Tag Archives: Calgary

Pronunciation tip: Calgary

You might think that Calgary would be a straightforward thing to say. Well, you can say it as you see it and be understood, yes, but the odds are pretty good you’ll immediately sound like someone not from around Calgary. Here’s a quick tip – less than a minute – on how Calgarians say it.


I’m back where I’m from, for a visit with my family. Where am I from? The Bow Valley, Alberta. I was born in Calgary.

As you may have heard, the Bow River is at a hundred-year flood level, and low-lying parts of Calgary are under water. Fortunately, Calgary is a very not-flat city, and most of it is well above the damp. And Cochrane, where my parents live, has no houses close enough to river level to be flooded – the river runs through it, but down there. But let me tell you, I’ve never seen the river that high and fast.

I think it’s a good time to taste this word, Calgary. It’s a very normal, natural word for me, because I grew up with it, but I’m not oblivious to some of its salient features.

That big C figures a fair bit around town. The LRT system is called the C-Train; the brand for the Calgary Stampede is a C over a lazy S. It’s a hard [k], but it has that classy and almost delicate curve of C rather than the kicking K (imagine Kalgary. Wait, consider this: the city long known as Calcutta is now respelled Kolkata – isn’t that really, really different, in spite of the nearly identical pronunciation?).

I’m sure that as a kid I was somehow partial to Calgon as a name for dish detergent brand because of Calgary – but not so much that we didn’t use Cascade (a name anyone with a Banff connection will feel at home with). I was also reminded of Calvary (the place of the crucifixion – but not really of Golgotha, the Aramaic it translates) and, from that, of cavalry. There are also hints of garrison, ugly, gaol, Caligula, Cargill (an agricultural company), and Dr. Caligari (of the cabinet, in the movie).

One important detail is the pronunciation of this word. I remember, before the 1988 Olympics, reading a magazine’s counsel that the name of the city was pronounced like two guys’ names put together: Cal and Gary. This is so plain wrong I wrote them a letter (and they printed it). Only people not from anywhere near Calgary say it that way. The word Calgary has two and a half syllables, with the accent strongly on the first.

Two and a half? If you say it carefully, or if you sing it, it’s three, yes (the unofficial city song when I was growing up was the promo music for CFAC, channels 2 and 7 [you must watch it on YouTube to know the place I grew up]: “Makes no difference where I go, you’re the best hometown I know. Hello Calgary, hello Calgary-y-y… channels two and seven love you”). But really, the second syllable is normally just a long /r/, just a little longer than if you said “calgry.” The “grry” is more than a syllable but not really as much as two normal ones. Oh, and the /l/ is normally said as a velar approximant – not even the “dark l” you hear at the end of “Bill”; the tongue really doesn’t usually touch at all, it just rises up in back. (The IPA for this sound is [ɰ].)

What that means is that you can say this word without lifting the very tip of your tongue at all. The front behind the tip lifts up for the final [i], but the tip stays behind the teeth. It’s nearly all velar action: opening aspirated /k/, low front /æ/, the /l/ reduced to the [ɰ], a /g/ and that long /r:/, and then /i/. The only time the lips move much is that slight rounding they do on the /r/, and maybe opening up a little extra on the /æ/.

So where does Calgary come from? Well, the fort the NWMP (later RCMP) founded here was first named Fort Brisebois, after an officer whose name shows up in a street name now, but an NWMP Colonel, James Macleod (who has a major street named after him, Macleod Trail – the big roads in Calgary are called Trail), named it after a place in Scotland, on the Isle of Mull. (Southern Alberta has a lot of Scottish heritage. I grew up expecting bagpipes at big formal occasions.) When I was a kid, I heard that Calgary actually meant ‘castle by the bay’. This turns out not to be true: there is a castle by the bay at Calgary in Scotland, but the name Calgary comes from Scots Gaelic Calgarraidh, which most likely comes from cala ghearraidh, ‘beach of the meadow’.

Calgary, Alberta, is not much known for meadows and not at all known for beaches, although it has some of each. But right now they’re generally under water. Not of the bay – of the Bow. Also the Elbow, Calgary’s other river. But it will pass.