Thursday, December 20, 2007

DeKalb Avenue & the Great Pronunciation Debate

Let’s approach this as dispassionately as possible.

Fact: I live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. When it was warm and when I still worked in midtown, I liked to take my beloved Q or B train to its first stop in Brooklyn and walk the length of a great Brooklyn Avenue that runs all the way from Flatbush through Bed Stuy, Bushwick before fizzling out in the Great Beyond known as Long Island.

It’s one of those quintessential Brooklyn Avenues that has several different incarnations depending where you hit it. Unlike Manhattan streets like Ludlow or West End Avenue or 23rd Street, where you pretty much know what you’re getting, there are some streets in Brooklyn—like Bedford, Myrtle, Atlantic, Fulton, and Flatbush, where you can’t be sure if you’ll be afraid to come out of the subway because you’ll be getting stared down by hipsters or gunned down by Russian mobsters. DeKalb, the avenue in question, is one of these quintessential Brooklyn arteries.

Fact: Though I live in Clinton Hill, I grew up—as the five people who read this blog know—in Georgia, where we have a county by the same name of the avenue in question. There’s also a town in Illinois, just west of Chicago, called DeKalb and various other streets, counties, and towns of the same name throughout our great country.

And from my own informal research, I have discovered that no one but New Yorkers pronounce it the way they do, which leads me to believe that they are wrong. Ask people in the Midwest, ask me (a Georgia boy), and I'm sure if you ask someone from Germany (where the name originally comes from), they’ll pronounce it the way I do.

Now, I know a lot of people reading are thinking that this a pretty provincial-sounding argument. Be that as it may—Friends, Haters, Brooklynites…Lend me your ears! I propose to you a landmark event in New York history, an event as dramatic as the Great Vowel Shift in Ye Olde English. It is called, for now, the Revolutionary DeKalb Repronunciation Campaign, and I nominate myself as president. This is a politics of pronunciation, a politics of hope. But more than anything, it’s a politics of simplification.

It starts with you and me, and ends when we’re sitting at a bus-stop in Brooklyn next to a mother and child, and the little girl turns to her mother who has just pronounced the avenue in question, where they are headed on this tranquil Sunday afternoon, with a harsh, throaty “A,” hard “L” and an equally stressed “B.” It seems to disrupt the very tranquility of the scene. And the little girl turns to her mother and says, “No, mommy. It’s pronounced…Dee-cab.” And we will smile silently beside them and nod our graying locks and realize that change, though it comes slowly, eventually comes to the righteous.

But don’t think that this will be an easy crusade. I have fought, over the past several months, ever since moving out to Brooklyn, where I live on an avenue squarely between a street called Willoughby (no controversy there) and the avenue in question. I am forced to repeat the name of the avenue in question to cab drivers, Yankee friends, etc., and the reactions I get range between exasperation and sheer unaccountable rage. “Mik,” they scream. “That’s not how you pronounce DeKalb!”

I have a friend who hails from these Northern parts. She lives far out on the L-Train in East Williamsburg, and as all of the folks who live all the way out in this part of town (which is really Bushwick) know, or anyone who rides the B, Q into Brooklyn (guilty as charged), there is a stop along the way with the name of the Avenue in question. My friend brought it to my attention one day: “Even the voice on the subway, the automated voice that reads out the stops. Even she says it DekahLb.” Sorry, friend. Sorry, MTA. You all goofed on this one.

We were discussing this very subject around a bar one night in Brooklyn. I have another friend who grew up in Atlanta, like me, and I was going around the room trying to convert the lost, the depraved, the over-pronouncing, when I turned to my friend, looking for support. He shook his head: “We’re not in Georgia, Mik. When we’re on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn we're on DeKahlLb, not Deecab. The same way we’re not on Hugh-ston Street when we’re downtown.” Traitor, I thought. You are the Benedict Arnold of pronunciation.

Which brings me to the thesis of my argument today. Dear New York, and Brooklyn in particular, you are the ones pronouncing DeKalb wrong. It’s not the burgeouis, Yankee DekahLb. It’s the simpler, less pretentious Dee-cab. I’m sorry. I know you think you’re right, but you are wrong. I don't have any evidence or research to support this claim. All I have is my faith, and this podium, my several-hits-a-month blog.

My customary way for explaining why people in Georgia refer to it as Dee-cab usually hinged on what I saw as the pre-consonant “L” rule. Namely, if an “L” appears before a consonant other than “S,” you should not pronounce it. For example, we don’t pronounce the “L” in “balk” or “walk,” so why would we pronounce it in “DeKalb.”

I agree that this can be shot down on the grounds that there are other words featuring a pre-consonant “L” of the DeKalb variety in which the “L” is indeed pronounced. But here is my ace in the hole. Yes, loyal five readers, Mik did some research.

The DeKalb County in Georgia—and I suspect all the other places that share its name, like the avenue that runs along Fort Greene Park—is named after Baron Johann of Kalb, a German soldier in the Revolutionary army who fought for American freedom and died as a prisoner of the British. His last name was Kalb, pronounced (get ready for it)…


It’s pronounced the way you guys pronounce it…


Fuck it. I’m still not changing the way I say it. I bet people in Germany thought the homie Johann DeKalb was crazy for crossing an ocean to fight for a people he didn't even know. I, too, Mik Awake, am fighting a similar fight in Brooklyn, for the future of street pronunciations.

Indeed, thanks to people like Johann, this is a democratic country, and even people who are wrong deserve the chance to tell us why they were so misguided. So, that being the case, I open up the debate to you, oh loyal five.

How do you pronounce DeKalb?


Bryan said...

Straight "dee-cab."

Bryan said...

Or, to be honest, more like "duh-cab." But I feel it's the second stanza that's the most important.

Jesse said...

"Dee-Cab" when I first moved to BK actually. I slowly picked up the "L" after a few months. Interesting debate, Colson. I mean, Mik.

Will said...

GA: Decabb
BK: DEE-kaLb
MI: DEE-troit

demar said...

Fuckit...this is a movement.
DeKaLB - L = "Dee-kab"

Bob said...

I'm going to start pronouncing ALMONDS AMONDS, ALMIGHTY AMIGHTY, ama mater, agorythm, and don't forget the Agonquin Indians. I'm going to use agicide in my pool in the spring. They'll know wat I'm talking about shouldn't they? And this is just a few of the A's. Decab. Really!

Anonymous said...

What a relief to read this. I just moved here from Texas where 30 minutes south of my home town is Dekalb (Dee-Kab) Texas.

Anonymous said...

My husband is from Mississippi and calls it "Dee cobb", I am from Chicago where we called it DeKalb with the L and I live in Georgia where they call it Dee Cab so what am I supposed to make of it?

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acro said...

Actually, if you really think about it, they pronounced the L in Georgia as well but since it was said with such a strong southern drawl it wasn't heard. Try it. Over time the L sound disappeared because no one was hearing it anyway.

I hope this clears things up.

Oh, and my Detroit native father (born 1926) would NEVER say DEE-troit. It's DaTROIT.

jersey guy said...

It's "Dee-cab" and no exceptions. I knew people who if still living would now be one hundred sixty years old. They ALL said "Dee-cab". Just like "How-ston" for Houston and "Die" for Dey.

jarod213 said...

I agree with you - dee-cab. The problem is (and you admit yourself) is it's not historicallly accurate. Also. YOU BETTER NOT SAY AL-BANY!!!! It's pronounced AW-BANY.

Jessica Smith said...

I see it has been a minute since you last posted, so unsure if you'll get this, but my boyfriend and I just disagreed about this very topic and googled it. Your blog post came up and it was a most highly entertaining answer, so had to write you. Fun fact: my bf is also from Georgia and also lobbied hard for "dee-cab," I'm from Seattle, and evidently have been mispronouncing it wrong this whole time. Ha!

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