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Monday, April 5, 2010

Grav-oy or Grav-wah?: P-D Settles Question Once and For All

Posted By on Mon, Apr 5, 2010 at 1:45 PM

click to enlarge So is it the Grav-oy Bootery or the Grav-wah Beuter-ee? - IMAGE SOURCE
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  • So is it the Grav-oy Bootery or the Grav-wah Beuter-ee?

The Post-Dispatch's Life Sherpa is undoubtedly the most challenging gig in St. Louis journalism. Advising people about how to live their lives is a hefty responsibility, especially when you add linguistic questions to the mix, like why is Gravois Avenue/Road pronounced "Grav-oy" instead of the more French "Grav-wah"?

Life Sherpa is a full-service columnist. Instead of retorting, "Because we are dumbass Midwesterners who willfully mispronounce everything French except for, oddly enough, Des Peres" (as Unreal might have done) the Life Sherpa -- or rather, his alter ego, Joe Holleman -- went out and talked to some actual linguists to get some answers.

His findings were actually sort of surprising.

Although it is true that "Grav-wah" is the correct modern French pronunciation, back in the days when the Midwest was still being explored and named, French people pronounced the "-ois" ending as "-oy." St. Louis, being a very tradition-bound place, never bothered to switch.

(OK, so the shift happened around the time of the French Revolution in 1789, according to Saint Louis University French professor Angela Smart. But still.)

The rest of the article offers no scholarly explanation for other peculiar St. Louis pronunciations, like "Belle-fountain" (Bellefontaine) and "Go-thee" (Goethe), only affirmation that people in other places that pronounce those words the exact same way -- there is a "Belle-fountain", Ohio -- or even mangle them worse -- Sacramento's "Gate-ee" Street.

And even people in New York, that sophisticated and international city, pronounce "Houston" as "How-ston." So there.

Though it has been long suspected that the Houston/Howston thing is a way of weeding out and humiliating tourists. Is that what's going on here?

"No!" cries Donna Andrews, the director of public relations at the St. Louis Convention and Tourism Bureau. "No! Don't say that!" A pause. "So...is it Grav-oy or Grav-wah?"

Upon hearing a summary of Holleman's findings, she was triumphant. "See? We know what we're doing around here!"

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