Spotlight: What's the right way to say 'Gravois'? Answer may not be what you think : Lifestyles
Changes in French language never made it 18th-century St. Louis
If you’ve lived in St. Louis for any length of time, at least since before phones could give directions to drivers, there is a good chance someone has pulled up and asked how they could get to “Grah-vwah.”
They mean “Gravv-oy.”
Surely, these sophisticated sojourners must have headed on their way with the conviction that St. Louisans don’t know how to pronounce their own streets.
Little do they know that no matter how you look at it, we can’t hardly be wrong.
First, linguistic professors will be the first to tell you that all cultures change the way foreign words are said.
Kirk Hazen, of the University of West Virginia, said any tourist who says a city is mispronouncing its own street and places names “is being remarkably presumptuous.”
He noted that “once we borrow words into English, we use our own phonology, which is what we call the rules system (of a language).”
So that means saying Goethe Street as “go-thee” instead of “gurr-tah” is acceptable, just like when New Yorkers say Houston Street like “How-ston.”
But all of that may miss a far more elementary fact:
Saying Gravois as “Gravv-oy” instead of “Grah-vwah” just might indeed be the correct way to say it.
Annie Smart, chairwoman of the French department at St. Louis University, said the way St. Louisans say “Gravois” probably is the proper pronunciation, especially if you’re asking a Frenchman who arrived in the Mississippi Valley before 1790.
“Gravois,” that popular name for streets, roads, creeks and mills, first came to America as a surname well before the French Revolution of the 1780s. Smart explained that the suffix “ois” actually was pronounced “oy” instead of “wah” before the revolution.
“In old French, the ‘o-i-s’ was pronounced with a twang, ‘oy,’” said Smart, also explaining why folks in this area pronounce Illinois and Courtois the way they do.
The original pronunciation might have disappeared in France after the revolution, when there was a concerted effort to standardize the French phonology. Pronunciations were officially changed and 30 or so dialects were standardized to produce a common tongue, she said.
Smart said these changes in France did not travel much across the Atlantic Ocean, which led to the continuation, with little or no change, of Quebec French, Louisiana French and Paw Paw French.
“And that type of French, Paw Paw, was spoken around here, centered in the Old Mines/Ste. Genevieve area,” Smart said.