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Jeff Kolpack, Published June 27 2013

Kolpack: Pronunciation of 'Bison' depends on where you're from

Fargo - The asset of some of these Division I moments in the last several years has been the notoriety North Dakota State has received on the likes of ESPN’s SportsCenter. It’s also caused some folks’ blood pressure to take a brief hike.

We’re talking, of course, about the penchant for national sports announcers to mispronounce the Bison nickname – or at least mispronounce it from the Red River Valley point of view. Lou Holtz says “Bison,” not “Bizon,” and we all think he doesn’t give a rip about NDSU.

Well, he probably doesn’t, but Dr. Lou is also saying the nickname like most Americans say it.

Thanks to some NDSU students, we can now determine this as fact. Yes, the common usage of “Bizon” as we know it is pretty much confined to our own little flooded corner of the world.

“It’s an interesting distinction,” said Kellam Barta, a recent NDSU graduate in English who was part of the study. “Sharing the ‘z’ pronunciation is a way to identify local pride.”

Barta conducted the study with fellow students Tatjana Schell, Teresa BlackCloud and Maia Randklev, all English students of varying degrees. It got its initial start in 2011 when Barta was one of three students who conducted a pilot study, which was confined to interviewing students on campus.

The following year, in another course where the instructor allowed the “Bison/Bizon” research to continue, the group took its interviewing show on the road to North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Canada.

Yes, Winnipeg, home of the University of Manitoba “Bizons,” where they may say it in a plural form, but the “s” version is also not acceptable.

“Oh gosh no,” said Roxanne Perry, who works in marketing and sponsorship with the athletic department. “That is not right. It’s just the way we do it up here.”

There may be a legitimate reason for that, too. The NDSU group cites the French influence in Winnipeg, where the French pronunciation of “bison” uses a “z.” So, if you don’t like the way Dr. Lou says Bison, blame the French.

“Some people really do consider the ‘z’ correct and those mostly reside on campus or in the Fargo area,” Barta said. “Really, that’s the extent compared to the rest of the country.”

Furthermore, the study suggests when NDSU, then the North Dakota Agricultural College, changed its nickname in 1922, it may have borrowed the pronunciation of the buffalo from the University of Manitoba.

For the record, there is no right or wrong way to say the name, Barta said. In this age where marketing is all about finding an identity, it’s probably a good thing.

“I wouldn’t say there’s anything wrong with that,” said Barta, whose verbiage is much more intelligent than that of sports writers. “Associating with a mascot is a way to show local pride, and this is a completely legitimate way to express that.”

So keep those blood pressure pills in the bottle. South Dakota State, for instance, would like nothing better than for San Diego State to fall into the ocean. Two SDSUs is one too many.

Like a blue football field in Boise, it’s cool to have your own gig.

Barta said his guess is “Bizon” would also be vogue in heavy French areas like New Orleans or northeast Maine. Maybe those folks snarl at Dr. Lou, too.

Barta, a 1999 graduate of Lisbon High School, moved to Raleigh, N.C., two weeks ago for a masters program in sociolinguistics at North Carolina State. It’s too bad he didn’t continue his studies at Bucknell University (Pa.), where it’s the Bison, not the “Bizon.”


Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546. Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found at www.areavoices.com/bisonmedia