“Sometimes we forget the difference between the true professional and the merely gifted amateur.”
—Snoopy to audience after soundly
thrashing Charlie Brown in a tennis match
As noted in my preceding post, in this series of articles generally titled Arkansiana, I am sharing four pieces I wrote back in 1981 in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Arkansas newspapers to allow me to write a regular column by that name.
In the first piece, which I published in the preceding post, I explained generally how the term “Arkansas” came from the name given by French explorers to the Indians who inhabited the Lower Mississippi River Valley near the place where the Arkansas River empties into the Mississippi, not far from my hometown and county.
Now in this second post I elaborate a bit on that story, providing some historical and linguistic details that were not set forth in the first post. As noted, however, due to the passage of time since these pieces were originally written, some of these “facts” may no longer be totally accurate.
For a more current and authoritative “true professional” account of the naming of the state of Arkansas I refer you to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture on this subject.
But here is my original “gifted amateur” version of that story as I recounted it more than twenty years ago to a disinterested audience of newspaper editors.
The Pronunciation of Arkansas
Can you pronounce that
Are you kidding? Anybody knows it’s the “AR-kan-saw River.”
Right you are. Unless, of course, you happen to be from the Sunflower State, in which case you would call it the “Ar-KAN-ziz River.”
We Arkies have our “AR-kan-saw City” (on the Mississippi River in Desha County from whence I hail), while Kansans have their “Ar-KAN-ziz City” (a somewhat larger metropolis near the Oklahoma border).
Why the difference? And who is right?
Well, the story is rather long and involved, but in essence it goes back to the early European exploration and settlement of this part of the country.
The first European that we know about to explore our area was, of course, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto. On an expedition in 1541-42 he and his men came from Spanish Florida, traveled across the South, discovered the Mississippi River, crossed it, and wandered around in what is now the state of Arkansas for several months. But de Soto neither gave the region a name nor claimed it for Spain.
More than 130 years later, in 1673, French explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet [also spelled Jolliet] descended the Mississippi River from Canada in their search for a passage to the South Sea (Pacific Ocean).
Landing near the mouth of the Arkansas River (as yet unnamed), they were welcomed by a group of Indians, one of the four villages later to become known to history as the Quapaw or “downstream people.” [Modern versions say that the name actually meant “People of the South Wind.”]
Of the Sioux family, these Indians were recognized as (or called themselves) the Alkansa (Arkansa or Arkansea), a name given earlier by the Illinois Indians to a confederation of five tribes who had originally lived along the banks of the Ohio River.
In their westward migration this branch or sub-tribe had separated from the main body at the Mississippi River, turning south or downstream—hence the name Quapaw (from u-ga-qpa, which was pronounced gutturally by the Indians as “olgakh-par” or “gk-whaw-pau”).
[Again, for more information on this subject consult the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. The rest of this version is based on James Masterson’s Arkansas Folklore, an article in the Desha County Historical Society periodical, and my own knowledge of French.]
In their attempts to communicate with these Indians the French finally located an old man “who could speak a little Illinois.” From him, in the Illinois language, they learned of “another village, called Aramsea (Arkansea/Arkansa),” a little farther south.
So (as noted by the late Judge Jim Merritt of my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, near this site, to whom I am indebted for this information) “the old unnamed . . . Indian at Mitchigama gave to history the sound, and Father Marquette translated it into a word, and duly noted Arkansea in his journal and map . . .” The Algonquin Indian guides of the French, however, pronounced the word as “oo-ka-na-sa.”
Later the French explorers, in referring to these people, heard and therefore spelled the word in an amazing variety of ways (estimated at more than seventy!) such as: Acansa, Accanceas, Akansa, Alkansas, Arcansa, Arkanseas, Arkansea, Arcanças, etc.
In these efforts by the French to communicate the name of these people (and hence the region they inhabited), true to French grammatical style the final “s” is a mark of the plural and therefore silent in pronunciation.
In other words, the early French explorers might refer in writing to this tribe as the Arkansa (for example), but the people would be referred to as the Arkansas (plural), yet both words would be pronounced identically.
Today, in modern French, since the word is written the same as in English, the name of the state and the river is l’Arkansas (singular). But the tribe of Indians by that name would be les Arkansas (plural). [Note the change of the preceding article to the plural form “les.”]
Ironically, most Frenchmen today don’t know the derivation of the name, and, assuming it to be a form of Kansas, pronounce l’Arkansas as “lar-kawn-SAHS.” We Arkies adopted their spelling and pronunciation, and they repaid us by changing theirs to ape the Jayhawks. Quelle gratitude!
So, in the word “Arkansas” (AR-kan-saw) what we have is an American pronunciation of an Anglicized version of a French corruption of an Algonquin interpretation of an Illinois word for a sub-branch of a Sioux tribal family.
And you wondered why there was some question as to its “proper” pronunciation!
Next Week: “Change the Name of Arkansas? Hell no!”