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Racine, La Grange, and Other Places We’re Mispronouncing

First off: Chicago.

The Paulina Brown Line stop, pictured August 2018   Photo: Dillon Goodson / Lakeview Chamber of Commerce

Midwesterners are really, really good at mispronouncing foreign names. The Miami-Illinois, French, and Spanish left behind all sorts of beautiful place names in our part of the world, and we’ve mangled just about all of them, flattening out the rhythms of their mellifluous languages to suit our own drab, nasal, prosaic patterns of speech. Here are a few of the many examples in which the “correct” local pronunciation is all wrong.

Chicago

Whether you pronounce the city’s name “Chi-CAH-go” or “Sh-CAW-go,” you’re making a mistake either way. Chicago’s precise etymology is a point of debate, but it’s likely derived from a word in the Algonquian language family meaning “skunk.” For example, the Miami-Illinois called the area “shikaakwa” (pronounced “shi-CAW-cway"), their name for the pungent leeks that grew near the Chicago River. The French recorded this as “Checagou,” so at least they were wrong, too.

Illinois

The French explorers who arrived here in the 17th century called the general area bounded by the Great Lakes to the north, the Upper Mississippi River to the west, and the Ohio River to the east “Pays des Illinois.” Being French, they pronounced it “Illi-nwah.” (That was itself a bastardization of “irenweewa,” or “speaks normally,” which is what the Miami called the linguistically similar Illinois Confederation tribes here.) At least give us credit for keeping the “s” silent and not calling our state “Illinoise,” as in our next example.

Paulina

Someone with this name is called “Paul-EE-na.” In Chicago, the street is called “Paul-EYE-na.”

Goethe

The German author pronounced his name closer to “Gerta” — as does the CTA — but many Chicagoans call this street “GO-thee,” like it’s spelled.

Racine

Jean Racine was a French playwright. In Chicago, we call the street “RAY-seen.” They get a little closer in Wisconsin, calling the city “Ruh-SEEN.” (CTA standard pronunciation agrees with them.)

Vincennes

Obviously, no Frenchman would say “Vin-SENZ,” as we do. It’s “VON-sen.”

Devon

The English county is “DEV-in,” but don’t tell that to the owners of Naan on Devon, an Indian restaurant in West Rogers Park. Devon isn’t even from another language, and we’re still doing it wrong. 

Sauganash

This one is pretty close. The neighborhood is named after Billy Caldwell, a half-British, half-Mohawk fur trader and treaty negotiator who was called this Potawatomi term for “English speaker” or “Englishman.”

La Grange

ZZ Top is wrong. So is this western suburb. It’s “La GRANZH.”

Joliet

In French, “t” is always silent at the end of the word. (Remember that when you’re driving on Carondelet Avenue, too.) Not only is “zhol-ee-AY” correct, it sounds nothing like “toilet.”

It’s important to remember, though, that pronouncing any of these names correctly would be incorrect, at least if you want to preserve your cred as a Chicagoan. Idiosyncratic local pronunciations are an important element of civic identity. Talking about “DEV-in Avenue” or the city of “zhol-ee-AY” is a sure way to let people know you’re not from around here.

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