Sunday, June 7, 2015

St. Louis Street Name Pronunciation

I love St. Louisans who grew up in the city, live in the city and root down in the city.  Being an Illinoisan and now St. Louisan for 20 years, I get constant joy from hearing how people talk and pronounce St. Louis names and streets and buildings.  

These real people give us that local linguistic soul, dialect and annunciation that I've come to appreciate over the years.  Being in the near geographic center of the U.S. affords us the opportunity to get tastes of how different people talk in this country...we might just be the melting pot of American diction.  Drive just an hour south of St. Louis in either Missouri or Illinois and you'll hear the countrified rural drawl...not like the deep south, but definitely southern.  Drive north of Decatur, IL for a taste of the Polish/Chicago thing.  Near the Iowa border with Missouri you get a taste of the Northern Midwest thing (a taste of Brainerd from Joel and Ethan Coen's "Fargo") or Scandinavian diction.  Not Minnesota or Wisconsin...but getting a bit closer.

Scandinavian Midwestern Gold

Nationally, St. Louis is probably not recognized as having its own accent, but colloquially, we probably's just not well documented.  I think it is there buried in nuance  But a trained or curious ear can pick it up.

Look no further than local hip hop artist Nelly and actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer discussing the nuances of pronunciations in the St. Louis black community on the intro track to Nelly's still kick ass recording "Country Grammar".  I love hearing that nuance when I talk to people.

St. Louis needs its own Alan Lomax, the famous theoretician of folk linguistics (and one of my favorite Americans), to investigate and record these weird sounds and dialects and pronunciations from my fellow St. Louisans.  St. Louis University should get a sociology or languages grad student to take this on :)

Anyhow, as I continue to traverse this city, I'm usually on my scooter which is the perfect vehicle to drum up conversations with strangers.  People want to talk when they see a dude on a scooter.  "How much mileage you get?"  "How fast does that thing go?"  "You need insurance on that?", "You look stupid on that thing" catch my drift.

Memories of Billy and Benny McCrary dance through my 1970s memory banks every time I turn the key of my low cc ride...

Anyhow, a two-wheeled vehicle, a motorcycle helmet covering my ears and a clunky camera around my neck means you can't safely use GPS, so I often find myself asking people for directions to certain buildings or streets.  Sometimes the street pronunciations I hear back are truly entertaining.

I am providing this list for new comers.  This is how the locals pronounce the following streets:

Gratiot = Gra'-chit
Gravois = Grav'-oy
Chouteau = Sho'-to
Goethe = Go'-Thee
I-64 = For'-tee
Baden = Bay-den not Bah-den

Your highfalutin French is not needed here kind sir, this is how we/they roll it off the tongue in the STL.

I will add to the list as new discoveries are made.

But back to our great street names...

The St. Louis Public Library has compiled a list of all the St. Louis street names with a brief history. Glen Holt and Thomas A. Pearson of the Special Collections Department of the St. Louis Public Library are responsible for this fascinating resource.  Thank you, gentlemen, for your hard work and tireless research.  Your efforts have helped me understand and uncover the mysteries of my city and for that I am very thankful.  

So thinking about the work of Lomax, Holt and Pearson, why not embark on a field recording of St. Louis Street Pronunciations?  You could have the proper annunciation and the colloquial one side by side.  

But this has got to come from the real St. Louisan's, the ones who live on these streets...and this won't be hard, because St. Louis is a porch-sitting paradise in the summer.  People line the stoops in most neighborhoods, especially many of the all black neighborhoods in North City.

I had a conversation with an old man that I will never forget when I was photographing a park in North City.  He was hilarious and cool.  If half the shit was true, you could write a graphic novel about his view of his neighborhood.  He about laughed me out of the conversation when I grossly mispronounced Cabanne was like I almost offended him...and I ended up laughing too.  I now know how pronounce Cabanne in a way that won't get me laughed at.  But, I still don't have the proper pronunciation cemented in my brain to either match reality with or enjoy the play of local vs. proper. 

I imagine traveling to the more curiously named streets...microphone and recorder in hand and getting a sampling of the street names as pronounced by the hoi polloi.  You could add these tiny .wav files in a link next to the street names on the directory.

Hey Glen and Thomas, if our paths ever cross, let's talk!

Meanwhile, I'll keep logging my weird street names and the way I hear people say them.


  1. I've been here almost 3 years and am still not sure about a lot of the pronunciations. I avoid Gratiot in conversation as much as possible. And Chouteau. And Cote Brilliante.

    I did catch on to Forty and Bread Co.

    But how do you say "Cabanne"? I've heard Ca-ban. And Ca-ban-ne.

  2. O man, those street names can be surprising. When I came here for the first time (2011), I had to change my frame of mind. I come from the Netherlands, and my six years of French in high school may not have made me fluent in any way, but they did teach me how to pronounce French words. I still gets me in 'trouble' every now and then. The worst offender to me, though, is Vandeventer.

    Deventer is a city in the east of the Netherlands, and 'Van Deventer' would indicate that someone is named because he's from there. The pronunciation took me years, and when my family come over for a visit and recognized the street, I almost felt like I was betraying them when I 'corrected' them. Luckily, wikipedia can teach you how to properly pronounce it (the 'Van' part is closest to saying 'Vonn'):

  3. Hi, people! I'm from Brazil and I've been to Saint Louis some years ago. I loved your city! It's simply amazing!!! I visited the Budweiser factory, the Baseball stadium, the City Museum (thrilling!), I ate a delicious hot dog on the street, I touched the river, I went up the Arch , I hang around the square around The Old Courthouse, and some other things... I know I didn't see all the possibilities but that was unforgettable for me! Thanks for making me so happy!!
    Now, I'd like to know how you, native people, pronounce Louis.
    Thank you again!!!

  4. Thank you, thank you. I kind of stumbled onto this site and it's right up my alley. The alley behind Morganford, not Morgan Ford, thank you very much. My name issues escalate into rants when I watch local TV news. Here's one for you....Lami. I am hard core South St. Louis, have lived here over 70 years and we say Lam'-eye. First time I heard a radio commercial for a business named "Lammy-something" in historic south St. Louis - on a street by the same name, it took awhile to build up a rant because I had no idea what they were talking about. Lammy in historic south St. Louis? Where's that? Then there is Menard, pronounced for generations "Men'-ard. Just a little off base, but it's OUR off base so why change it now? Yes, I know we fracture the French, German and even English names, but please leave us to it because we are still recuperating from learning that the use of "Shaw's Garden" is illegal or something. My Dad always told us that if any one ever asked for directions to the Missouri Botanical Garden, we would know they were tourists. We were to be polite because they were technically correct and being tourists, had no way of knowing that no one in St. Louis ever says that. Oh boy, listen to us now, MoBot and all!