Last year, developers broke ground on the 3.5 billion dollar Schuylkill Yards project, a complex of offices, labs, residences, restaurants, and open spaces between Drexel University and 30th Street Station. The project will accelerate the booming Philly tech industry and create “an internationally-renowned innovation hub.” But international visitors might wonder how to pronounce its name.  How do you say “Schuylkill?”

Allow Danny DeVito to demonstrate (and please ignore the poor Cantonese skills of the interpreter):

That’s right, SKOO-kle. It’s derived from a phrase used by 17th-c. Dutch settlers meaning “hidden river” (schuilen=hidden, and kil=an archaic word for creek). The original Lenape people referred to it as “turtle river,” which is what we should call the Schuylkill Expressway now, at least during rush hour.

The difficulty of the word is not lost on the developers: near 30th Street station I saw this billboard teaching us how to spell it:

Some of the more interesting place-names in Philadelphia, such as Passyunk Ave (pronounced PASH-yunk) and Wissahickon (WISS-a-HICK-in) are Lenape names. The neighborhood of Manyunk (pronounced MAN-a-yoonk by old-timers) meant “place to drink,” and it still does, except people drink at the bars, not at the river.

My favorite place-names in the Philadelphia area came out of William Penn’s 17th-c. land grant to Welsh Quaker settlers. Bala Cynwyd (pronounced BAL-uh-KIN-wood), Tredyffrin, (TRED-if-rin) and Uwchlan (YOU-klin) are names of early Welsh settlements. When the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad came through in the 19th century, the Welsh Tract became a highly desirable place to live, and a few towns changed their names to boost their cachet. For example, the town of Humphreysville was rechristened Bryn Mawr by an agent who purchased the land on behalf of the railroad in 1869.

Philadelphia is a city with a rich cultural and linguistic history. In addition to the fun of puzzling over Philly place-names (and figuring out Philly accents) there are lots of things to see and do. The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (PHLCVB) international website provides specially selected content in ten languages for visitors from around the world, while offers a wealth of information for domestic travelers as well.

Great marketing copy deserves creative translation.
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