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Why We Can’t Agree on a Pronunciation of the Word Sauna

A billboard for an insurance company in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan takes a clear stance on the sauna pronunciation debate.

Since March, we've been collecting your questions for a new series at WXPR called Curious North. Today we're answering one of those questions as part of our We Live Up Here series.

Melissa Nieman in Tomahawk recently asked: Can we agree on a pronunciation of the word sauna?!

Mackenzie Martin talked to two linguistic researchers to try and figure out the answer.

In the English language, there are a lot of words that people disagree on the pronunciation for. Recently, we got a Curious North question from a listener who wanted us to solve a pronunciation debate for her.


Melissa Nieman now lives in Tomahawk, but she’s originally from Ironwood, MI, in the western part of the Upper Peninsula. She asks: Can we agree on the pronunciation of the word sauna?!


Melissa pronounces it SOW-na, but many people pronounce it SAW-na. If you live around here, you might have heard this debate before. Melissa says when she says it her way to someone who isn’t from the U.P., she often gets corrected or laughed at.




“That’s just how I grew up,” she says. “I feel that I am right. It’s a Finnish product, and the way we say it in the Finnish heritage is SOW-na.”

She says even though she is frequently laughed at, she’s never been tempted to say it the other way.


“I actually have a hard time saying it the other way, I really have to slow down and think about how to pronounce it that way,” she says. “I would be letting down Gogebic County, I feel like, if I said it the other way.”


So, I set out to answer Melissa’s question, to see if we could all agree on one pronunciation. Merriam-Webster recognizes both pronunciations, as do pronunciation guides online. When I reached out to individual people though, that’s when the debate really came out. Then I spoke to two linguistics researchers on the phone and everything started to make sense.



Mirva Johnson is a graduate student at UW-Madison doing research on the Finnish spoken in northern Wisconsin. She says she’s heard a lot of strong feelings about it, but that ultimately there isn’t really a “right” way to say sauna. Basically, one is the Finnish pronunciation and the other is how the word evolved in the English language. Since the U.P. has such a huge population of Finnish ancestry though, in parts of the U.P., the pronunciation never evolved.


“So the pronunciation of SOW-na stayed SOW-na rather than change to SAW-na like it did in a lot of other areas where there are fewer Finns,” she says.


It was then that the question became less about whether we’d ever be able to agree on a correct pronunciation and more about why exactly it was so hard to agree on this one specific word, linguistically speaking.

Wil Rankinen is an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University. He grew up in the western U.P. and he’s always wondered about where people say one pronunciation or another and why, so he conducted a survey on the “Geographic distribution of Finnish vs. Anglicized pronunciations of ‘sauna’ in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”

Rankinen says there are several reasons people in parts of the U.P. prefer the original Finnish pronunciation. Mostly, it has to do with Finnish pride. The act of taking a sauna is a hugely cultural activity for Finns and Finnish Americans. In addition to that though, it’s also tied in to local U.P. pride, whether or not you have Finnish ancestry.


“People in the U.P., particularly areas of the northwest, upper northwest, Keweenaw, Houghton area, Marquette County, and much of the west part, so for example the Gogebic area,” he says. “These areas of the Upper Peninsula historically have a strong Finnish influence and even to this day, they area are strongly adamant that the only way is the Finnish pronunciation.”


How strongly do people feel about this pronunciation? A question on Rankinen’s survey asked how willing people were to correct a person if they heard what they thought was the wrong pronunciation. Rankinen says results showed that those that use the traditional Finnish pronunciation were extremely likely to correct those that use the anglicized pronunciation.


“There’s a lot of linguistic security that is involved here and it’s because it’s closely tied to what it means to be Finnish or have Finnishness,” says Rankinen.


As for those who say it the anglicized way, they are less likely to correct people. Rankinen says they have low linguistic security because the word sauna isn’t tied to their local identity in the same way.


I explained to Rankinen what our original question asker Melissa Nieman was going through though, how a lot of people in the Northwoods would correct her pronunciation all the time. He said it isn’t surprising that people outside of these Finnish areas might be unfamiliar with the original Finnish pronunciation.


In the end, unless something changes, we won’t be able to agree on the pronunciation for the word sauna anytime soon, so the answer to Melissa’s question is no.


Though Melissa will never say it the other way, she's willing to accept both pronunciations in the dictionary.


“Whatever makes you happy, as long as you’re enjoying the sauna,” she says.


For more information on this debate or to take a deeper dive on the topic, check out more on the The Sauna Survey by Wil Rankinen or the book Yooper Talkby Kathryn Remlinger. You can also see presentations by Wil Rankinen on his research this summer. He'll be at the Peter White Public Library in Marquette on July 8th and the Historic Braumart Theater in Iron Mountain on July 10th.

Lastly, if you have a question about the Northwoods or the U.P. that you’d like WXPR to investigate, submit it to our Curious North series below. We'll be in touch if we look into your question.


This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. "Sauna Song" was used with permission from Conga Se Menne, a Finnish Reggae band from the Upper Peninsula. The photo used above is courtesy of Reddit/Imgur.

This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.


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