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For those unsure how to pronounce Calgary, stick with Cowtown.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

There's an easy test to know whether or not most people are from Calgary: You ask them to pronounce the name of the city.

Most locals will deliver a quick two-syllable CALgree, but many others will stumble over a seven-letter word that is surprisingly complex.

Darin Flynn asked students in his fourth-year phonology class at the University of Calgary to pronounce the city's name. While most of his students said CALgree when queried, there was commotion and raised eyebrows when a minority of locals said CALgairy – it sounds like someone pronouncing Cal and Gary in quick succession.

"They study this and yet people in my class were shocked that any locals pronounce it CALgairy. 'You can't be from here,' they said. They were just shocked," said the associate professor of linguistics. "In English we tend to ignore most differences in pronunciation, but the difference here is that this is a local term that's divisive. People really care about their hometown."

According to Prof. Flynn, Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been known to ask the residents of Calgary on social media how they pronounce the city's name. There are also a number of online forums dedicated to the subject, many of them on hockey websites. The CALgairy Flames make regular appearances on ESPN – even when the broadcasters are Canadian-born.

"It's the shibboleth for Calgarians. When you hear CALgairy, you know they're from away," said Daorcey Le Bray, a communications adviser at city hall.

From the Old Testament Book of Judges, a shibboleth describes a word whose precise pronunciation is used to distinguish one group from another.

The key to understanding how Calgary became such a troublesome word is found in how it uses the most common vowel sound in the English language.

The second "a" in Calgary sits in what the field of phonetics calls a schwa vowel sound – the schwa is similar to an "eh" sound. There's a rule in English that when a stress vowel (Cal), is followed by a schwa (ga) and then an unstressed syllable (ry), that schwa sound is reduced the more often the word is used. Eventually, it can be dropped completely.

"This happens a lot in the English language. With frequent words like 'every,' 'evening' or 'chocolate,' that vowel in the middle just disappears," Prof. Flynn said.

While some outsiders use a second pronunciation of the city's name – CALguhry – most Calgarians, through repeated use, have dropped the middle syllable altogether, yielding CALgree as the de facto pronunciation. Due to the same process, the Emilys of the world know that the letter "i" in their names is rarely pronounced.

"My sister lived in Calgary long before I moved here, so I would visit the city and I had noticed the local pronunciation," said Tara Nelson, the anchor for CTV Calgary's 6 p.m. newscast. "I came in pronouncing it CALgree. I'm from the Edmonton area so my ear was attuned to how the locals say CALgree and not CALgairy."

Living near Calgary's namesake, the hamlet of Calgary on the west coast of Scotland's Isle of Mull, Anne Cleave says Scottish Calgarians have taken to pronouncing the name in a similar way as Canadian Calgarians.

"The Scots put the emphasis on the first syllable, so Calgary becomes something like CALgry and the second and third syllables are contracted," said Ms. Cleave, the secretary of the Isle of Mull Historical and Archaeological Society.

Local pronunciations are obvious across Canada. Most people visiting Saskatchewan will quickly betray that they aren't residents when they pronounce the end of that province's name as "wan" and not "win" as locals do. Toronto residents also have their own reduced syllable, yielding a city name that often sounds like Tronno in the mouth of locals.

For those unsure how to pronounce Calgary, stick with Cowtown.

What's in a name?

Whether you pronounce Calgary, CALgree, CALguhry or CALgairy, it might be worth remembering that the naming of Calgary was indecisive from its beginning.

In 1873, the North-West Mounted Police were created to stop the illicit whisky trading that was networking through southern Alberta. Over the previous decade, increasing numbers of Americans worked their way north, joining southern Alberta traders who were dealing alcohol to First Nations for buffalo hide. In 1874, under the leadership of Inspector Éphrem A. Brisebois, 300 NWMP recruits marched from Port Arthur, Ont., via Dufferin, Man., and further westward into Alberta.

In 1875, Brisebois led the establishing of a post where the Elbow joins the Bow River. This location was known by white settlers as the "the Elbow," but Brisebois took it upon himself to name it Fort Brisebois. In 1876, the fort was renamed Fort Calgary by Brisebois' superior, Lieutenant-Colonel James F. Macleod. Calgary was Macleod's ancestral home on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. The Gaelic name is Cala Ghearraidh. Imprecise translations include "clear running water" or "cold enclosure," but the more accurate Scots Gaelic translations are either "bay farm" or "beach of the meadow." Fort Calgary was incorporated as Calgary in 1884.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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