An Answer to Romney's Question, Is It 'Missour-ee' or 'Missour-uh'?

Campaigning in Missouri on Tuesday, Mitt Romney touched on the state's fundamental uncertainty: pronunciation.

"Now, he kept saying 'Missour-uh.'  How many people in this audience call it 'Missour-uh' rather than Missour-ee"" Romney asked at an event with former senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.). "Ok.  How many say Missouri like I do?"

After a show of hands, he continued: "Ok, I'm in Missour-ee right now. I think we're going to Missour-uh a little later today, yeah yeah.  We're going to be taking a trip over to Missour-uh!"

It's always a painful to see politicians struggle with folksy customs, but before we chalk this up as the latest awkward campaign foible, it bears mentioning: There is no right way to say "Missouri," but Romney made a good choice.

People say it both ways, a fact I can verify as a native Missourian. St. Louis, where Romney took his show of hands, is typically located in "Missour-ee" according to its residents. By general rule, "Missourah" is heard more frequently as one travels westward, deeper into the state.

Both pronunciations are accepted, but they carry some cultural signifiers.

"Today the pronunciations have become strongly ideologized for many Missourians," according to University of Missouri English and linguistics Prof. Matthew Gordon, who notes that St. Louis . "Obviously, the '-ee' pronunciation serves as the unmarked choice while use of '-uh' marks the speaker in some way. So, the latter is seen as more 'country' by urban people or as old-fashioned by many young people, etc."

Thankfully, former University of Missouri English professor Donald Lance made a hobbyhorse out of the state-name pronunciation-the Missouri Historical Society notes that he was well known for his lectures on the topic before his death in 2002. In his paper  "The Pronunciation of Missouri: Variation and Change in American English," Lance noted that the "Missour-uh" pronunciation is not of Southern origin, as it is often believed to be-but that it could be a leveling of the truly rural pronunciation "Missour-eye." Other linguists speculated, without evidence, that "Missour-uh" was an overcorrection by self-conscious rural types, who fought their instincts to pronounce carbonated drinks, for instance, as "sod-ee," replacing "Missour-ee" with "Missour-uh" to avoid mockery from the burghers.

In the early 1900s "Missour-ee" was the chosen pronunciation of so-called "cultured speakers," who led a mass adoption of the "high-vowel" "Missour-ee", according to this chart from Lance's paper:

The regional divide is specific: residents of western, and particularly north-western, Missouri live in "Missour-uh." Lance also noted the results of a survey conducted for AAA's Midwest Motorist magazine by a journalist from Kansas City and another from St. Louis in 1976, then repeated by the latter in 1988:

Linguists have pointed out that Missouri is a Cuisinart of regional dialects, and Lance argued that Missouri can't be sliced into pronunciational sections. That's reflected in the peppering of "Missour-uh" and "Missour-ee" across the state-and in the relatively meager divide, only 57 percent to 64 percent, across the boundary shown above.

But let's not hastily deem western Missourians "uncultured" for their relatively frequent  schwas: In 1945, most University of Missouri students said it that way. As Lance polled his students over several decades,  "Missour-uh" gradually diminished in his small samples, especially after World War II. The Southeast, St. Louis, and Northeast regions led the way, suggesting "Missour-ee" grew from the southeastern part of the state.

Romney's choice suits him, but not because he belongs to any cultured, urban elite.  Rather, it's more likely that this is Romney's natural tendency: Though Lance lacked data on Michigan, he found that Ohioans preferred "Missour-ee," and while western Massachussetts logged high "Missour-uh" incidence, Boston and the eastern half of the state didn't. If Romney switches to "Missour-uh," we might assume it a conscious decision, one made inevitably in the campaign-trail context.

Prof. Gordon, after all, pointed out that it's "almost a cliché that politicians from all over the state use the '-uh' form as a way of showing how 'connected' they are to the people. I joke with my students that you can't make a statewide political ad these days without mentioning 'Missouri values' and you have to pronounce it 'Missour-uh' in that context"

In other words: By sticking with "Missour-ee," the Michigan-born former Massachusetts governor avoided a pitfall of faux rusticity and stayed true to his high-vowel roots.