How to pronounce “Ooltewah.” I think.

During the past few weeks, Ooltewah High School has dominated the news, with a rape/assault investigation involving the boys varsity basketball team.  Sifting through countless Facebook messages, e-mails and phone calls, I’ve gotten compliments, criticism, and complaints about the news coverage.  Here’s a sampling:

  1. Why doesn’t the news get to the bottom of this?
  2. Why don’t you force the police to talk? (That’s a good one)
  3. Why aren’t y’all saying more about this story?
  4. Why don’t y’all shut up about this story?
  5. Why don’t you tell the truth about what happened, and give us every detail?
  6. Why do you insist on reporting every detail?
  7. I can tell you exactly what happened. I have a friend whose cousin used to work with somebody who knows a man who used to be a police officer.
  8. Y’all need to stay on this, and stir something up!
  9. Y’all are just putting this on the news to stir something up!    And finally:
  10. How do you pronounce “Ooltewah?”

Yes, how to pronounce “Ooltewah.”  For many years, I pronounced it with the “L” sound, as in “OOL-tuh-wah.”  Then someone, I can’t remember who, convinced me the “L” was silent.  So I started saying “Oooh-tuh-wah.”  That’s how I’ve said it for the past 20 years or so.  So I posed the question, on Facebook and Twitter.  I knew my social media friends would settle the issue for me, once and for all.

Now I’m more confused than ever.  Of those who expressed a preference, 90 people said, “Pronounce the L.”  72 said, “Do not say the L sound.”  A slight majority want to hear the L, but it’s hard to ignore those who say, “Get the L out of there,” or words to that effect.

According to Wikipedia, Ooltewah is derived from a Cherokee Native American word meaning “owl’s nest.” If that’s true, I would lean toward pronouncing the L, since you can’t say “owl” without it.

However, read this story from an unidentified 1890 newspaper:

ooltewah-story

 

Now if you believe this version, you would pronounce it without the L, right?

To confuse things even further, a website called chenocetah.wordpress.com, describing itself as a site with Cherokee place names, has this to say:  “Ooltewah, Tennessee, stands about where the Cherokee settlement of Ultiwo’i was. The meaning is unknown and does not appear to have been originally a Cherokee word.”

As you can see, there’s definitely an L in Ultiwo’i.  Facebook friend Debra Fisher adds: “It comes from the Cherokee “Ultiwah.”

Meanwhile, my Facebook friends point out that even celebrities struggle with Ooltewah. President Ronald Reagan, during a visit to Chattanooga in the 1980s, reportedly called it “Ool-TEE-wah.”  Today Show weatherman Al Roker famously called the Ooltewah High band “Ool-TAH-wah” during a recent New Years parade.  And CBS college football announcer Verne Lundquist said one hometown athlete hailed from “Ool-tuh-WAY” High School.

Clearly, there’s more than one way to spell, define and interpret Ooltewah.  You say tomato, I say to-mah-to.  Well, actually I say “mater.”  Going forward, I have decided to continue saying Ooltewah without the L sound.  I know, that puts me in the minority of my own poll, but it was unofficial, and awfully close.

I’ve been told, “If you’re from around here, there’s no L when you say Ooltewah.  If you’re from out of town, you say the L.”

At some point, we’ll have to examine the pronunciations for Whut-well, La-fet, Bledsaw County, Sappitchburg (say it fast) , Murville and Ringo, Georgia.  Y’all know where these towns are?

About David Carroll

David Carroll is a longtime Chattanooga radio and TV broadcaster, and has anchored the evening news on WRCB-TV since 1987. He is the author of "Chattanooga Radio & Television" published by Arcadia.

6 thoughts on “How to pronounce “Ooltewah.” I think.

  1. Sue Roman

    Oh, David, you should’ve just asked me before you did all of this spectacularly detailed and informative research. Sadly, you don’t know the rule of locale pronunciations: The correct way to say it is how the natives of that town say it. So the “l” is silent. The born & bred folks are ALWAYS correct. So there’s your answer and I’m glad I could enlighten you. You’re welcome.

    Reply
  2. Stuart Theodore

    born and raised in Ooltewah. During the 60s and 70s the “L” was pronounced by most everyone i knew. I would occasionally hear the variant but it was mostly from uneducated younger people.

    Reply

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