Any Wisconsinite worth his or her weight in cheese curds knows how to navigate through our state’s collection of tongue-twisting place names.
Waukesha? No problem.
Nanaweyah Ominihekan? Well, maybe there are a few that cause even native Wisconsinites to stumble.
That’s where Pronounce Wisconsin comes in. The State Cartographer’s Office launched the online mapping application, which includes locations and pronunciations for more than 1,700 cities, counties, villages and unincorporated communities, late last year. State Cartographer Howard Veregin, whose office is based in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Geography, believes the tool is the most robust interactive pronouncing gazetteer in the country.
Veregin was in the early stages of a project to map Wisconsin’s assortment of unincorporated communities when he stumbled across a website that piqued his interest. The site, MissPronouncer.com, a side project of Wisconsin Radio Network reporter Jackie Johnson, featured audio pronunciations of Wisconsin cities, towns, counties, elected officials and more — including unincorporated communities.
“Something clicked in my mind that we could integrate our unincorporated place project — our map of these tiny little communities in the state — with her pronunciations,” says Veregin.
About a year later — in mid-November 2012 — the SCO launched Pronounce Wisconsin. Veregin sees the application, built by SCO intern John Czaplewski (BA’11, Political Science), as part of the SCO’s outreach mission, as well as a means to preserve the identity of the unincorporated communities. He’s also hopeful it could develop into a useful tool for tourism, particularly for non-English-speaking visitors to the state.
“I think that, kind of at a higher level, there is value in putting this information out there so that people can have a better understanding of the state they live in,” he says.
Pronounce Wisconsin isn’t the first UW-Madison-based project to celebrate the quirks of our state. Famed English professor Frederic Cassidy explored the history of the Madison region in Dane County Place-Names way back in 1947. Cassidy went on to lead the Dictionary of American Regional English project from 1963 to 2000.
Then there is the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures, which examines the languages and cultural traditions of Wisconsin and its surrounding states. Within the CSUMC, the Wisconsin Englishes Project studies the linguistic dynamics of the state and the Indigenous Languages Preservation and Promotion project works to combat the death of American Indian languages in the state.
With its mixture of ethnic influences, Wisconsin was bound to offer plenty of challenging place names for Veregin’s gazetteer, such as Muscoda, Weyauwega and Shawano. Then there’s the way Wisconsinites talk, which is what fascinates Joe Salmons (Professor of German), Eric Raimy (Associate Professor of English) and Tom Purnell (Associate Professor of English). The three directors of the Wisconsin Englishes Project co-edited a book called Wisconsin Talk that is due out later this year.
Raimy calls Wisconsin “a wonderful, natural language lab” for understanding human language as a whole, because of its diverse set of indigenous languages, heavy immigrant influence and position (right in the middle of the country, where it will be influenced by changes coming from both the east and the west).
All of which can make determining exactly “how” to correctly pronounce a city, county or village name quite difficult — and even contentious. For her site and, thus, Pronounce Wisconsin, Johnson consulted with county clerks, librarians, chambers of commerce and local businesses and residents to get a consensus on difficult names.
Still, there are a handful of divisive pronunciations — think Racine — where even locals can’t agree. And, while Johnson’s pronunciations are clear, they’re also formal, as opposed to how a native speaker would naturally say the names. Raimy wonders if it would be possible to record high school students from each area to get an authentic, native sound.
Veregin welcomes any such suggestions. He’s looking for ideas for a future next-generation version of the map.
“We’re interested in feedback,” he says. “We’re interested in ideas on how to extrapolate what’s next for this.”