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  • The Pronunciation of Missouri:Variation and Change in American English
  • Donald M. Lance

Why do some people say Missour-ee and others say Missour-uh? Which one is "correct"? The spellings in early documents and comments made in print since the late 1600s indicate the existence of considerable variation in the pronunciations of all three vowels and the medial consonant in the word Missouri. An individual may attempt to account for a particular pronunciation on the basis of spelling or on "how the Indians said the word." In answering the opening questions, this article will take a brief look at "what the Indians said" to early explorers and how nineteenth-century Missouri Indians said the word and then examine evidence from several sources, the most important being the Linguistic Atlas Projects.

We know that the Siouan tribe living near the Missouri River did not use the word Missouri before they had borrowed it from the French voyageurs, because a neighboring tribe from a different language family is the source of the name. When Jacques Marquette (1637–75) and Louis Jolliet (1645– 1700) were exploring the Mississippi Valley in 1673, they visited the Peorias (a group within the Illinois branch of the Algonquian Indians) near the mouth of the Des Moines River and asked them "to give us all the information that they had about the sea [Bassin de la Floride, i.e., Gulf of Mexico] and about the nations through whom we must pass to reach it" (Marquette 2001, 23). They stayed with the Peorias from 25 June until the end of the month (21, 30). On their voyage, Marquette and Jolliet collected information from a variety of sources, and Marquette made a map of their journey after he had returned to Green Bay following the end of the voyage (Tucker 1942, plate V). Figure 1 reproduces a portion of Marquette's map from a facsimile of the original published as a fold-out appendix in Shea (1852). Marquette drew teepees, each representing approximately 100 inhabitants, to depict Indian villages, commenting that the Peoria village "consists of fully 300 cabins" (2001, 24).

Marquette placed the Missouri Indians southwest of the Peorias on the west side of a tributary of the Mississippi River. He used the names [End Page 255] for the people and R. for the tributary. Marquette was still using a symbol for /u/ and /w/ that Pierre La Ramée had introduced into French orthography as part of an unsuccessful attempt at spelling reform a century earlier (Rickard 1968, 46–47). The symbol was an , with two hornlike protrusions at the top, as shown in figure 1, often transliterated as ou.

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figure 1.

Location of Missouri Indians on Marquette's 1673 Map

In the Illinois language, the term that Marquette wrote as means 'one who has a canoe'. It is often assumed that the Illinois used this term because the Siouan tribes living along the rapidly flowing Missouri River used big canoes carved from logs, whereas the Peorias used smaller birch-bark canoes (cf. Lance 1999 and sources cited therein). The Algonquianist Michael McCafferty (pers. com., 2002) at Indiana University points out, however, that the Illinois used dugout canoes similar to those of the Siouan tribes after migrating to the Illinois and Mississippi River area. Though the missour- part of the word Missouri consists of deep-structure lexical roots that may be translated as 'big' + 'watercraft', this Illinois composite (always accompanied by a suffix) simply refers to a canoe as opposed to smaller watercraft. The name given for the river () was an Illinois term meaning 'muddy water' (literally, 'it mud-flows').

Early explorers in the Mississippi Valley used a variety of spellings of the Algonquian name for the Missouri Indians, the earliest of which are as follows (Hodge 1907; Harrington 1951): [End Page 256]

Though the suffixes -ite and -ita, and perhaps Marquette's -it, may look suspiciously Latinate, they are Algonquian grammatical markers. According to McCafferty (pers. com., 2002), the root of is a composite consisting of /mihs/ 'big' and /u:r/ 'watercraft', and the spoken form would have ended with /i/, indicating an inanimate noun, thus /mi'hsu:ri...


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pp. 255-284
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Archived 2005
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