Monday, July 25, 2005

Peoria Is a Real Place

One of my readers from Sweden asked me if Peoria was a real place. She had thought it was a made-up place, with a made-up name, that was just a sort of "Anytown, USA" I was using to illustrate my points. She had come to this conclusion because the word "Peoria" was, to her ears, so ridiculous.

I thought this was very funny, particularly since she's not the first person to say something along these lines to me. Several of my friends who hail from foreign lands were a bit puzzled either by the name "Peoria" or by the pronunciation. To them, it sounds as made up as Timbucktu, Kalamazoo, or Xanadu (which are all, of course, real places).

To me, it sounds as natural as breathing. But then, I grew up in the Midwest, so I'm quite used to Anglicized spellings of Francophone transliterations of Native American words, as pronounced by semi-literate Irish and German immigrants, for place names. Oconomowoc presents me no difficulty, nor does Mishawaka. I see no illogic in Des Moines (Deh Moyn) and Des Plaines (Dez Planez). It doesn't bother me that Sault Sainte Marie is pronounced the French way but that if you tried to say Detroit without Anglicizing it brutally, people would look at you funny. I also see nothing strange about the absolute parade of foreign places that ended up as small-town place names in the Midwest - Kokomo, Peru, Cairo, Pekin (from Peking/Beijing) - which makes many others either disoriented or amused. ("Why is my town in Switzerland the name of a rural Indiana town?")

In fact, these odd place names were so natural to me that I really didn't begin to realize their oddity until I married a Floridian who completely failed to plumb the exquisite logic of the pronunciation difference between Des Plaines and Des Moines ("that's just the way it is") and spent his first several months here trying to figure out why the heck nothing was pronounced in a fashion familiar to any normal speaker of English. (Not that he is necessarily one to talk; my first year in the South I consistently mispronounced things because the accent fell on bizarre syllables or occasionally entire letters were completely ignored.)

All of which is simply to say that Peoria is a real place, there really is a city in Illinois named Cairo and pronounced KAY-ro, and every child knows that Des Moines and Des Plaines follow entirely different rules.

And for God's sake, don't stick an S on the end of Illinois. The S is silent, people. Silent!


Phoibos said...

In the city I grew up, there is a street named "Grauwyler". It is used as a shibboleth, as no one not from Irving or its near vicinity can pronounce it correctly: "GAR-wheeler".

There is also a few towns south of here that mess up non-natives: Mexia, Texas, is prounced "meh HAY ah", and Burnet is "BURN it".

Gotta love the South. :-)

Sara said...

I can't help it, everytime I see the name Peoria I think of the Spanish word peor, meaning worse or inferior. Is it related to poor, maybe?

How do you pronounce Spokane? ;)

Elohimus Maximus said...

the lord just told me peoria is not a real place
The Church of Jesus Christ of Even More Latter Day Saints

desree42 said...

You forget about 'A'thens vs Athens... Something that my fiance complains about bitterly every time we go downstate.

PeoriaDad said...

So there really IS no logic to it. This explains so much for me!

As a transplanted Buckeye, I've yet to figure out these butchered berg names.

Dr. Lefty said...

There must be some linguistic reason why the people of Des Plaines kept the French final s and the good folk in Iowa did not. For example, final s is not pronounced in Ebonics because the ancestor African tongues did not have the sound. Could it be the the Iowans were more
Any why is Oregon pronounced "ORagun"? What is the significance of "waukee" in Kishwaukee and Milwaukee? It sounds Indian. And who says "crick" for "creek"? Any why is Worcester in Massacusetts called "Woostah" by its townfolk?
Maybe there's a linguist out there who can answer these questions.
By the way, the Smothers Brothers sang "Marching to Peoria" and it was Richard Nixon who asked "Will it Play in Peoria?"--showing, I think, his great contempt for the intellect of geographic middle America.

Ron Sheasby aka Dr. Lefty