No, Arkansas Doesn’t Sound the Way It Looks: A Guide to Pronouncing U.S. Place Names

The U.K. isn't alone with "rude" city names. (BIOLI)

The U.K. isn’t alone with “rude” city names. (BIOLI)

Just as we laugh at Americans who say “Glass Cow” instead of Glasgow and “Li-cester” instead of well, Leicester, they often have the last laugh when we attempt some American state and place names. As with the U.K., many names aren’t phonetic or are just impossible to figure out; here’s some of the most common.

Bear in mind that these pronunciation tips are for British English speakers. Telling an American to pronounce Raleigh as “Rarley” would obviously not work.

(The syllable to be stressed is underlined.)

Albuquerque Albukerkee
Arkansas Arkansaw
Bangor (Maine) Bang-or (hard “g”; does not sound like “banger”)
Birmingham Stress and emphasize the “ham”
Boise (Idaho) Boyzee
Des Moines (Iowa) De Moyn
Des Plaines (Illinois) Dess Planes
Houston Hyooston (not Hooston)
La Jolla (California) La Hoya
Louisville (Kentucky)> Leweeville
Raleigh Rarley (with a British middle “r”)
St. Louis St. Lewis
Salem Saylem
San Jose San Hozay
Spokane (Washington) Spo-kan
Syracuse (New York) Sirrakyooz
Topeka (Kansas) Toepeeka
Tuscon (Arizona) Tooson (soft S)
Van Nuys (California) Van Nize

While most state names are either phonetic or well enough known to avoid problems, there are a few that may trip Brits up.

Arkansas is not pronounced like Kansas, it’s Arkansaw (emphasis on last syllable), but the natives are called Arkansans, (emphasis on middle syllable). Interestingly, Arkansas City in Kansas has an audible final “s”. Connecticut has a silent middle “c” and the stress is on the 2nd syllable.  Illinois may look French but it’s doesn’t follow French pronunciation. It’s pronounced “Ill-i-noy” and for heaven’s sake, don’t put an “s” or a “z” on the end.

Maryland is quite the challenge to describe. It may look like it should be “Mary Land” but my American kids laugh out loud when I say it like that. The pronunciation is a truncated version, more like “Marel’nd”, pronouncing “mare” the British way but with an audible “r”.  Here’s an audio example.

Michigan is pronounced Mishigan (not Mitchigan). The other state names, Brits will pronounce correctly or close enough to be understood and not cause a wry smile among Americans.

With American place names however, no assumptions should be made. Just because Worcester and Leicester in Massachusetts follow the British pronunciations of “Wooster” and “Lester”, doesn’t mean Petersham does; it’s pronounced Peter’s Ham. Nor should we assume that because New York State’s Amherst has an audible “h” in the middle, it’s the same for the Amherst in Massachusetts, which drops it.

While not a city or state, the famous national park Yosemite warrants mention here. It’s pronounced Yose-emity (soft “s”) with the stress on the middle syllable. (I know. Who knew?)

The U.S. has many non-English place names that are almost impossible to figure out without the help of a local. Places like Schenectady in New York, Nacogdoches in Texas, Monongahela in Pennsylvania or Kankakee in Illinois just set you up for problems. On the other hand, your attempts at the correct pronunciation can provide hours and hours of entertainment for Americans.

Oh, and just as the U.K. has some strange place names (think Upper and Lower Slaughter for starters), so has the U.S. You’ll find Boring in Oregon, Normal in Illinois, Why in Arizona, Handsome Eddy in New York, Sweet Lips in Tennessee and Pie Town in New Mexico. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What are some other U.S. place names with counterintuitive pronunciations? Tell us below:

See more:
A British Expat’s Guide to Living in Indiana
How to Enjoy the Super Bowl When You Know Nothing About Football
The 20 of Rudest Places in Britain