It’s no secret that many U.S. cities and towns were named after places around the world — America is a melting pot. What is surprising is the pronunciation of these names. Aside from their spelling, they seem to veer far from their inspiration. Some of these differences are on purpose, while others likely just come down to local accents. Do you know how to pronounce these U.S. town names? It’s not easy if you’re an experienced world traveler.
Local pronunciation: AY-thenz
Athens, Greece, pronunciation: ATH-enz
This small town in central Illinois might share a name with the capital of Greece, but that’s where the similarities end. While the Greek pronunciation is “ATH-enz,” in Illinois, the first syllable rhymes with “bay,” so the name is pronounced “AY-thenz.” However, other U.S. cities named Athens — including the college town of Athens, Georgia — pronounce it the same way as the Greek capital city.
Local pronunciation: BER-lin
Berlin, Germany, pronunciation: ber-LIN
This is a subtle, yet important difference. Connecticut Berliners put an emphasis on the first syllable of Berlin, while essentially everyone else in the world emphasizes the second syllable, as in the name of the capital of Germany. According to New England lore, the pronunciation of the Connecticut town was changed during World War II to avoid association with Germany. The neighboring town of East Berlin is also pronounced in this unusual way.
Cairo, New York
Local pronunciation: CARE-oh
Cairo, Egypt, pronunciation: KYE-roh
Nestled in the Hudson River Valley, the quiet town of Cairo seems to be the opposite of its bustling Egyptian counterpart in every way — even in pronunciation. For New Yorkers, the first syllable of this name rhymes with “fair,” pronounced “CARE-oh.” Locals can immediately tell who is not from the region — everyone else pronounces the name like the Egyptian capital city, “KYE-roh,” which rhymes with “eye.”
Local pronunciation: juh-NO-ah
Genoa, Italy, pronunciation: JEH-no-uh
Genoa, Italy, is a northern port city known for its namesake salami, which is also pronounced “JEH-no-uh.” For Nevadans, the small town of “juh-NO-ah” is located just south of Reno, near Lake Tahoe. Genoa was the first permanent settlement in Nevada, named by Mormon settlers after the Italian birthplace of Christopher Columbus.
Local pronunciation: LYE-muh
Lima, Peru, pronunciation: LEE-ma
Perhaps best known as the setting of the musical television series “Glee,” the town of Lima, Ohio, is often a victim of mispronunciation. In 1831, the town was named after the capital city of Peru by Judge Patrick G. Goode. He used the original Spanish pronunciation, but to his dismay, many still said “LYE-muh” — like lima beans. But why did Goode name the town after the Peruvian capital in the first place? At the time, there was a malaria outbreak in the region, and the vaccine that fought the disease was manufactured in Lima, Peru.
Local pronunciation: MEL-burn
Melbourne, Australia, pronunciation: MEL-bin
This is a subtle difference, and it mostly comes down to the Aussie versus American accents. Most Americans pronounce Melbourne, Florida, and Melbourne, Australia, the same way, but Down Under, locals call their coastal city “MEL-bin.” It is common for Australian words to sound more relaxed — syllables are often skipped or understated, as heard in other Australian city names such as Canberra (pronounced “CAN-bra”) and Brisbane (pronounced “BRIS-bin”).
Monticello, Minnesota/Indiana/New York (and more)
Local pronunciation: mon-ti-SELL-oh
Monticello, Italy, pronunciation: mon-tee-CHEL-oh
Several towns across the United States called “Monticello” have gone with the pronunciation of “monti-SELL-o.” However, the inspiration for these towns was likely Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia, and the Jefferson family pronounced it the Italian way: “mon-tee-CHEL-oh.” The town names were likely a result of Americanizing the Italian accent, or perhaps a case of reading a word and not knowing the correct pronunciation.
Over time, the popular pronunciation of Jefferson’s former home has shifted to “monti-SELL-o” as well. This error is likely the fault of NBC, which released a pronunciation guide for newscasters in 1966, listing “monti-SELL-o” as the correct pronunciation. That version stuck around and is still widely used today, even if it is technically incorrect. As for the source of the name, Jefferson’s home was influenced by Italian architecture and culture, so he named the estate after a Tuscan village called Monticello, meaning “little hill.”
Local pronunciation: POMP-ee-eye
Pompeii, Italy, pronunciation: pom-PAY
Although Pompeii, Michigan, is spelled like the ancient Italian city, its vowels are pronounced very differently. In 1854, the town name was changed from “Joe B’s” (after settler Joseph B. Smith) to “Pompei” with one “i.” It wasn’t until the early 1900s that a second “i” was added to the end of the name to match the spelling of the Italian city.
Local pronunciation: ver-SALES
Versailles, France, pronunciation: ver-SIGH
This small town in western Ohio was originally named “Jacksonville” (after President Andrew Jackson), but in 1837, it was renamed by French immigrants to pay tribute to the wealthy Parisian suburb that is home to King Louis XIV’s world-renowned palace. There are at least 10 cities in the United States with the name Versailles, and all of them use the American version of the pronunciation, where the second syllable is pronounced as “SALES” rather than “SIGH.”
Local pronunciation: VEYE-EN-uh
Vienna, Austria, pronunciation: VEE-EN-uh
The first syllable of this Illinois town rhymes with “my,” while the beginning of the Austrian city rhymes with “me.” Vienna is located on the southern end of Illinois and was named by William McFatridge in the early 1800s. Town legend says it was named after his daughter, but when genealogists could find no evidence of McFatridge having a daughter named Vienna, locals assumed it was named after the capital of Austria.
Featured image credit: JimVallee/ iStock