Wisconsin is the English spelling of Ouisconsin, which is the French rendering of Meskonsing, which is the Indian name for the river that runs through the center of the state.
And in that state the town of Menomonie, county of Menominee, and village of Menomonee Falls all honor the same tribe of Indians.
So when the time comes to stop spelling and start pronouncing, you should already sense trouble ahead. Wisconsin’s rolling hills are lovely to drive through, but you take your dignity in your own hands when you pull over and ask for directions.
Wisconsin is home to all kinds of hard-to-pronounce places, from Antigo, Ahnapee, and Allouez to Weyauwega, Wyocena, and Wonewoc. An educated guess might just contribute to your verbal blunders, and being bilingual could actually get in the way. For example, Spanish speakers might have a hard time with Buena Vista (BYOO-nuh VIHS-tuh), which is Spanish (BWAY-nuh VEES-tah) for beautiful view. Fond du Lac (FAHN-d’lak), which means bottom of the lake, as that city is located at the south end of Lake Winnebago, would certainly be pronounced differently by someone speaking French. Just don’t ask me; I speak Wisconsin.
Even the simplest place-names aren’t. Contrary to DC comics, Gotham is pronounced GOH-thum. If it were pronounced Wah-KEESH-uh, Waukesha might be a lovely name for a girl. But in Wisconin we say WAH-keh-shah, so it is not. When driving to the Morel Mushroom Festival in Muscoda, be sure to ask for MUHS-kuh-day. You’re more likely to get there. And in Shawano, no one saw any reason to put up with so many vowels. So SHAW-noh it is. Oconomowoc has even more vowels, and they all happen to be o’s. But with a little practice oh-KAH-nah-mah-wahk rolls off the tongue.
If you’re thinking of exploring the state’s north woods, you might want to leave it at that—”north woods.” There are lots of ways to say “Chequamegon National Forest,” but aside from shu-WAH-muh-guhn, none is the right one. Then there’s the place named Lake Butte des Morts for a nearby Indian burial mound. How unpleasant it looks. But as Lake BYOO-deh-mohr it sounds like a gated community. When midwesterners get their hands on a fine French place-name, there’s never any telling what the results will be. In Wisconsin, Lac Courte Oreilles is rendered as lah-COO-da-ray.
You might suppose there is an international consensus on the correct way to say Rio. And if we limit that consensus to pretty much everyone else in the world, you would be correct. But include the Wisconsin village of REYE-oh, roughly midway between Baraboo and Beaver Dam, and the consensus falls apart.
And within Wisconsin, there are variants. The city of Alma (EL-muh) is pronounced one way, the village of Alma (ALL-muh) Center another. As for the town of Two Rivers—sorry, T’Rivers—one of the two banished letters was silent anyway.
If you master the state’s place names, you can still run into other navigational problems: Wisconsin’s got eight towns called Washington, seven Scotts, seven Unions, and a dozen Lincolns. And Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, but Wisconsin has more than 15,000. So many, in fact, that we ran out of names: there are 150 places to splash called Mud Lake.