You’ve just given birth to the most perfect little human. You name him after your father, and his father before him. On the birth certificate, you spell it just like it’s always been spelled, with an accent mark over the i. Then Gisela Sanchez comes along.
“I see the accent mark and the first thing I do is tell them everything looks good except the accent mark and I'm really sorry I can’t use that,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez is a birth recorder at St. Luke’s California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. She helps parents with their baby’s birth certificates. But not every name will do. California has rules. Accent marks, tildes, umlauts, and cedillas are not allowed.
“Last name Hernandez, accent mark, which we unfortunately couldn't use. We've got another couple here from Russia. They wanted to name their baby, Enéas, and I pronounce it Enéas simply because the accent mark is there, but unfortunately I can't use that either,” explained Sanchez.
This affects a lot of Spanish names, as well as German, French, Polish, Estonian, Russian, Turkish, and more. An accent mark might seem like a small detail. But it tells you how to say a name right. Sanchez says that for some parents, it represents something more important.
“It's removing their culture, who they are. You know, my son's name is Julián, not Julian,” she said.
Accent marks are missing all over the Bay Area. Many neighborhoods and streets are named after Spanish explorers. Some of those names once had accent marks. But now, without them, we don’t know if we’re saying them right. Listen to the different ways these residents pronounce the name of their neighborhood in San Francisco.
“The Portola,” said one person who placed the stress on the POR. “I call it Portola district,” said another, who placed the stress on the TO. “Portola,” said another who stressed the POR. “The Portola district,” said another woman who stressed the TO.
This name once had an accent mark. Once it disappeared, the original pronunciation went with it. And so did its history.
“I guess that’s the traditional Italian name?” suggested one resident. “Um, Portola, what's his, I forget his first name?” wondered another. “I didn't know it was named after a person?” mused another resident.
“The people in the 1920s that came to this neighborhood pronounced it Portola,” said Rayna Garibaldi, putting the stress on the POR.
Garibaldi is a San Francisco native, born and raised here. You know the slim history book with the old photo on the cover that you see in a lot of neighborhoods? She wrote it and it’s called, San Francisco’s Portola.
According to the book, immigrants from Italy and Malta and Jews from Europe settled here in the 1920s. Their pronunciation, Portola, with the stress on the POR, caught on. That’s what Garibaldi grew up with. She says that in her lifetime she’s seen the neighborhood change. That pronunciation is now fading away.
“Now people who come here new from other parts of the city or other countries say Portola,” with stress on the TO, she said.
Garibaldi is talking about people like me. I stress the TO in Portola. That’s how I’ve always heard it pronounced. But after talking to Garibaldi, I started to wonder about Portola and how it should be pronounced. To find out, we need to look into our California history.
Don Gaspar de Portola was a Spanish explorer. Historians believe he discovered the San Francisco Bay in the 1700s. He was also the first Governor of Spanish-ruled California, before it was a state. After the miners struck gold and San Francisco rapidly grew, most people living here didn’t know about Portola. And those that did, forgot about him.
“This piece of California history was a little bit obscure. The back pages in the history books, so to speak,” explained local historian John Freeman.
Freeman said that in 1909, San Francisco quickly rebuilt itself after the big earthquake and fires. It wanted to throw a 5-day carnival to relaunch the city as a destination for business and tourism.
“They were searching around for a theme, a set of colors, and something to hang their festival on,” he said. They settled on the 140th anniversary of Portola’s discovery of the San Francisco Bay and called it the Portola Festival.
Suddenly, San Francisco was enamored with Portola. In postcards advertising the event, he looked rugged, with wavy hair spilling out from under a plumed hat, a sash over his shoulder and a long sword by his side. But as talk of the festival spread, a vexing question emerged. According to Freeman, the chair of the festival committee was giving a speech when he pronounced Portola three different ways.
“One of the principals of this particular meeting says, `excuse me sir, how do we pronounce the name?’” Freeman said, “`We need to officially decide how we should pronounce the name.’”
The organizers began an extensive search for Portola’s signature. Dispatches were sent to Spain and Mexico. They wanted to know if, and where, he put the accent mark in his name, so they could pronounce it right. In the meantime, how to say Portola went viral, in a 1909 way. Letters poured into the The San Francisco Call. One of them suggested that the pronunciation be decided by a game of dice. Another newspaper joked that it should be pronounced “Porthole.” Then there was the verse, like this excerpt from Lost Accent, published in the San Francisco Chronicle:
For my nerves were racked to pieces
and I felt an awful jar
When I heard the Mispronouncer
Say my name was Portola.
Oh, but there was more. Like this selection from What’s In a Name?
We’ll sing his blows ‘gainst craven foes,
His parry, thrust and sortie;
And when we come to speak his name,
Oh, well — let’s call him Porty!
Only days before the festival was to officially open, a Stanford academic discovered a cache of Portola’s letters in Mexico City. He said, I have looked at the documents, there is an accent on the end of his name, it should be pronounced Portolà.
Finally, how he would have pronounced it. The long, lost accent! Portolahhh. But just as quickly as it was discovered, it was gone. Newspapers couldn’t print the accent mark.
“You would sometimes see it accented. A lot of it had to do with the printer and the type of font they were using. Having a font with the "a" accented was a rarity in anybody's print box,” said Freeman.
In a short time, the correct pronunciation of Portolà disappeared. Today, in the Bay Area, there’s no accent mark on any of the signs that bear his name. Not on neighborhoods, streets, schools or even the city named after him, Portola Valley.
Today’s young explorers can speak their names into voice recorders. But unlike Portolà, they will never have official papers to show where their accent marks should be. So, if we can learn anything from Portolà, it’s to put your accent mark wherever you can. You just don’t know if you’ll wind up in the history books.
A note on the accent on Portolà: Gaspar de Portolà was Catalan, so we are using the Catalan closed accent, not the Spanish accent grave.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously accented Gisela Sanchez's son's name. It's Julián, not Julían.