Friday, December 7, 2012

The Linguistic Diversity Of American Place Names

No matter where you're from, there's probably a town of the same name hiding somewhere in the United States. If you're from the U.S., then you'll probably find that your town's namesake existed long before your country did.

If you do hail from the original town and are not a native English speaker, you should prepare for disappointment in its American counterpart. Though it was probably named by settlers who spoke your native tongue, the correct pronunciation has likely long since disappeared from the American lexicon.


Though not incredibly popular with Americans, the French managed to be in possession of a hefty proportion of what is now the U.S. and there was no chance they were planning on giving the towns English names! Zut alors!

Of course, French is hardly a lingua franca in the States. The legacy left by French settlers is criminally mispronounced.

Baton Rouge? Sorry Frenchies, even though you could say this name with the perfect French accent, you've got it wrong. Des Moines? Still miles off.

Detroit is another fine example.


You can't talk empires without mentioning the Spanish. They were incredible when it came to getting on boats and making things theirs. They helped give place names to nearly all of South and Central America, as well as most of the southern United States.

Due to shifting borders and English being the most spoken language in the U.S., the Spanish would still mispronounce Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even San Diego. Nevada and even Colorado sound nothing like originally intended.

San Francisco, home to cool streetcars!


Even English language place names in the US are seemingly mispronounced. Pittsburgh has a weird h on the end. If you've ever been to Scotland, you'll realise that this is commonplace. Edinburgh has it, and as a result, is not pronounced like "berg" but more like "borough". Given that Pittsburgh was founded by a Scot, the -h is hardly a coincidence.

The Pittsburgh skyline viewed from their baseball park.

God Save The Queen

When first settling and making sure that they'd made a fantastic holiday destination for the British monarchy, many settlers would name places in honour of the current ruling king or queen. Maryland was named after Queen Henrietta Maria.

Virginia may have even been a suggestion from Sir Walter Raleigh or even Queen Elizabeth I of England since she liked to be known as a virgin... the "West" in West Virginia refers to a geographical west and not the west of Queen Elizabeth I.

Just because it sounded cool

Some settlers used town names as an opportunity to flex their own linguistic creativity. Minneapolis came from the Dakota word for waterfall "minnehaha" and the Greek suffix "polis" for city. Imagine if they'd called it Minnehaha City or even Minnehahaville?

The original Memphis was once the capital city of Egypt. Although Memphis, Tennessee was inhabited by natives for thousands of years, the odds of them contacting Ancient Egyptians because they wanted to rename their town in homage to them was slim. The name Memphis was more of a marketing ploy by the investors who bought the town.

Memphis is home to The Pyramid Arena, one of the largest pyramids
in the world. It was originally used as a sports arena but is currently
being converted into a massive sporting goods store. Only in America...
Not so new now

More often than not, American place names are inspired by where the settlers came from. That's why "The Big Apple" was New Amsterdam until the English decided that York was better than Amsterdam. Is New Jersey better than plain old Jersey? Probably not.

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