Why Isn’t “Arkansas” Pronounced Like “Kansas”?

A Blog About Language
Aug. 27 2014 10:02 AM

Why Isn’t “Arkansas” Pronounced Like “Kansas”?

A version of this piece appeared in The Week:

arkansas
How do you pronounce it?

iStock

Kansas and Arkansas aren't so far from each other on the map, but their names seem to want nothing to do with each other. Though they share all but two letters in common, Kansas comes out as "KANzis" and Arkansas as "ARkansaw." Why so different?

Advertisement

Kansas was named for the Kansa, a Siouan tribe that lived in the region. The Kansa people were called, in plural, Kansas, and that became the name of the state. But before it did, English, French, and Spanish speakers, as well as speakers of various Native American languages, all came up with their own ways of pronouncing (and writing) the name of the tribe. The Kansa themselves pronounced it with a nasalized "a" (rather than a full "n"), a "z," and an "eh" sound—approximately "kauzeh." Everyone else had their own versions, and historical records show all kinds of spellings: Kansa, Kansas, Kantha, Kances, Konza, Kauzas, Canees, Canceys … Eventually, Kansas won out.

Arkansas was named for a related Siouan tribe, the Quapaw. The Algonquians called them "Akansa," joining their own A- prefix (used in front of ethnic groups) to the Kansa name (the same root as that for Kansas). The Algonquians' name for the Quapaw was picked up by others, and was also spelled in various ways: Akancea, Acansea, Acansa. However, it was the French version, Arcansas, that became the basis for the eventual state name. In French the final plural s is not pronounced. Somehow, the English speakers that took over after the Louisiana Purchase decided to go with a modified French spelling along with a French pronunciation—an S on the page, but not on the tongue. (Incidentally, the name Ozark comes from French aux Arcs, short for aux Arcansas. And the same native word that became Wichita in Kansas went with the Frenchified spelling Ouachita in Arkansas.)

Actually, it took some time for Arkansans to come to agreement on pronunciation. In 1881, a heated disagreement between the state's two senators, one who said "arKANzis" and the other who said "ARkansaw," led to a ruling by the state legislature making the "ARkansaw" pronunciation official. Ever since, Americans have gone along with the s-less, first-syllable-stressed version of Arkansas. At least when it comes to the state name. The people of Kansas don't go any further than that. For them it's the "arKANzis" River, and "arKANzis" City.

Arika Okrent holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and a first-level certification in Klingon. She is the author of In the Land of Invented Languages.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

There Are New Abuse Allegations Against Adrian Peterson

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Jurisprudence

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.