All Things Maine
All Things Maine

Friday, December 26, 2008

Pronouncing "Mount Desert"

A debate over the proper pronunciation of "Mount Desert" pitted 19th-century scholars against year-round residents of the island.
The accentuation should not fall on the last, but on the first syllable of Desert, although the name is almost universally mispronounced in Maine, and notably so on the island itself. Usually it is Mount Desart, toned into Desert by the casual population, who thus give it a curious significance.
It would hardly seem necessary after quoting Champlain's statement with regard to the name of this Island and his reasons for so naming it, to call attention to the proper accentuation of the word "Desert," but there are still many who place the accent on the last syllable, a practice which has a tendency to obscure its meaning. We have seen that Champlain called the place the "Isle of the Desert Mountains," and from this, doubtless, it came to be called Mount Desert. The French words for this name are Mont Desert the last word pronounced as though written "dezer." Now, since we have substituted Mount for the French "Mont," why should we not give the word Desert, which is written alike in French and English, the English accent? It is true Champlain did not call the Island a desert, only its mountains, but the words "Mount Desert" or "Desert Mount," convey the meaning intended by him, and the word Desert with the accent on the first syllable used in its ordinary sense of solitary, unfilled, uninhabited, is part of the name. The fact that many of the natives of the Island accent the word differently and give a different significance to the terms employed by Champlain, proves nothing. We have Champlain's own statement that the name was intended to describe an island filled with solitary, uninhabited mountain wastes, and no words better described such a place than those used by him.
[William Berry Lapham, Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island (1886)]
Lapham's argument was picked up in 1886 by the New York Times, by way of the Lewiston Journal.
How shall Mount Desert be pronounced? is a question asked many times. Shall it be Mount De-sert or Mount Des-ert? Dr. Lapham, who is an authority on such matters, is in favor of the latter pronunciation. The Maine Historical Society has adopted it—made it an English name. Dr. Lapham's suggestion that as we have given it the English orthography it should have English pronunciation is sensible. Let it be Mount Des-ert, then.
And yet, the "corrected" pronunciation didn't catch on.
"Everybody now seems to say Mount Desert (de-zert')."—Boston Globe.

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