Tag Archives: Banff

Pronunciation tip: Banff

Over the holidays I was in Banff, where I spent an important part of my formative years, and I thought I should do a pronunciation tip. What did I choose? WapitiNorquay? Kootenay? Mount Lefroy? Nope, something trickier: Banff.

Oh, you know how to say “Banff.” You do! No one gets it wrong, unless they’re doing it on purpose or don’t speak English comfortably. But the odds are very good that you don’t know how you’re actually saying it. Guess what: This is really a phonology tip!


What pasts and presents we drown in pursuit of our futures.

Minnewanka is a name of a lake near the town of Banff, Alberta, Canada. I visited it a week ago for the first time in decades and walked a path on its shore that I don’t remember ever walking before. The path starts paved, then becomes well-worn dirt, and over its course gradually roughens as it traverses roots and rocks. Within a half hour you’re at a bridge over a small canyon, and then the trail climbs up to bend around the mountain and follow the farther shore from on high. Past a certain point you are advised to travel in tight groups in case of bears; hikers can continue to overnight campsites many hours of bootsteps farther on. But up to the bridge, it is well worn and friendly.

At the trailhead is a parking lot and a snack bar and a motorboat rental. You may, if you will, speed across its surface, a score of metres above ghostly streets where people used to walk and talk and kiss and eat. You may, if you will, strap on a can of atmosphere and dive down to look at a town drowned seventy-seven years ago, a town on a site where people had lived even ten thousand years earlier. See the video with this article from Smithsonian – you may find it spooky and wonder what waterlogged ghosts are over your shoulder.

There has always been a lake here, though it wasn’t always this big. A long, long time ago it was bigger, but glaciers and moraine rise and fall and so do lakes. By 1888 it was eighty feet down from where it is now, and a hotel and then a town were built on its shore: Minnewanka Landing. Fifteen years later, up the hill, a mine was started and a town of a thousand souls sprouted up there. It was called Bankhead and had a power plant that supplied power for Minnewanka Landing.

In 1912 a dam was built on the lake to store water for another power plant. In 1922 the Bankhead mine closed and its power plant shut down. A new power plant was built to replace it. The houses of Bankhead were mostly unmoored from their foundations and moved to nearby towns, leaving a cluster of concrete lumps in the woods for local schoolkids to visit on field trips and a small selection of buildings with interesting pasts mixed in with the others in Banff and Canmore.

But in 1941 there was a war on, and more power was needed. A dam was built across the end of the valley for a new power plant, and everyone in Minnewanka Landing had to leave. They didn’t get to take their houses. Fifty-three years a town, ten thousand years a place people passed through and sometimes lived, now a dim dreamworld like a far-gone childhood, walked in only by people long passed, seen from above darkly by the eyes of our time.

As we ever see other worlds darkly. Their sacred fabrics become burial shrouds. Look at the name of this lake. For a time, the European settlers called it Devil’s Lake. Beyond its end is a place called Devil’s Gap (now also the name of an establishment in the town of Banff where you may buy bites and spirits). A sign near the snack bar will now tell you that Minnewanka comes from local Native words meaning ‘spirit lake’. One website I found declares it’s from “Minn-waki (Lake of the Spirits).” But that’s not quite it.

How do I know that’s not quite it? The local language it’s from is Nakoda, or (in settlers’ terms) Stoney. That’s the language of the people on whose land I grew up. It’s a language I don’t speak, alas – but my dad does, quite well. So I asked him. The name of the lake in Nakoda is mînî wakâ, which means ‘sacred water’. The circumflexes indicate nasalization – the sort of thing you hear in French and Portuguese when an nor mis written after a vowel. So mînî, which means ‘water’, has nasal vowels, and wakâ, which means ‘sacred’, has a nasal vowel just at the end.

Did you catch that? If it were wâka it would sound like “wanka” to English ears, but it was wakâ, more like “walk on” without fully saying the n. We’ve shifted the sound. Just as we’ve shifted the sense, from ‘sacred’ (a fluid quality) to ‘spirits’ (individual beings) and then, for a time, because we feared the spirits of the people we invaded, to ‘devil’. We forced it with our own constructions just as we forced the water when, in one of our wars, we stopped it from flowing freely and used its holy fabric to shroud the ghost of a town because we wanted power.

But it’s still there. It’s all still there. For us now it seems a pleasant thing to look at when we’re not looking at our screens, a fun thing to invade, a present of nature from our past selves and our ages-old planet, but it’s still there. And when we have walked on, when we have drowned our last memory and spent our own futures, and the evidence of our passing slowly drains out of time, it will be still there. Mînî wakâ.


There are two more place names that were central to my formative years. One of them is Banff. Banff is the town that for years we would go to for church on Sunday, with lunch and library after, and sometimes for movies on other nights, and for the hot springs, and for hikes in the surrounding park, especially over Lake Louise. Banff Avenue was a familiar mall of delights; the Banff Springs Hotel was our local castle where we sometimes went for brunch buffets. And when I learned to ski, Banff’s ski areas became as famous a topography in my mind as Manhattan is for movies.

Banff formed a geography of my imagination, it and its mountains and glaciers and history; it was and still is my Eden. And then, after finishing junior high in Exshaw, I went to high school in Banff, riding in with my brother for the first year and staying with friends in town for the other two. I spent the heart of my adolescence in this town in the heart of the mountains. Think of all the meaningful moments of your mid-teens. Transpose them to a mountain resort town, one of the most famous mountain resort towns on the planet, and a high school class of just a couple dozen students. The movies you saw, the parties you misbehaved at, the teenage crushes, the friends you cruised around with, all in a town in a crotch of the mountains, every place you go a corner of a postcard. Imagine your graduating class having a weekend hike to a cabin in the mountains (no, not nearly as wholesome an activity as you may imagine). Imagine the morning of your graduation having a champagne breakfast at the top of the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. Imagine your graduation in the ballroom of the Banff Springs Hotel.

Even if Banff has no such associations for you, if you have ever been there it may very well have the same first impression in your mind: the smell of crisp evergreen-fresh mountain air, the sight of stones and logs in the local public architecture.

Or Banff may bring to mind sea air and ruins of a castle and many old Scottish buildings… if you’ve been to the one in Scotland. Of course the Banff in Alberta is named after another Banff, which is formerly the county town of Banffshire (now assimilated into Aberdeenshire), birthplace of at least three men who had some connection to the town’s founding (the two co-founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway and a member of the National Parks Board), although there’s precious little resemblance between the two places – no more than between Calgary, Alberta, and Calgary, Scotland, or between Milford Sound, New Zealand, and Milford Haven, Wales.

Names can reflect errors and false hopes; Tunnel Mountain, the little tremont on the side of which much of Banff townsite is draped, is so named for a railroad tunnel that was originally proposed to go through it – although a look at the valley very quickly reveals that it makes much more sense simply to go around it, which is what the tracks ultimately did. So Tunnel Mountain is named for a feature that it does not have, and Banff is named for a place that it resembles very, very little. But words assimilate effects of their objects. There is nothing intrinsically montane about the word Banff, but it shines to my eyes like the snow and icefalls on Cascade Mountain; its ff are the tall conifers that line its streets and paths and form its buildings’ timbers.

We might also say that sounds assimilate like meanings, suiting themselves to the place of their environs. After all, it is generally accepted as a truism that Banff is pronounced “bamf” (which is also how you would pronounce Bamff, the name of a different place in Scotland). But in fact, it’s not even that; there are only three phones in the standard pronunciation: [bæ̃f] – the vowel is nasalized; the nasalization and voicing may sometimes spread rightward onto the start of the [f], making it a voiced labiodental nasal, [ɱ] (giving four phones: [bæ̃ɱf]), but that’s really just a variable epiphenomenon.

And what does Banff mean? It’s not entirely agreed on. The modern Gaelic for the Scottish town’s name is Banbh (in Gaelic bh is generally pronounced [v]). That’s also the Gaelic word for ‘suckling piglet’, but that’s unlikely to be the source of the town’s name. Perhaps more likely is that it’s a contraction of bean-naobh, ‘holy woman’. (Across the estuary of the river Deveron is the town of Macduff, a name familiar to readers of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.)

The name also has echoes of bumf, as in the acres of bumf about the town to be found in tourist brochures, and bath, which makes me think of the warm waters of the Banff Hot Springs. I also think of Braniff, at one time the name of an airline noted for its design sensibility. Take out the indefinite an from Banff and you get Bff, a best friend forever. Well, friends are not always forever (though I have reconnected with several of my classmates in recent years), but the mountain majesty and mythos of Banff are certainly lasting.