How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Maria Charlotte VidalMaria Charlotte Vidal

Tom St. Amand

A resident of Maria Street recently asked why the name of his street is pronounced “Ma-RYE-ah” and not “Mar-EE-ah.”

It is confusing, especially since we’re more accustomed to Mar-EE-ah: Maria Sharapova, Maria Callas, Maria Shriver. Popular songs like “Maria” from West Side Story and The Sound of Music’s “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” reinforce that pronunciation.

Those who hear Ma-RYE-ah might assume the street is misspelled, the argument being Maria should read Mariah, as in Mariah Carey.

But Sarnians have spelled one of their oldest streets “Maria” yet pronounced it Ma-RYE-ah since it was first named 164 years ago.

And they’re correct, for a few reasons.

Ma-RYE-ah is, according to linguists, an older traditional British pronunciation, and English literature reflects that.

For example, Maria, a servant in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Maria Lucas in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, are both pronounced Ma-RYE-ah.

Maria Vidal, the namesake of Sarnia’s Maria Street, was born in 1829 in Somerset, England, the sixth child of Commander Richard Vidal and his wife, Charlotte. Nothing survives to confirm how Maria pronounced her name but it’s a safe bet it was the traditional Ma-RYE-ah.

At the age of five Maria accompanied her family, including grandmother Anna Mitton, to join her father seeking new opportunities in what was then called The Rapids.

Maria went on to live a full life. She married Reverend George Salter in 1850, gave birth to at least thirteen children, lived in Sarnia until 1869 and passed away in Brantford in 1889 at the age of 60.

Maria’s legacy for Sarnia, however, is the street her parents named for their first-born daughter in 1853.

Commander Vidal wanted the Vidal family to be remembered by the street names on his property. Essex, Penrose, Mitton, Charlotte, Maria, Vidal, Richard and Emeric were all named in the 1850s. They are still so named today, with the exception of Richard Street (now College Street) and Emeric Street (now Brock Street).

Commander Vidal’s granddaughter, Charlotte Vidal Nisbet, was a local historian who wrote more than 250 articles for the local paper. Charlotte was also the local voice and advocate of the Vidal family in the first half of the 20th century. For example, in one column she rued that Brock Street had replaced Emeric Street, for Emeric was a fine sounding name that had been in her family for generations.

Charlotte was born in 1855 and would have known her Aunt Maria very well. If her aunt were not called Ma-RYE-ah, the street would have been pronounced with a long E. And if people were mispronouncing it, Charlotte or other proud Vidal family members would have brought the error to their attention.

We call it Ma-RYE-ah Street today because that’s how Sarnians have correctly pronounced it for years.

Visitors to the city reveal themselves when they call the street Ma-Ree-ah, but Sarnians before and after Confederation know better.

Tom St. Amand is a retired city high school teacher