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How do you pronounce Los Feliz?

Los FEE-lus or Los Fey-LEASE? The Spanish names bequeathed by early settlers later took on a Midwestern inflection. Now the Spanish versions are making a comeback — to some speakers' discomfort.

May 07, 2013|By Marisa Gerber, Los Angeles Times

The phone jangles in the bright white-walled computer shop off Hillhurst Avenue, and Ariel Belkin picks it up.

"Los FEE-lus Hi-Tech," he says. "This is Ariel."

After the call comes his confession.

Photos: It's all in the name

The 30-year-old tech whiz, who also plays guitar in a band, moved to Los Feliz from the Valley a year and a half ago. Back then, he resolved to pronounce his new neighborhood as Los Fey-LEASE. The Spanish pronunciation, he says, is the "the right way."

But pretty soon he caved to the weird stares and smug corrections from locals and switched to the more common anglicized pronunciation.

"It's kind of sad," he said. "Like I gave in to the Man."

Photos: It's all in the name

But Belkin isn't the only one in a pronunciation quandary, and neither is Los Feliz.

Many of the names that dot the maps of Southern California originate with the Spanish settlers of the 17th and 18th centuries and the Native Americans before them. The English-speaking people who eventually developed the region loved the romantic feel of the Spanish place names but brought a decidedly Midwestern way of pronouncing them.

Rancho Los Feliz became Los FEE-lus. La bahía de San Pedro, San PEE-dro. El Segundo, Elsie Gunndo. And when left to Sam Yorty, a Nebraska native who served as L.A. mayor four decades ago, "Los An-gel-lus" — already a big jump from el pueblo de los Ángeles — got a sort-of nasal pronunciation with a hard-g "Law SANG-lus."

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These days, though, Spanish pronunciations are making a comeback.

A younger generation — perhaps more sensitive to the region's history — favors truer Spanish pronunciations. L.A.'s growing Latino population helps propel the new pronunciations too: Univision Radio's "Piolin por La Mañana" often outpaces its English-language competitors, and a Latino runs City Hall.

"It's part of the re-Latinization of Los Angeles," said historian William Estrada. "Intersections of culture come about in cuisine and in spoken word — in the changing movement to the correct, authentic pronunciation."

But some stick to the anglicized versions, using air quotes to say that even if they're not "right," they still feel as if it's the way to go.

On an online message board called "Southern California-isms," a former Los Feliz resident described an urge to slap everyone who uses the Spanish pronunciation, hoping to "bring them back to reality." "LosFeliz_Diva" responded to a question in another forum, saying she thinks both the "gringo way" and the Spanish pronunciation are acceptable.

Local author and historian D.J. Waldie said the change says something about shifting demographics.

"Long ago … Midwesterners gave every Spanish-sounding place name in Southern California a Midwestern pronunciation," Waldie said. "Those Midwesterners felt that they defined the culture of Southern California. Well, they don't anymore."

For anchorman David Ono, getting the pronunciation right is a near-nightly battle.

When he struggles with how to pronounce Spanish place names in the news, his colleagues at KABC-TV Channel 7 often pitch in suggestions.

"Somebody says, 'I really think it's this way,' " Ono said. "And other people say, 'I really think it's this way.' "

Sometimes he calls city halls directly during commercial breaks, hoping for an answering-machine recording — a window into how locals say it.

Even that can be a crapshoot.

Take Hemet-adjacent San Jacinto, for example, where answering-machine messages at the library, museum and Chamber of Commerce offer three pronunciations — versions in which the second word starts with either an "h," "j" or "y" sound.

In "up in the air" cases like that, Ono said, he errs toward a Spanish pronunciation to honor the name's roots.

Waldie, who consciously avoids using a "flat, Midwestern pronunciation," takes the same approach. Every time he takes an admittedly rough stab at pronouncing Southland names in Spanish, he proves his point: Perfection isn't the key. Trying is.

"We don't need to get it exactly right," he said. "We have to get it right enough to be culturally aware."

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Perhaps nowhere is this pronunciation debate taken more seriously than in Los Feliz.

More than 200 years ago, before the wealthy or the mod descended on the lush, mansion-dotted hills east of present-day Hollywood, Cpl. José Vicente Feliz called them home. As a "thank you" for his service, the Spanish crown granted him a wide swath of the land he helped settle. From then on, it bore his name: Rancho Los Feliz.

Today, no one can seem to agree if using the Spanish pronunciation is respectful — or pretentious.

Donald Seligman, former president of the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., said he and most longtime residents still anglicize their neighborhood's name. He thinks pronunciation is about practicality.

"I don't think one or the other is correct," he said. "I think it's a matter of understandability."

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