Sitting in my Research in the South class at IGHR this morning, I heard our instructor, Craig Scott, talking about the "Yam-see" indians in lowcountry South Carolina. Yam-see? Did he mean Yemassee (YEM-uh-SEE)? Enter the Parlez-vous Palmetto? The South Carolina Pronunciation Guide. Craig's preference (YAM-uh-see) is actually listed first, but with many generations of ancestors buried in Yemassee area cemeteries, I have always heard it called YEM-uh-SEE. The SC pronunciation guide says we are both correct.
There are times, however, when I've been downright wrong. I still remember the first time I was talking to someone about my ancestors in CHOW-un county in North Carolina and was told the correct pronunciation is actually Sho-WONN. How embarrassing! I bet, however, that some of you have run into similar situations when researching your ancestors in new localities. When it comes to place names, it is generally best to leave all preconceptions at the door. Beaufort, for example, is a place name in both North Carolina and South Carolina, named for proprietor Henry Somerset, the duke of Beaufort. Beaufort (BO-fert), N.C., carries the more historically accurate pronunciation, while in South Carolina they call it BU-fert. Pennsylvania is a state notorious for place names that aren't pronounced the way you might expect--just look at Schuylkill (SKOO-kill), DuBois (doo-BOYZ) and Versailles (ver-SAILS), and you'll understand what I mean. Even simple names like Carnegie create pronunciation controversies (for the record, I pronounce it car-NAY-gee).
If you want people to take you seriously when you're talking about ancestral places, take a little time and learn how to pronounce them like a native. Believe it or not, online pronunciation guides are available for a wide variety of localities. Here are a few to get you started: