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There are some places only a local can say. Nevada is pronounced Na-vah-dah, not Nuh-vah-duh. Trenton is Tren-in. If you can’t say New Orleans, just say NOLA and move on. Generally, though, unless this is a Schenectady kind of situation, minor mispronunciations due to not being in the know are fine and will get you where you need to go. A few years ago, I had a friend who wrote down her address for me so I could find her house for a New Year’s party.
“Is Helena in Jefferson Country?”
“The town you put down, that you said you lived in?”
She stared at me for a minute. “You mean, Huh-LEEN-ah.”
I did not know that I meant Huh-LEEN-ah. You live, you learn.
What I never did learn, though, was why it was pronounced like that.
Growing up with the cohort that I did, most of my friends had a mother or an aunt named Helen, at least, some with the flair of the a at the end. There were two main pronunciations: HELL-en-ah and Hel-LAH-nah. There was also the capital of Montana, Helena, which I had learned from my Where in the USA is Carmen San Diego game, is pronounced HELL-en-ah.
Here’s the thing to knock out of your mind if you’re confused about the way to say the Alabama town’s name: it’s a namesake, but it isn’t a name. It’s a mash-up of Helen and Lee with an ah at the end for good measure (I think). Peter Boyle, a railway engineer named a train station in Hillsboro, Alabama after his girlfriend. Hillsboro just wasn’t as catchy a name and now we have Helena.
So other towns with the name can fight over which syllable to stress, Alabama can sit back and just enjoy the mistakes of non-locals. It’s one of the inalienable rights, Jefferson just forgot to write it down.