Have you ever met someone from the Midwestern state of “Mih-zur-uh” or enjoyed a tropical vacation in “Ha-vai-ee?” Although linguists and language experts agree that there is no “correct” pronunciation for these state names, residents might feel differently. The majority of U.S. states are named after Native American, Spanish, or French roots, resulting in natural and different interpretations of these words. Just as people from other countries pronounce words differently, so do people from regions around the United States.
Pronunciations: Ne-VAD-uh or Ne-VAH-duh
According to the New York Times, Nevada is one of the most mispronounced state names — although there is no “official” pronunciation. The majority of Nevadans pronounce it “Ne-VAD-uh,” so that the second syllable rhymes with “bad,” not “awe.” When Nevada gained statehood in the mid-19th century, slews of Northerners and Midwesterners made their way to the new state. People from these regions tend to use a hard “a,” as opposed to a soft Southern “a,” heard in the alternate pronunciation. Nevada’s name references its snow-capped mountains and comes from the Spanish word for “snowy,” nevado. In Spanish, it also has a hard “a” sound, giving more weight to that pronunciation for the state name.
Pronunciations: WAH-shing-ton or WAR-shing-ton
The majority of the population says “WAH-shing-ton,” but around the Pacific Northwest and Midwest, you might still hear a nearly extinct pronunciation: “WAR-shing-ton.” Other variations include “WER-shing-ton” or “WOR-shing-ton,” depending on the regional dialect and how the vowel is pronounced. This quirk, which is gradually dying out, likely stems from a dialect called “New England English,” as many Seattle-area settlers were originally from New England. Linguists call this pronunciation the “R-insertion,” and it isn’t exclusive to the word “Washington.” Around the PNW and Midwest, you might still hear shouts of “Oh my garsh! I forgot my clothes were in the warsh!”
Pronunciations: Col-oh-RAD-oh or Col-oh-RAW-doe
Similar to “Nevada,” Colorado’s “a” vowel can be pronounced two different ways, rhyming with either “bad” or “awe.” Most Coloradans use the hard “a” pronunciation, rhyming with “bad,” although there is no “correct” pronunciation. The state was named after the Rio Colorado, from the Spanish word for “ruddy or reddish,” colorado. The Spanish pronunciation is “co-lo-rah-do,” which leans toward the soft “a” pronunciation of the state name.
Pronunciations: FLAW-rih-duh, FLOOR-ih-duh, or FLOOR-dah
The majority of Floridians use the first pronunciation (“FLAW-rih-duh,” where the first syllable rhymes with “saw”), which comes down to a variation in how Southerners pronounce vowels. Although the name “Florida” is of Spanish origin — from the Spanish name for Palm Sunday, Pascua florida, meaning “flowering Easter” — its local pronunciation is nothing like the Spanish pronunciation, “flo-RI-dah.”
Pronunciations: Mih-ZUR-ee or Mih-ZUR-uh
The biggest difference in the two main pronunciations of “Missouri” happens with the vowel sound at the end. Residents tend to use these pronunciations equally, though many out-of-staters use the pronunciation that rhymes with “jury.” The variation is due to the rural and urban divide of the population, in which residents in rural areas tend to use the pronunciation ending in “uh.” “Missouri” is derived from an Algonquin word meaning “people of the big canoes,” a name given to a group of Indigenous peoples from the Chiwere (Siouan) tribe.
Pronunciations: Ha-why, Ha-WI-ee, or Ha-VAI-ee
Hawai’i’s name was derived from the Proto-Polynesian word hawaiki, meaning "place of the gods.” Indigenous peoples, locals, and visitors pronounce the state name differently. Indigenous Hawaiians usually pronounce the second syllable with a “v,” as has been tradition for centuries. The transformation from “v” to “w” happened when early-19th-century English missionaries attempted to write down the entirely oral Hawaiian language. English translations couldn’t correctly capture how the native Hawaiians pronounced what we call “v” and “w.” Fast-forward 200 years, and visitors to Hawai’i and non-native residents tend to use the first two pronunciations, both with a “w.”
The spelling of “Hawai’i” also influences its pronunciation. The mark before the last “i” is called an “‘okina” and it’s actually a consonant in the Hawaiian language. It changes pronunciation (by representing a break) and can change a word’s meaning if it's accidentally excluded. This means the “correct” pronunciation of “Hawai’i” includes a break between the second and third syllables, and the “ha-why” pronunciation is incorrect.
Pronunciations: ORE-uh-gin or ORE-uh-gone or ORE-gan
Most Oregon residents prefer the first pronunciation, which rhymes with “win” (and has a hard “g,” unlike the alcohol), but it’s not uncommon to hear the other two pronunciations (or even a combination of them) around the state. This phenomenon happens naturally over time as vowel clarity is lost, causing pronunciation to change. Linguists sometimes refer to this process as “schwaification,” named after the most common vowel sound in English, “schwa” (as seen at the beginning and end of “America”).
Pronunciations: AR-kan-saw or Ar-KAN-sas
In 1881, the Arkansas General Assembly adopted a resolution that declared the correct pronunciation of the state name is “Ar-kan-saw” — but that hasn’t stopped people from pronouncing the second “s” at the end. Linguists call this a spelling pronunciation; because the second “s” is there, some people will pronounce it. To add to the confusion, the pronunciation of a similarly spelled U.S. state, Kansas, does use the second “s.” The pronunciation of an ending “s” is also heard with the state of Illinois, which is usually pronounced “Ill-ih-NOY,” but can also be heard with the “s” at the end, as in “Ill-ih-NOISE.”
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