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From Gogebic To Hamtramck, Guide Demystifies Michigan Pronunciations

Sehvilla Mann

In the Southwest Michigan city of Dowagiac, people are used to hearing creative interpretations of the town's name.

“The biggest one that we hear, and I hear it all the time, is Duh-WAH-jee-ack,” Dowagiac Area History Museum Director Steve Arseneau said in the town that is actually pronounced Duh-WAH-jack.

“Duh-WAH-jee-ack, yeah, I hear that one a lot,” Keith Leighton said at a barbershop.

Debbie Rohdy runs a dog treat store and grooming business in Dowagiac. “Usually doctors’ offices, when you give them the area code and then they punch it in they go, ‘Okay, now tell me the name of the city,” she said. The caller is trying to avoid getting the name wrong.

“I always hear Duh-WAH-jee-ack. Like, lose the ‘I,” David Hollister said at a yarn shop. “There is an ‘I’ there. They just don’t know to ignore it.”

Of course, Dowagiac is not the only place whose name, on paper, doesn’t give much away. Look at a map anywhere in the country and you’re likely to find place names you can’t pronounce. It’s humbling to try your best and still get it wrong.

But in Michigan, no one need feel this kind of distress. That’s because a state website explains how to pronounce just about any place in both peninsulas. Dowagiac is among its close to 2000 entries.

The “You Say It How in Michigan?” guide also covers notable people and even favorite foods and pastimes.

It’s a project of Michigan’s Braille and Talking Book Library, where, librarian Betsie Branch explains, volunteers record books for people who can’t use standard print. Branch says that includes books set in the state.

“A lot of those materials have Michigan place names that aren’t always so easy to pronounce,” she said. Branch says she looked for a guide, but couldn’t find one. “So I said let’s make our own.”

Branch says making the guide public was the easiest way to get it to the talking book library’s volunteers. But that also means it’s there for anyone in the world who’s stumped by a Michigan place name. If the guide doesn’t cover every community, it must come close. Branch says that as she researched, she came across town’s she’d never heard of.

“A lot of them are so small that they probably won’t be printed in a book that we’re going to record,” she said.

But she put them in anyway.

“Maybe that’s the librarian in me just wanting to be complete and have it all included," she said.

Audio files let users hear the name, not just read it. The first place in the list is Acme, a rural township in northern Lower Michigan. The last is the Saginaw County of Zilwaukee.

Some famous Michiganders get a nod, among them Aretha Franklin and Derek Jeter.

There’s also an entry for the card game euchre and a favorite baked good spelled p-a-s-t-y.

“Don’t say PASTE-ee, don’t say pastry, it’s definitely PASS-tee,” Branch said.

The guide gives two correct pronunciations for Michigan’s biggest city.

“People in other parts of the state say DUH-troit,” Branch said, “And people around the Detroit area say DEE-troit.” Talking book readers can take their pick.

After the guide launched about two and a half years ago, the library amended a couple of entries where, it turned out, it got the name wrong.

As the Morning Sun of Alma reported, the community of Weidman in Isabella County is not pronounced WIDE-man, but rather WADE-man by people who live there. And in Gratiot County, Pompeii, a tiny town spelled like the ancient city, is pronounced POMP-ee-eye.

Jen Coleman says she’s lived in Pompeii for thirty years. She hadn’t heard about the “You say it how in Michigan?” guide. But she thinks it’ll come in handy for more than just Pompeii.

“I still laugh when I hear people say Shar-LOAT, Michigan or OH-kee-mose,” she said of Charlotte (“shar-LOT”) and Okemos (“OAK-uh-miss”).

“And a lot of them up north - you know, Sault Sainte Marie I’m sure is on there and even Mackinac I’m sure is on there,” she added.

Mackinac with that tricky “c” on the end is definitely on the list.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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