Why Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Don't Have The Same Pronunciation For many cities and towns across the U.S. that have Old World European names, their pronunciation doesn't quite match with the namesake. Linguist Amelia Tseng helps explain why that might be the case.
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Why Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Don't Have The Same Pronunciation

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Why Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Don't Have The Same Pronunciation

Why Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Don't Have The Same Pronunciation

Why Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Don't Have The Same Pronunciation

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/705594604/705594605" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

For many cities and towns across the U.S. that have Old World European names, their pronunciation doesn't quite match with the namesake. Linguist Amelia Tseng helps explain why that might be the case.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yesterday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we made a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

...Was in Leemah (ph), Ohio, today.

You heard that right. That was me mispronouncing Lima, Ohio. I am so sorry. My sincere apologies to all of you fine Buckeyes out there listening. But it did get me thinking about other places around the U.S. that are not pronounced the way they are in the old country.

SUE TREMBLAY: We do get them in mispronunciation, and it's always - we always know that they're not from around here if they call it Berlin.

CHANG: That somewhat weary voice is Sue Tremblay in the city of Berlin, N.H.

TREMBLAY: And then when it's really cold, they say Burr-lin (ph).

KELLY: All right, Tripoli - it's the capital of Libya. But in Iowa, they say Tripolah (ph). Rochelle Keuthe works at the Tripoli Public Library. She says locals are understanding when people get it wrong.

ROCHELLE KEUTHE: The natives, Tripolians - they just take it in stride. Because of the way it's spelled, it looks like it would be Tripoli, doesn't it?

CHANG: American University linguist Amelia Tseng has an explanation for how these names evolved - phonological adaptation.

AMELIA TSENG: Which is just the idea that words borrowed into another language over time adapt to the sound system of that language.

KELLY: Yeah. As more and more people in a city or town start to speak a different language from when it was settled or named, the old pronunciation fades away.

CHANG: Or in some cases, Tseng says, the old world way of saying it never arrived in the first place.

TSENG: There's also examples where the name has always been pronounced in that particular United States context with an English pronunciation because the name was just picked by the people who lived there because they liked the name; they weren't originally speakers of the language that the name came from.

KELLY: We're not sure if that is what happened in Prague, Okla., hometown of my grandfather. But Jerel Johnson, the funeral director at Parks Brothers Funeral Service, has a theory on how Prog (ph) became Prague.

JEREL JOHNSON: It was settled during the Land Run (ph) times when everybody was getting a fresh start. So they didn't want to forget their roots but at the same time had a chance to reset and start something new.

CHANG: Well, no matter how Prague got its Oklahoma twist, rest assured that we will never call Leemah - that we will never call Lima Leemah again (laughter) even though I just did.

(LAUGHTER)

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