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Talk Like a Local with Pronounce Wisconsin

Thousands of people driving over the Highway 80 bridge on the lower Wisconsin River and seeing the sign have likely thought the same thing: How do you pronounce Muscoda? 

Of course here in Wisconsin we have the W’s—Wausaukee, Weyauwega, Wonewoc, and the like—all of which can be extremely challenging to non-natives. But what to make of places like Alma, Gotham, and Rio, whose pronunciations fly in the face of convention and befuddle longtime Wisconsin residents and visitors alike?

Well, thanks to Pronounce Wisconsin, a new online mapping application released by the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office (SCO), you don’t have to feel like visitor to your own state. This creative tool locates and provides audio pronunciations for over 1,700 Wisconsin places—including counties, cities, villages, and unincorporated places—though an easy-to-use online map interface. By mousing over map locations, users can hear how the names of these places are pronounced. 

Pronounce Wisconsin is a collaborative effort between the SCO and Jackie Johnson, creator of misspronouncer.com, a website created in 2007 to help people correctly pronounce names of people, places, and phenomena specific to Wisconsin. 

A veteran reporter and anchor for the Madison-based Wisconsin Radio Network, Johnson had been through enough governmental meetings to hear Wisconsin people and place names butchered by legislators when she got the idea for a comprehensive online audio archive. 

Johnson records the audio files for place names herself after verifying correct pronunciation, often by picking up the phone and asking people who live there. “[I call] the tourism department, the city council, somebody. Often, the phone number on a website is actually the mayor’s home number,” she says. 

While the audio technology has been around for some time, Pronounce Wisconsin is the first to apply it to a comprehensive set of place names easily found through an interactive map to create a kind of online pronouncing gazetteer, a list of places used in conjunction with a map or atlas that provides place name pronunciations.

Pronounce Wisconsin actually began as an effort by the SCO to compile an authoritative map of Wisconsin’s more than one thousand unincorporated places. Areas with a concentration of people that is geographically excluded from an incorporated city or village, unincorporated palaces do not have legal boundaries or official government functions. Yet people from all over the state consider themselves residents of areas like Cayuga, East Krok, Langes Corners, and Valmy. 

One difficulty with unincorporated places is that they are not tracked by any single agency. For example, only a handful of the largest unincorporated places are identified by the US Census Bureau, which refers to them as CDPs. Attempts to enumerate and map unincorporated places in Wisconsin have led to inconsistent results, with no real consensus about how many of them exist. 

Students and staff at the SCO compared available data sources to create and integrated unincorporated place dataset. Sources included the Wisconsin Department of Transportation county map series, a listing prepared by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and hardcopy and digital maps maintained by individual counties.

Indeed, Pronounce Wisconsin is a project that has benefitted tremendously from student assistance and support. Data development, which included hours and hours of verifying unincorporated place names and locations, was provided by students in the GIS Certificate Program at UW–Madison. The current dataset for the site contains 1051 unincorporated places, all of which are displayed with their pronunciates. 

The Pronounce Wisconsin website was built using open source software, with a back end comprised of a Postgres/PostGIS database as well as statatic GeoJSON files and a front end that utilizes CSS and Javascript for smooth navigation. Audio files for place names are links imported directly from MissPronouncer.com, where all the audio data is recorded and maintained by Johnson.

Contributors

Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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