Pronunciation of Alaskan words

I’ve noticed that a lot of my blog hits are people who came looking for guides to pronouncing Alaskan words. So without further ado, here’s one lifelong Alaskan’s guide to the standard pronunciation of Alaskan words (as pronounced in English, mind you – these are not correct pronunciation in the Alaska Native languages these words came from, where applicable).

place names

  • Denali [dəˈnæːli] – rhymes with valley, not folly.
  • Talkeetna [tælˈkit.nə] – first syllable rhymes with Al and gal. Tal-KEET-nuh.
  • Valdez [vælˈdiːz] – rhymes with geez and knees, so it’s val-DEEZ. That’s right, it’s a mangled Spanish surname. Even so, the town is not pronounced as if Spanish.
  • Seward [su.ə˞d] – until I had a tourism job, I wouldn’t have thought you could get this one wrong. It’s just pronounced like sewer with a d tacked onto the end
  • Yakutat [ˈjæk.ə.tæt]- yak, like the animal. YAK-uh-tat.
  • Chugach [ˈtʃuː.gætʃ] – the name of the mountain range that surrounds Anchorage, as well as a state and national forest. Pronounced CHEW-gatch.
  • Tongass [ˈtʰɑŋ.gəs]- TONG-iss. Growing up, I was always taught to pronounce this Tsongass, which matches the spelling ts. However, now I see Tongass in media sources more often. The Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States and the world’s largest non-tropical rainforest. Since I don’t speak Tlingit, I don’t what it really should be, but Alaskans say TSONG-iss or TONG-iss. [If the correct Tlingit pronunciation begins with [t] and not [ts], then this would be a neat example of hypercorrection in a loan word.]
  • Wasilla [wa.ˈsɪl.ə] – wah-SILL-uh. Now infamous for being a certain Alaskan governor’s hometown. I believe it derives from the Russian name Vasily, but I don’t have an etymological dictionary handy at the moment.

names of Alaska Native peoples

  • Tlingit [ˈklɪŋ.kɪt] – KLINK-it. One of the Alaska Native peoples of Southeast Alaska, and also the name of their language. I believe it’s pronounced [ɬɪŋkɪ́t] in Tlingit itself, but everyone I know who is Tlingit says [ˈklɪŋ.kɪt], so great is the influence of English.
  • Aleut [ˈæl.i.ut] – AL-ee-oot. Called Unangan in their own language, these are the indigenous people of, not surprisingly, the Aleutian peninsula.

other

  • cheechako [tʃiˈtʃɑk.oʊ] – chee-CHAWK-oh. This is the word for someone new to Alaska. Not always flattering, as in ‘fresh off the turnip trunk’. The opposite of a cheechako is a sourdough, someone who’s lived in Alaska a long time.
  • ulu [ˈuː.lu] – OOH-loo. A semicircular knife used by Eskimo women. Found – in much fancified form – in tourist traps statewide.

That’s all that comes to mind at the moment. Feel free to ask about any others I haven’t listed.

If you’re interested in indigenous Alaskan place names rather than how Alaskan place names are pronounced in Alaskan English, there’s a nice article by James Kari and James Fall here. It focuses mainly on Dena’ina names – and therefore southcentral Alaska – but it’s chock-full of place names and the meanings behind them.

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Metathesis

In the “shirts I would wear if the irony wouldn’t be lost on most people” category:

metathesis

This post was prompted by my father, who rants about people saying aks instead of ask, and then turns around and says chipolte instead of chipotle.

Thinking about how many English speakers I’ve heard saying chipolte [tʃɪpoʊlteɪ] rather than [tʃɪpoʊtleɪ], I have to wonder what prompted this. I’d assume that the original Nahuatl word has the lateral affricate [], which was unpacked to [tl] in Spanish before being borrowed into English. But then what triggered the metathesis? Since [tl] is a perfectly acceptable sequence in English (provided there’s a syllable break between them), why have so many English speakers metathesized to [lt] here? Is metathesis simply becoming more common in American English? I supppose I’d need to know whether people are learning this as [tʃɪpoʊtleɪ] and then metathesizing or learning it as [tʃɪpoʊlteɪ] to being with. Hm…

Kalaallisut text-to-speech

Stumbled across this Kalaallisut (West Greenlandic) text-to-speech site the other day. It’s not very sophisticated – the creator didn’t include all the required phonemes, for one thing – but it’s not every day you see speech synthesis that isn’t Indo-European, Japanese, or Chinese. Does anyone know of any other speech synthesis projects involving Eskimo-Aleut languages?

Having tried speech synthesis in an advanced lab phon course, I know it’s much more difficult than it seems. I’m impressed when anyone can get results that sound even vaguely like they should. It strikes me that for a language like Kalaallisut, too, phrasing and intonation becomes more important in synthesized speech – less overlook-able, if you will – due to the tendency for very long words. Perhaps that’s just a symptom of my not being a speaker of the language, though.