There’s a village on the island of Montserrat called Cavalla Hill. It can be reached only along a particularly steep and narrow road, but is home to the largest remaining Methodist church on the island since the loss of Bethel to the volcano.
I have been struck by the fact that there is considerable variability among Montserratians concerning the pronunciation of the first word in this place name. Some call it kəˈvalə, which I suppose is what you would expect from its spelling (the double ll signalling stress on the preceding vowel, as in umbrella, vanilla).
But many others make the final vowel i, and I have the impression that this is the general popular form, used by those who know it mainly as a spoken rather than as a written name. Yet even this group are divided in two. Some people stress it on the penultimate, but others on the initial syllable. The majority, it seems to me, say ˈkavəli. Since I too heard the name spoken before I saw it written, I too tend to give it initial stress and final i.
I haven’t been able to find out where the name comes from. Most placenames in Montserrat are geographical descriptors (Little Bay, Lookout, Woodlands), religious names (St Peter’s, St John’s, Salem), transplanted British or Irish names (Plymouth, Kinsale, Olveston), or based on former estate owners’ names (Tuitts, Brades, Nixons). But Cavalla Hill doesn’t seem to fit in any of those categories.
Dictionaries and Wikipedia tell us that cavalla is the popular name of several species of fish, including Caranx hippos and Scomber scombrus, aka the horse-mackerel. Not being a fisherman, I have never heard this word in use and do not know how fishermen pronounce it.
Webster’s Collegiate, however, gives not only cavalla kəˈvælə for the name of the fish, but also a variant form cavally kəˈvæli. (It also reports that the etymology is Spanish caballa, from a Latin word for ‘mare’.)
The OED, which does not record the spelling cavalla at all, gives the word only as cavally kəˈvæli.
There is also a river in West Africa called the Cavalla or Cavally.
It is not clear why a hill in Montserrat should be called after a fish or after a West African river.
The main point of phonetic interest here is the alternation between final schwa and final i. It puts me in mind of the Grand Ole Opry (= opera). According to Wikipedia, the term opry is quite recent, though, having been coined in 1928 by a Texan broadcaster, George D. Hay.
Are there other English words in which final ə alternates with i? I suspect there are, but I can’t actually think of any.