Monday, August 9, 2010

Apple #476: Pronouncing Arkansas

I know I just did a Daily Apple entry last night, but I'm trying to make up for the dearth of entries recently.  And besides, this makes it a true Daily Apple, Alex!

I was looking through an catalog from Arkansas today, and that reminded me to ask, Why the heck do they pronounce it "ARK-an-saw" and not "ar-KAN-sas"?  Given that Kansas is pronounced "KAN-sas," that seems to be the pronunciation that would make sense.  Why is it different?

  • Like so many place names in the United States, "Arkansas" is derived from a Native American word. How we wound up with this word and this pronunciation is like a long game of Telephone Operator played through four different languages.
  • Once upon a time, when French Jesuits were still making their way westward, they were told about a tribe of Native Americans who lived farther south down the Mississippi from where they were.
  • This tribe called themselves the Quapaws, or sometimes the Oogaqpa, which means "downstream people."
The Arkansas River runs diagonally across the center of the state, while the Mississippi flows south along the eastern border.  The Quapaws lived somewhere in the area east of what is now Little Rock.
(Map from
  • But the people who told the French Jesuit explorers about the Quapaws were Algonquian-speaking Native Americans who lived in the Ohio Valley.  The Algonquians didn't use the Quapaws' word for their tribe but rather their own Algonquin word, which meant "south wind," and was pronounced Ookanasa.
  • Each French explorer heard that word differently, apparently, because when they wrote down their maps of the region, they used various spellings of the name the Algonquians had told them.
      • Marquette wrote "Arkansoa"
      • Joliet wrote "Arkansea"
      • LaSalle wrote "Arkensa" and also "Acansa"
      • DeTonti wrote "Arkancas"
      • LaHarpe wrote "Arkansa" or "Arkansas"
  • LeHarpe's version of the name was actually based on his name for the river which ran near where these people lived.  The river, he felt sure, was called the Arkansas and the people who lived there were the Arkansa tribe.  People who were members of the tribe were called Arkansa plural, or Arkansas.
  • Except in French, you don't pronounce the final s the way we do in English.  The s influences the final vowel sound slightly, but it stays a vowel, yielding something quite close to "ARK-an-saw."
  • Then Zebulon Pike came through the territory in 1811, and he spelled it on his map the way he heard it: Arkansaw.

Zebulon Pike wasn't French but American.  He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and served under General George Washington before he went exploring in the southwest.  I think they're still doing their hair in New Jersey like his.
(Photo from Pike's Peak Cog Railway)

  • When Arkansas became a state in 1836, they used LeHarpe's spelling, Arkansas.  But there were still a lot of variations in the way people pronounced the name.
  • Because in the meantime, things were going differently in nearby Kansas, which had recently become a state.  Instead of retaining the French pronunciation of the word (which would have kept it something like KAN-sah), the folks in Kansas Anglicized the name of their state and pronounced it KAN-sus.

The red line shows the Arkansas River flowing through Arkansas down there on the lower right as well as through Kansas, which is the pale yellow state in the upper middle. The fact that the same river runs through both states is why their names are similar.
(Map from Encyclopedia VBXML)

  • So some people in Arkansas were pronouncing their state as the French and Zebulon Pike did while others were pronouncing it like the Kansans.
  • In fact, in the Arkansas state legislature, one senator preferred to be introduced as being from ARK-an-saw, while the other preferred to be introduced as being from ar-KAN-sas.
  • In 1881 the senators finally went head to head about this, after which the state adopted a general resolution declaring that the state name would be pronounced ARK-an-saw.
  • There is an extremely colorful -- which is to say it's full of hyperbole and coarse language -- rendition of the argument one senator made in favor of the ARK-an-saw pronunciation.  It's not certain whether this was the debate that was actually made on the floor of the state legislature, or an embellished version written after the fact.  Some think that maybe Mark Twain penned this speech, given the fact that a similar though far tamer version appears in his Life on the Mississippi.  If you'd care to have a look-see, you can read the text at this site. Scroll down to "Here is Randolph's field-collected text."
  • I had always thought that the way Kansas was pronounced made more sense and Arkansas was the rogue.  But in fact, Kansas is the one that altered its pronunciation and Arkansas is actually closer to the original.

SHG Resources, Arkansas Symbols, State Name
The State of Arkansas, Introduction
Pete Thomas, Cimarron Kansas Network, Arkansas, the state
The Straight Dope, Why is Arkansas pronounced Ar-kan-SAW?
alphaDictionary, Origins of US State Names
Netstate, Kansas State History Information

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