Our story on the quirks of pronunciation and word choices in Missouri (“What Did You Say,” January/February 2023) gave solid scientific reasons behind the reasons we say things the way we say them here in the Show-Me State. It turns out, that isn’t the first time our magazine has tackled the subject. Back in August 2004, Editorial Director Danita Allen Wood waded into the Missour-ee versus Missour-uh debate. Nearly 20 years have passed since we first published this column, but the debate lives on.


When Greg and I revived Missouri Life a little more than five years ago, I said I’d never jump into the old Missour-ee versus Missouri-uh debate. But two reasons compel me to go back on my word.

The first is that technology is changing my own pronunciation. I still say “Muh-zur-uh” most of the time, much to my children’s dismay. But the desire to have listeners spell my e-mail address correctly has me using the ee pronunciation. I pronounce carefully and spell out my first name, “d-a-n-i-t-a” then say “at Muh-zur-ee Life—one word—dot com.”

The second is a recent scholarly investigation into the pronuncia­tion of our state name by retired English Professor Donald Lance at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He passed away in 2002 while preparing the article for the journal American Speech, but Professor Matthew Gordon, also at MU, finalized the article.

The paper explores “what the Indians said” to early explorers, how Indians in the 1800s said the words, and other evidence.

The  Peorias, within the Illinois branch of the Algonquian Indians, are credited with naming their neighbors, the Siouan Missouri Indians. The name meant “one who has a wood boat” and would have been pronounced wee-mee-soo-reet.

After Jacques Marquette stayed with the Peorias, he drew a map in 1673 placing the Missouri Indians west of the Mississippi and spelling their name as 8emess8rit. Marquette actually used a French symbol, an o with two horn-like protrusions at the top, but shown as 8 here. Other early explorers between 1681 and 1697 spelled the Algonquian’s name for the Missouri Indians as 8missouri, Emissourita, Missourita, Missouris, Massorites, and Messorites.

Eventually, through French influence, the Missouri Indians adopted the name for themselves and most likely pronounced it mih-zur-ee-yay, with a long a, to rhyme with “say” or “Francais.”

The next evidence was language data collected from 1830 to 1930. Lance found the uh or schwa form, represented by an upside-down e in the dictionary, as the most common pronunciation of the final vowel. Later but similar language research done with people born between 1880 and the 1950s found Americans pronounced each syllable in a variety of ways, including mih or muh, zoor (rhymes with “pure”) or zur (rhymes with “purr”), and finally ee, uh, eye, and also short i (as in “bit”) for the last syllable. In fact, the research shows the short i was more common than the long i.

Lance considered two possible explanations for the frequency of the uh pronunciation. He quotes a source from 1894: “The Irish generally substitute a for i [in unstressed syllables, e.g. courage, ditches]; this substitution is a peculiarity, also, of a very large proportion of the cultivated American inhabitants of Philadelphia, New York City, and some parts of the South and West. A familiar instance is the Western pronunciation Mizura.”

Another possible explanation is that when Americans first saw the word in print, they interpreted the final spelled i as a long i, rhyming with “eye,” but then as the syllable weakened in stress, it was reduced to the schwa, or uh sound.

Lance also said if the uh developed through leveling of unstressed syllables, you would expect to find the loss of the uh altogether, leaving just Muh-zur, and indeed, he found that pronunciation, too.

Many people think the uh was Southern, but Lance said the early language data does not support that. A century ago, uh was heard from Maine to Georgia. In fact, more people in the Northern states of Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania said uh than ee, and ee was more common in South Carolina and Georgia.

If the Irish-Americans were responsible, then their settlement patterns help explain the distribution of uh across the country. Lance speculated that the uh sound in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina is a reflection of Scotch-Irish immigration into those areas. Then the sound spread into Tennessee, Mississippi, northern Texas, lower Alabama, western Louisiana, and Arkansas.

So I can choose to blame my uh pronunciation on either my father’s Arkansas ancestors or my mother’s McQueen ancestors.

There was little change in the prevalence of these vowels until about 1900, when the automobile and telephone began to increase communication between people from different regions. The use of ee rose right along with usage of the car and the occurrences of World War I and the Roaring Twenties.

Increasing education probably led to an increase in ee as the more common pronunciation of the final vowel at the expense of folk speech, Lance said.

So which pronunciation is right? Actually, all four are correct: muh-zur-eye, muh-zur-uh, mezur, or muh-zur-ee. Or if not correct, at least explainable.

It probably doesn’t matter. Lance also found that uh is rapidly disappearing, at least among MU students. The majority of the use today is in northwestern Missouri, including Kansas City, but its usage is declining there, as well.

I blame it on e-mail.