Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary

This neighborhood's name is at the center of an oratorical debate.

(Photo by Mira Laing)

San Francisco is no stranger to two things: odd pronunciations and neighborhood pride. Only tourists pronounce Gough Street as “gow,” and only newcomers are confused when the old guard insists that NoPa is actually the Western Addition. Neighborhood names have become synonymous with gentrification, and changes, no matter how gradual, are loaded. But in Portola, the elocution battle plays out more peacefully, with two different ways to say the area’s name: “POR-da-lah” or “por-TOE-la.”

Luke Spray, corridor manager for the Portola Neighborhood Association, tells SF Weekly it’s the former — and Portola librarian Nicole Termini Germain (pictured above) agrees. When Italian and Maltese immigrants settled in the neighborhood in the 1920s, they pronounced its name with a stress on the “POR,” and it caught on.

While residents call it “POR-da-lah,” it’s not easy to trace the pronunciation origin. The Portola Planet, a local neighborhood blog, dug up a mention of the neighborhood’s phonetic choices in an old San Francisco Call article from 1909. A festival held that year to celebrate Spanish soldier and explorer Gaspar de Portolá included a speech by Portola committee member James Rolph, who, after consulting linguists and scholars, concluded that the pronunciation of the neighborhood “should be a crescendo, ending with a crash on the ‘LA.’ ”

This doesn’t completely explain the modern-day phonetics of the neighborhood’s name, but the arguments should end with this fact: Residents appear to vote for “POR-da-lah,” so next time you visit, make sure you leave your toes out of it.

Check out more stories from our Portola issue:
Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns
After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.
Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.
Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.
Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco
You can’t be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain
Urban Agriculture or More Housing?
One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola’s garden industry, and its future is uncertain.
Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots
Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway.
McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow

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