You say Cairo, I say Cairo: New online resource provides audio pronunciation of Illinois places and landmarks

You say Cairo, I say Cairo: New online resource provides audio pronunciation of Illinois places and landmarks
You say Cairo, I say Cairo: New online resource provides audio pronunciation of Illinois places and landmarks

URBANA, Ill. – Run your finger over a map of Illinois, and you’re sure to find some exotic sounding cities; Cairo and Marseilles come to mind. While these Illinois cities may bear the name of world-famous destinations, many cities and towns across the state feature uniquely “Illinois” pronunciations. 

For a radio or TV broadcaster, public speaker, or announcer, mispronouncing a city’s name could hurt their credibility or offend the locals. But finding proper pronunciations of places not listed in dictionaries can be difficult.

A University of Illinois agricultural communications researcher and her students have created an online resource that offers proper audio pronunciation examples of places and landmarks across the state of Illinois. The tool was designed not only for broadcasters or news anchors, but for anyone publicly speaking about places in Illinois. And, of course, those curious about Illinois will also enjoy using the tool.

The Pronunciation Guide for Illinois Place Names project was led by agricultural communications director Lulu Rodriguez, and is a compilation of all counties, cities, villages, communities, parks, creeks, and rivers in the state of Illinois, and the pronunciation of these names as preferred by local residents.

An early version of the guide, a print piece which offered a pronunciation key, dates back to 1948. The idea to update the guide using today’s technology was first broached by Colleen Callahan, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and a long-time agribusiness broadcaster. 

“I reached out to Dr. Jim Evans when I saw an outdated copy of the pronunciation guide during an in-studio radio interview,” Callahan says. “It quickly progressed into a collaboration with the agricultural communications program and WILL Public Media. This updated, digital guide will be a valuable tool not only for media professionals around the state, but a resource for those living in and out of Illinois.”

While the initial idea of the guide was to serve as a reference for broadcasters, Rodriguez says anyone who does audio work and talks about Illinois can benefit. “It is meant for anyone who is prone to mispronounce places that are unfamiliar to them,” she explains. “We are also thinking of people who are making documentaries, giving speeches, or addressing meetings.”

After the initial 1948 printed guide, a revised edition was published by the University of Illinois’ Division of Broadcasting in 1957. The Illinois News Broadcasters Association (INBA) followed up with A Pronunciation and Location Guide for Cities, Counties, Rivers and Parks in Illinois in 1998. The INBA released a revised version of the booklet in 2012.

But things do change over time. For example, cities that once were incorporated in a county may no longer be so. Thus, there is a constant need for updates. Rodriguez’ team updated the guide by compiling the preferred pronunciation of places in the state based on administrative division (counties, cities, townships, towns, and villages), waterways (lakes, rivers, and creeks), state parks, and natural landmarks (summits, trails, ridges, cliffs, and others).

The new online version, the guide’s fifth edition, displays a specialized phonetic cypher or pronunciation key, as well as the audio component of the name. To hear the pronunciation spoken aloud, visitors only need to click on a name.

Preferred local pronunciations—in the case of such Illinois communities as Cairo and Marseilles, Vienna and New Berlin—have been given precedence over accepted pronunciations for cities of the same name in other states or countries.

How did Rodriguez and her students determine “preferred local pronunciation?” They started making phone calls.

“Using the Municipal Directory from the Illinois Municipal League, which lists every town and county in the state, we called and double checked with county clerks and other local officials,” Rodriguez says. “We found out it’s not Cairo [ki-ro], but Cairo [care-ro]. It’s not Mattoon [muh-toon], it’s Mattoon [mat-toon]. If mispronounced, some people might be forgiving, but others from those places might not be.”

Jim Evans, a professor emeritus of agricultural communications at U of I adds, “The guide updates and enhances a 56-year effort by the University of Illinois and Illinois news media to honor and preserve the accurate identity of communities, counties, and special resources throughout this state. They deserve it.” 

The project, supported by a teaching enhancement grant from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, took Rodriguez and her students nearly a year to complete. Undergraduate student John Bruns, assisted by Zachary Morgan, senior in agricultural communications, updated the compilation, checked proper enunciation with local government seats, recorded, and assembled them into a highly usable online format. Agricultural communications alumna Kelsey Litchfield coordinated the promotion and dissemination efforts.

The guide is available online at: