls it ruh-SEEN.
We lived literally minutes apart, and we still couldn’t agree on how to say the name of the city. But… are we both wrong?
Having taken French classes, I know that Racine means root (as in the Root River that flows through the city) and it should be pronounced RAH-seen with a gently rolled R. The mister and I both agree that’s not right.
A lot of Wisconsin towns come from “incorrect” French pronunciations. The Sconnie version of Prairie du Chien drives me up the wall (prer-ee doo SHEEN). Fond du Lac is said closer to fondle-ACK, which would make any Parisian cringe. Same with Beloit (when I was in elementary school, some kid told me it sounded like a fart in a bathtub, so I’ll leave that one to your imagination).
Some cities look like they should be easy to say, like Eldorado, Rio, Waterloo, and Dupont, but they’re not. The accent is on the wrong syllable. After awhile, even locals find themselves second-guessing how to say easy ones like Cable, Lancaster, and Delafield.
And yet, Wisconsinites are quick to use pronunciation as an indicator of who’s local and who’s not.
Turn on the local news in the upper midwest, and you’ll know exactly which anchors are real Sconnies and which are transplants.
It’s a dead giveaway when they enunciate our largest city instead of slurring muh-WAWK-ee, wiz-GON-sin.
Let’s start with the origins of our place names.
The majority of Wisconsin’s unique names come from the land itself. Rivers, lakes, animals, plants, and geological formations make up the bulk of our names. The rest are named after people.
Madison (as in the president) Baraboo (a misspelling of the French settler Baribault) Colby, Dodgeville, Reedsburg, Stevens Point, and countless others are named after settlers and other locally important people. Lots of the people names are from American Indian leaders, including Oshkosh, Tomah, Ashwaubenon, Osceola, and others. Chippewa, Menominee, Outagamie, and Winnebago are named after the local tribes as a whole.
Most of our place names are descriptive. Pleasant Prairie, Elmwood, Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin Dells, and Two Rivers spring to mind. Others are still descriptive, but translated into French. If you’ll recall, Racine is named after the twisting shape of a river. Fond du Lac means bottom of the lake, which is exactly where the city appears on the map. Eau Claire means clear water.
The others are derived from Native American words, usually describing the landmarks in the area. Neenah is a Ho-Chunk word for running water. The fun to say, even more fun to spell Oconomowoc refers to waterfalls and lakes. Kenosha has something to do with the abundance of pike in the lake and Sheboygan comes from the Ojibwe phrase, ‘waterway of the lakes.’
These are all lovely, but are you seeing the problem yet?
That’s right, we have three competing language families, all trying to agree on a single place name.
Native languages have a different cadence than English, and French stresses syllables that we don’t. Just think about our French/English cognates: action, independence, adorable, impossible, silence, theatre… We English speakers stress the first syllable, but French speakers generally emphasize the last part of the word.
And it was the French who first settled the state of Wisconsin.
Hundreds of years ago, French settlers heard the tribal languages, did their best to understand them, transcribed them, re-wrote them, and then modern Americans translated them into English. It’s just one big game of telephone.
That’s why so many Wisconsin place names don’t feel intuitive to American English speakers.
Wisconsin comes from the French word, Ouisconsin, which is a misinterpretation of the Algonquin word Meskousing, which probably refers to red stones. If we spoke French in the US, we’d pronounce Wisconsin very differently than we do today. So thank you, telephone game.
Interestingly, some cities are named after other places in the world, but with a different cadence. Wisconsin’s New Berlin is not pronounced like the city in Germany. Why? Well, after WWI, Sconnies didn’t want to be associated with the Axis. Instead of renaming the city, they just decided to pronounce it differently.
Totally on brand, right?
All that is to say, our names are just a translation of a translation of a translation. We do our best to honor our state’s rich history and jaw-dropping landscape, but words tend to fail us.
So if Weywauwega doesn’t woll wight off your tongue, don’t feel bad about it. It’s not natural to anyone. We Wisconsinites have a long history of altering pronunciations to fit our mouths.
And one look at our state’s natural beauty will have you speechless anyway.