BY RYAN WEBB, Eastern Shore Post
If you’re from here or you’ve been here long enough, you know that the Eastern Shore is home to many uniquely named places that can be tricky for outsiders to pronounce.
In the April 2023 issue of Shore First, I covered how to say (and not say) Chincoteague. In May’s issue, I discussed local and nonlocal pronunciations of Onancock. Be sure to check those out if you missed them.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the topic of pronunciations of local town and place names on the Eastern Shore often yields lively discussions online.
To research how locals have heard various Eastern Shore town and place names (mis)pronounced by outsiders, I turned to Facebook.
To be exact, I posed the question to the 11.2K members of the group Shoreborn, moderated by Barry Mears and dedicated to celebrating Eastern Shore living, for examples of these mispronunciations.
The group did not disappoint. The first discussion, which was originally posted on April 5, 2022, yielded 89 comments, while the second discussion, posted on March 18, 2023, generated 120 comments.
If you’re interested in reading the discussions, become a member of Shoreborn. Once you’re a member, you can find the threads by searching for #magine on the group page.
I’ve already discussed Chincoteague (SHINK-uh-tig) and Onancock (uh-NAN-kok), but another popular town that was frequently mentioned in these aforementioned Facebook discussions was The Little City by the Sea – Wachapreague.
Natives and even come-heres who have learned the local pronunciation say WATCH-uh-prig.
The stress, or emphasis, is on the first syllable (indicated in this column by bold, capital letters). The second syllable is unstressed.
If we split Wachapreague into its three constituent syllables: Wach-a -preague, the second syllable is that lone “a.”
The linguistic name for the vowel in this unstressed middle syllable is schwa. Basically, it has the same quality as the “a” in words like “about” or “emphasize.”
We tend to think of our vowels as having short and long sounds. For “a” the long sound is the same one that is heard in words like “day” or “place.” The short sound for “a” is the sound heard in words like “apple” or “cap.”
But schwa is neither of these. Instead it sounds like “uh.” And schwa is actually the most common vowel sound heard in spoken English.
The quick and relaxed way that we pronounce schwa allows unstressed syllables to be said more quickly so that the main beats can be placed more easily on stressed syllables.
Outsiders struggle with all three syllables of Wachapreague. Some aren’t sure how to pronounce that initial vowel sound.
They might give us a pronunciation like “WACK-uh-prig.” However, for locals and those initiated with the local pronunciation, the first “a” sounds like it does in the word “father.”
But wait, that’s not a long or short “a” sound, and it’s not a schwa, either. Welcome to the English-language learner’s nightmare — one letter can be pronounced at least four different ways.
How are you supposed to know which one to pick when you come across an unfamiliar word in print?
But it’s not just the initial vowel sound that gives outsiders trouble. Our old friend, the digraph “CH,” is also a site of confusion.
In Wachapreague, the “CH” is the familiar voiceless postalveolar affricate — or the sound heard in words like “choose” or “chain.”
It’s not pronounced as it is in Chincoteague, where it sounds more like “SH” (the fancy name for the “CH” sound in Chincoteague is voiceless postalveolar fricative). So it’s not WASH-uh-prig, it’s WATCH-uh-prig.
Some outsiders might even use the /k/ pronunciation of “CH.” Commenters reported hearing WOK-uh-prig (perhaps influenced by Wachovia, which became Wells-Fargo in 2008) and WACK-uh-prig as mentioned earlier.
The last syllable, “preague,” seems to be particularly difficult for some outsiders to sound out. It contains a combination of letters (eague) that is not commonly found in English.
Only a few words readily come to mind — league and colleague. In doing research for this column, I came across the word squeteague, which, like Chincoteague, Assateague, Pungoteague, and Wachapreague, also comes from Algonquin. Apparently a squeteague is another name for an Atlantic croaker (Cynoscion regalis).
Instead of saying “preeg” or “prig,” some nonlocals have added an extra syllable, which yields pronunciations like WASH-uh-prig-ee, WOK-uh-prig-ee, or WACK-uh-prig-ee.
However, my favorite mispronunciation of Wachapreague manages to butcher every part of the name. Brace yourself for WACK-hah-pree-uh-goo. Not only is the initial vowel sound wrong, the “CH” is also incorrect.
The poor person who provided this one obviously didn’t know where to split the syllables, so the “h” is enunciated in the second syllable.
Then they managed to split the one syllable of “preeg/prig” into three syllables. For their sake, I hope this mispronunciation was swiftly, but politely corrected.
Thanks again to everyone from Shoreborn who participated in these online discussions.
Be sure to pick up next month’s Shore First for the next part in this series on local pronunciations and funny nonlocal (mis)pronunciations of our beloved ESVA place names.
The writer works at Shore First and the Eastern Shore post. He is an Eastern Shore native and lifelong resident of Machipongo. He has a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Old Dominion University and is interested in the everyday language people use on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.