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drawing of a speech baloon, Ann Arbor 2012

Street Language

You don't say!

by Sally Mitani

posted 12/15/2012

Overheard at west-side polling places in November were pronunciations that infuriate Old West Siders: Lutz pronounced "lutts," Bach pronounced "bock," Revena pronounced "ravenna"--and all presumably by people who live in the neighborhood.

"Lutz is loots," born-and-bred west-sider Fran Wright (nee Bigelow) explains, crisply: "Bach is baw, Revena is reveena, and I don't know what else there is to talk about!" She went to Bach school. "No one back then ever pronounced it bock! And another one is Koch--it's pronounced cook. Linda Koch was a classmate of mine."

Grace Shackman, a local historian, says that a hobbyhorse of hers is the change from Eber White, named after the farmer who lived west of Seventh, to the one-word Eberwhite. "There were lots of Whites," agrees Wright, "so they named the street Eber White to distinguish it from the others. The accent on Eber White is completely different from Eberwhite."

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The following Calls & letters item appeared in the January 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:

Bock, Baw, and the velar fricative

Last month we wrote that Ann Arbor's unique pronunciation of Bach (e.g., the school) as "baw" seems to be slowly changing to the "bock" that other Americans use. Some west-siders are unhappy to see it go-rumor has always had it that it's a remnant of the Swabian dialect once spoken in that part of town. But David Schall emailed with a competing theory: Bach was "de-Germanicized in the early 20th century due to the two world wars, and this mis-pronunciation ["baw"] has been perpetuated up to the present."

We asked local writer Jennifer Eberbach if she could shed any light on the question. After polling family members, she emailed: "As far as we know, my great grandfather Oscar (born 18??) was the one who started saying Eber'baw.' And then my grandfather Robert (born 1915) continued using it … My dad said "baw" as a child and then changed it back to "bock" when he got older.

"I'm glad to hear it!" said Walter Metzger, when told

...continued below...


that Ann Arborites seem to be slowly converting to "bock."

Metzger, whose parents immigrated from Swabia in 1923 (and whose restaurant, Metzger's, now on Zeeb Road, is being run by a third generation), grew up speaking German and sent two of his four kids to Bach school. His pronunciation is neither "baw" nor "bock" but something more like "bawgh" with the guttural gargle at the end that linguists call a "velar fricative." But between "bock" and "baw," he much prefers "bock."

Metzger has no clue why Ann Arborites say "baw," but he says they were saying it in 1923 when his parents arrived. And he quickly puts down the oft-repeated rumor that "baw" is a pronunciation brought over by the Swabian farmers who settled Ann Arbor and started many local businesses. "I speak Swabian-we have an entirely different dialect. When my family goes over to Swabia we get along fine there; when we go up to Berlin no one can understand us. But we pronounce 'Bach' like everyone else in Germany. That 'baw' didn't come from Swabia."

He says his family, when they immigrated, just adopted the local pronunciation of "baw" when speaking English, but at home, speaking German, they'd say "Bach" the German way.

Anne Curzan, U-M linguistics professor, doesn't know anything about our town's pronunciation of "baw," but she concurs that there was plenty of anti-German sentiment during World War I. In Cincinnati, she says, they changed "German" Street to "English" Street, and in various places around the country sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," and hamburgers became "liberty sandwiches."

An Old West Sider dining at Metzger's who didn't want to be quoted by name says Schall's explanation resonates with her. She says that, back in the 1950s, knowing how to pronounce that guttural "ch" would tag you as a German and "an immigrant kid. The second- or third-generation Germans would just drop the 'ch.' No one would admit to being able to pronounce that German 'ch.'"    (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2012.]

 

 
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