You Can't Just Not Anglicise

There's a small park near where I live that was, until recently, called Numbnutz Park, named after the great [citation needed] community leader and semi-professional phrenologist Horatio Numbnutz 1. A few years ago, coinciding with a major overhaul of its physical layout by the city, it was renamed to dxʷbaʔwiɬ, which is the name used by the indigenous Lushootseed-speaking peoples of the region to refer to that area. Yes, the name is officially spelled that way.

This seems very silly to me, and since my degree in linguistics doesn't come up too often I'm going to use it as license for a small rant on this recent assumption that anglicization of non-English words is reactionary or culturally insensitive.

First, a clarification on what I'm not saying. I'm not against renaming geographic features to align with indigenous vocabulary. In fact, I love it when that happens! When I see something like "Mount McKinley", there's no story there. There was an important guy who was the first European to see it, or else the first European to see it named it after another important guy. It's etymological noise. Denali, though? Could be anything! 2 It's like the universe is recommending a Wikipedia deep dive directly. Probably more importantly, I think it's good to have reminders that we (non-native people) were not the first ones to live here. It keeps things in perspective.

The specific trend I want to name and shame is a way of borrowing into English that looks progressive, but just makes life harder for everyone: refuse to make any accommodations for English phonology or orthography whatsoever. If Denali is better than Mount McKinley, surely təˈŋaðə is even better, right?

Thus, we get dxʷbaʔwi. Scattered through the park, along with plaques on the ecology and pre-European history of the location, there are signs with QR codes you can scan to hear the pronunciation. As a piece of interactive anthropology it's really cool; as the name of a place that's heavily used by the community, it's an abject failure. For months afterward people were referring to it as "The park that used to be Numbnutz Park" or "Duz...uze...(mumble)" In print media the pronunciation is always given parenthetically: "The paddleboarding club meets Sundays at dxʷbaʔwiɬ (dhwuh-BAH-tl)". If you need to provide a parenthetical phonetic pronunciation alongside every written usage of a place name, it is not a good name.

The good intentions are clear, but fundamentally I think this movement for orthographic authenticity has forgotten the purpose of naming things. That might sound like snark but I sincerely think this is the root of the problem. Place names serve a lot of purposes simultaneously, but the core function they absolutely must provide is to allow people to communicate about a specific place. If a name does not meet this criterion it will naturally be replaced by one that does, not out of anyone's choosing but just from the currents of usage.

"Ok wiseguy, you want to go back to naming it after the dead racist guy?" No, Straw Man, I don't think that's necessary at all, because this is already a solved problem. Now go back home, my dear Straw Man, to your house in Seattle or Tacoma -- or was it Skagit, or Puyallup?

Western Washington is absolutely brimming with Lushootseed place names, and we don't even pay them much conscious thought. This naming trend is not revolutionary, it is literally as old as the first European colonization of this region. The only innovation of the modern era is refusing to make it legible when written.

"But the original name wasn't Seattle, it was siʔaɫ, and that's not pronounced the same way. We need to keep the original spelling so people will pronounce it authentically" My dear friend Strawford, people are not going to learn a whole new phoneme for one word. Ok, some weirdos like myself will, but that's more like a hobby in itself. Learning to reliably produce phonemes not present in your native tongue isn't impossible, but it's really hard. It is in accordance with this ancient principle of "ain't nobody got time for that" that loanwords are instead mutated to fit into nearest valid region of local phonology-space, and thus the venerable /ɫ/ is degraded to a cluster of two different consonants, /t/ and /l/. This is what happens, inevitably, every time, whether you like it or not.

And that's exactly what happened to the park. After some initial chaos the local idiom has settled on something like "dubwattle" as the de facto anglicization. But the official sign still says dxʷbaʔwi, and all written references still require that pronunciation note. In effect, the park's name is a non-phonetic ideogram, which is again both very cool to see as a Word Nerd and equally frustrating as a resident who just wants to talk about the local park unambiguously. I wonder how long until the city gives up and changes the sign to a usable one.


This name and the names of the other local places I talk about here are made up so I don't dox myself too hard, but the Lushootseed words are real ones I got from Wikitionary.


Ok in practice it means "big mountain" but in theory it could be anything