Appalachia – How Do You Say It?

I have a few pronunciation pet peeves. My language grievances may sound sanctimonious, especially to some folks who view Appalachian English as everything “un” – uncouth, unsophisticated, and uncivilized. Nevertheless, I cringe every time I hear: “I axed a question,” or, “He excaped through the window.” I’ll add to these grievances the pronunciation for our dear, old, Appalachia. Some, especially those in Northern Appalachia, vocalize a long second “a” and pronounce the “ch” with a sh sound: Appalaysha. The farther south one travels, however, the “ch” sound becomes the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant affricate one hears in chip or benchmark or spinach. Appalachia’s central and southern regions are very particular about the pronunciation. We grind our teeth when we hear “Appalaysha,” smile sweetly, and pronounce it “right” for the speaker: Aaa-puh-latch-uh.

Recently, I was curious about the origin of the word “Appalachia.” So, the cog wheels in the old noggin started rolling, and I did a little research and found some interesting information behind the fabric of the name – from pronunciation to origin to history. Now, I’m by no means an expert, but a lifelong student of all things. I love the enigmas that research brings, and I try to piece everything together like a puzzle. The following is my humble attempt at just that.

First of all, scholars either disagree on the origin of the word Appalachia or find the sources too ambiguous. The few primary sources that do exist are not clear or definitive. Let’s start way, way back. When Europeans explored the Americas, the jaunt was not only for expansion, but also to obtain resources. The Spanish empire funded their own quest(s) for exploration. Pánfilo de Narváez and his Spanish ships made their way to Florida in April 1528. He sent men to explore the area and they came back with a few “pieces of cloth” and “traces of gold.”1)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. Well, the latter certainly perked Narváez’s interest. One of the crewmen, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, wrote of the find:

Having by signs asked the Indians whence these things came, they motioned to us that very far from there, was a province called Apalachen, where was much gold, and so the same abundance in Apalachen of everything that we at all cared for.2)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press.

 

From the sounds of it, these Native Americans were “probably eager to rid themselves of demanding guests” so they “pointed to distant mountains as a potential source.”3)Williams, John Alexander. 2002. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. After two months, Narváez and his crew reached Apalachen but “received only harassment from the native residents,” possibly the tribe called Apalachee — so much so that the Spanish crew hightailed it out of there.4)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press.

Hernando De Soto and his crew arrived at “Apalache” in 1539 in the dead of winter. Rumors about American gold, from both Narváez and French explorers, circulated through the region. De Soto and his men trudged through the wilderness “toward the mountains in March 1540.”5)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. Legend has it that De Soto and his crew named the mountains Appalachia after the “Apalachi” tribe.6)Gannett, Henry. 1905. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Washington: Govt. Print. Off. p. 27 However, no evidence exists saying they officially labeled the mountains Appalachia(n).7)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. The only small pieces of evidence are maps produced at the time. Even then, the evidence is really unclear and uncertain. In 1562, cartographer Diego Gutierrez made the first possible reference to the region as “Apalchen.” I say “possible” because Apalchen is situated well north and “far removed from the home of the Apalachee tribe.8)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. Other mapmakers of the time followed suit in name and placement. Artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, sketched a scene of the Native Americans collecting gold in the rivers of “mountains called Apalatcy.”9)de Morgues, Jacque le Moyne. 1560s (?). “Mode of Collecting Gold in Streams Running From the Apalatcy Mountains.” Florida Memory: State Library and Archives of Florida.

Welsh translator and writer John Davies mentions “Apalachites” in his book The History of the Caribby-Islands (1665):

The Territories of the Apalachites consist of six Provinces, whereof three are comprehended within that noble and spacious Vale which is encompass’d by the Mountains of the Apalates, at the foot whereof these people inhabit . . . The County under the King of the Apalachites being thus divided into six Provinces, there are in it some Mountains of a vast extent and prodigious height, which are for the most part inhabited by a people living only upon what they get by hunting . . . (p. 229)

Adding to the confusion, the mountains were coined “Allegheny” in the 18th century, then split between the two names in accordance to region. The southern half was known as Appalachia while the northern half was Allegheny.10)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. This distinction went back and forth for decades. Even Washington Irving joined the debate. Most people believe he wrote sarcastically that the United States of America should be named either the United States of Appalachia or the United States of Alleghania.11)Irving, Washington signed Geoffrey Crayon. 1839. “National Nomenclature: to the Editor of the Knickerbocker.” Poeticous. Accessed Aug 2021. Geologist and geographer Arnold Henry Guyot “is credited with establishing scientific and popular usage for the entire mountain range,”12)Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press. when he published an article with a map entitled “On the Appalachian Mountain System.”

Richard L. Thornton’s post entitled “How the Appalachian Mountains got their name!” presents another interesting origin theory. He states the word is Aparashi, an anglicized “plural form of the name that the Creek Indians called themselves . . .” As for pronunciation, he proposes that the Creek language is “Panoan from Peru.” Both the Creeks and Panoans “rolled their R’s so hard that the European colonists recorded their R’s as L’s,” thus making the pronunciation Apalashi. Thornton points to ethnologist and linguist Albert Samuel Gatschet’s assessment as evidence that the Creeks “once occupied all of the Southern Appalachians” and named the mountains after themselves. Yet Gatschet himself states that the Apalachi language13)Gatschet also includes the Hitchiti and Mikasuki as being distinct from Creek language. Further, he says the Apalachi, Hitchiti, and Mikasuki “must once have had a common origin.” is “distinct from Creek and western dialects.”14)Gatschet, Albert Samuel. 1884. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Philadelphia: D.G. Brinton., p. 74 If so, does this distinction make the tribe separate from Creek? Thornton presents no primary sources. His theory is certainly interesting, but debatable.

So, we come to the end of picking apart letters and deciphering names and we’re no better off than when we started. We still have an enigma. The origin. The mountains. A people. Historians must dig up the past and sift through it in order to find the source of the name Appalachia. History must be based on facts and facts need documentation. Such data about the name doesn’t exist (so far). Yet one never knows what lurks underneath this or that stone. Take the Dead Sea Scrolls. A new set was just found in March 2021.

I tend to believe this region was named after the Apalachee, but “how” it became so is speculative. Thornton does say the tribe was found as far north as Georgia. So, this theory is absolutely possible. Something about de Morgues’s sketch keeps gnawing at me. The artwork of Native Americans digging for gold in Apalatcy implies that writings about Natives who greeted explorers, pointing toward the mountains and saying “Apalachee” is true.

If not for gold, we wouldn’t have even that much information. I’m personally not big on gold or diamonds. To me, the biggest gems in this region are what’s right in front of my face:  Sunlight sparkling across the water, disturbed only by ducks arrowing their way across; dragonflies hovering near dancing cattails around the water’s edge; birds flittering and raising their cantata across a woodland audience that hugs me from all sides; squirrels flicking their tails and chasing one another up and down maple trees, birch trees, oak trees, any trees; rabbits sitting stoic and alert, chewing grass and ground cover; daisies, crisp and clean, waving their blooms in the soft breeze just as ragweed and helenium dart brilliant blazes of citrine yellows and fiery oranges into the eye. I may not know where the word Appalachia originated. But I know where and what her treasures are.

Atop Baker’s Forge – Demory, Tennessee – where I grew up

 

**Featured image from EDM 310 Class Blog, University of Southern Alabama

References

References
1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10, 12 Williamson, J. W., ed. 1977. “On the Naming of Appalachia.” An Appalachian Symposium: Essays written in honor of Cratis D. Williams. Boon: Appalachian State University Press.
3 Williams, John Alexander. 2002. Appalachia: A History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
6 Gannett, Henry. 1905. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Washington: Govt. Print. Off. p. 27
9 de Morgues, Jacque le Moyne. 1560s (?). “Mode of Collecting Gold in Streams Running From the Apalatcy Mountains.” Florida Memory: State Library and Archives of Florida.
11 Irving, Washington signed Geoffrey Crayon. 1839. “National Nomenclature: to the Editor of the Knickerbocker.” Poeticous. Accessed Aug 2021.
13 Gatschet also includes the Hitchiti and Mikasuki as being distinct from Creek language. Further, he says the Apalachi, Hitchiti, and Mikasuki “must once have had a common origin.”
14 Gatschet, Albert Samuel. 1884. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Philadelphia: D.G. Brinton., p. 74

5 Comments

  1. Per my Tennessee roots, I pronounce Appalachia the same way you do. Still, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say the word again without thinking there goes another“voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant affricate.”

    1. Author

      You always have us in stitches, Jim! Thank you so much for your comment.

  2. I applaud your (relatively) tolerant stance on the pronunciational divide. I was unfriended on Facebook by Appalachian foodways writer Fred Sauceman because, while I am a “latch-saying” Southern Appalachian myself, I advocate an irenic, bi-pronunciational stance. It is as fruitless to fight over the “correct” pronunciation for “Appalachia” as it is for “Lafayette” (get GA and IN to agree on that while we’re at it). Some points to consider: 1. “Appalachia” is an honorific coinage invented by Washington Irving (as the scholars you cite attest). “Appalachia” as a word per se did not exist before he wrote it. 2. How would he have said it? Let fellow Southerner Edgar Allan Poe, writing marginalia for Graham’s Magazine in 1846 (less than a decade after Washington’s coinage), enlighten us with his description of the “music” of the word contrasted with the “guttural” Alleghania: “[N]othing could be more sonorous, more liquid, or of fuller volume, while its length is just sufficient for dignity.” Poe isn’t throwing an apple atcha here. He’s airing out the “length” of the third syllable. 3. The first widespread, established use of “Appalachia” was as the title of the journal (begun in 1894 and still in existence) of the Appalachian Mountain Club, based in Boston. Guess how it’s pronounced? 4. As attested by Horace Kephart, Jim Wayne Miller, and others, “traditional” natives of what we *now* call Appalachia did not refer to it so. Kephart’s *southern* mountaineers called their mountains the Alleghanies. “Appalachia” is in no way a “traditional” designation of the southern region, but is in fact a relatively novel usage precipitated by academic and political churn. 5. Because it is mostly in the South, “Appalachia” with the southern pronunciation is properly the designation for the Federal anti-poverty region as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. However, somewhat strangely for a geographical/geological understanding of the region, the ARC’s Appalachia includes parts of non-Appalachian Mississippi. Modesty and neighborliness behoove us to recognize that, since geography and geology extend northward into Canada, others “at the North” have as long-standing a claim on the particular word “Appalachia” as we do in the South. Let us gather around the campfire and sing “Come by here” 🙂

    1. Author

      Thank you very much for your comment, Jud! Everything eventually comes down to a region’s particular diction, or, patois, if you will. My mother always says there’s no such thing as right or wrong speech; that it’s all relative to where you live. I’d say she’s absolutely right. I, too, found that the word “Appalachia” didn’t become completely mainstream until LBJ’s (slash Kennedy’s) “War on Poverty” in the early sixties (likely as a way to denote a “region” for Vista workers and volunteers). As for geographical lines, I found some interesting information, though admittedly, I haven’t researched it in full. When the “borders of Appalachia” were being established, some governors refused to become part of Appalachia (though Georgia eventually changed this designation). Other places jumped at the chance. For a little information about why Mississippi was listed as being in Appalachia, I found this article pretty interesting: https://www.southerncultures.org/article/the-making-of-appalachian-mississippi/.

  3. Thank you so much for that rich article on MS and the ARC! I was only superficially aware of what happened, but I had no idea it included an early episode of “Sharpie cartography”! And the way racial/cultural politics were involved and manifested. Wow.

    Your mother had the right idea on speech. It hurts to hear that there are people who feel the need to learn how to erase their Southern accent. Just another example of the prejudice that’s out there, though, and code-switching can be a powerful tool. Also, just to clarify: Nobody ever uses “Appalachia” these days to describe the Appalachian mountains that extend to Canada. The only “Appalachia” today in common usage is ARC Appalachia, and as such it deserves the Southern pronunciation. But the “Northern” pronunciation is there — in the linguistic strata, so to speak, that go back to the original coinage. Overall I favor the stance adopted by the Appalachian Trail Conference: how you say it is how you say it.

    Also, I appreciate what you and Eddie are doing at Appalachia Bare!

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