OK, What's The Right Way To Pronounce Mueller?
There’s a relatively new neighborhood in Northeast Austin with new homes and new businesses. Someday there may even be a school there. It’s built on land that used to be Austin’s airport – named after a City Council member from the 1920s.
Those facts are clear.
What's not so clear is how to properly say the neighborhood’s name.
There are many variables that can determine how you pronounce the name "Mueller." Those variables can change depending on where you live and how long you've lived in Austin. If you listened to this week's State of the City, you would've heard Mayor Steve Adler pronounce Mueller like "MEW-ler."
If you turn on your local TV stations, you might hear a reporter pronounce Mueller like "Miller."
But who is correct?
Let’s start with some history. In 1926, a man named Robert Mueller was elected to the City Council. Mueller's family came to Texas from Germany in the late 19th century. He pronounced his last name as if it were spelled "Miller." But it’s spelled M-U-E-L-L-E-R. Six months after the election, Mueller died. Three years later, Austin opened its first municipal airport and named it after the late council member. In the beginning, it was pronounced one way, according to archival footage from the Texas Archive of the Moving Image.
“The name will still be the Robert Mueller airport," said broadcaster Cactus Pryor as he took a tour of the airport in 1961. "Yes, that’s right. It’s the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.”
A clip from the old television show "Progress Report Austin" pronounces it the same way a year later.
“This is the new hangar at Robert Mueller Municipal Airport. That’s new in 1934.”
KUT producer Jimmy Maas, who grew up in Austin, says the airport was pronounced "MEW-ler."
"But then around the time it closed [in 1999], suddenly it became 'Miller,'" Maas says. "So that was the time, in my recollection, there was a change."
Then developers started building the neighborhood there. The developer in charge of the project, Catellus, says both pronunciations are correct, but UT Austin linguist Lars Hinrichs says technically, neither is correct.
"The 'UE' letter sequence is a transliteration of the umlaut," says Hinrichs. "That is a sound English doesn't have ... it's like saying 'E,' but rounding your lips. I will leave it to your listeners to practice it by themselves, but it does not exist in English."
"I think it's just a sign of all the newcomers coming in. They do a spelling pronunciation. It's spelled M-U-E. How does English typically pronounce M-U-E? We'll we're going to say [MEW-ler]."
Hinrichs says Austin faces an ethical dilemma.
"Does the person whose name it is, do they control how it's pronounced?" he asked. "I would say once a name becomes an eponym for a big part of town, that name also becomes public domain in a sense. Especially when the original Robert Mueller has been dead for 89 years."
Mueller isn't the only confusing and contentious name in Austin. Here, we say Guad-a-LOOP, BURN-it and MAY-nor. Hinrichs says in the past, people were more likely to Anglicize words and names, but people don’t want to do that anymore.
"Nowadays, we are so globalized and so much in contact with people speaking other languages that we have higher expectations of ourselves to make it sound more like the original."