It is hard to defend the English language when you get instances of confusing words like “lead vs. lead” and “will not” somehow transforming into “won’t”. However, one of the worst of these instances has to be Arkansas vs. Kansas. I think we can all agree that the fact that these two almost identical words are pronounced so differently is absolutely ridiculous. But in defense of the English language, it is not actually our fault this time. So why isn’t Arkansas pronounced like Kansas? Blame the French!
Why Isn’t Arkansas Pronounced Like Kansas?
The term Kansas comes from the plural of Kansa, a Siouan tribe that lived in the area. While various English, French, and Spanish spellings for this tribe would arise, like Kansa, Kansas, Kantha, Kances, Konza, Kauzas, Canees, and Canceys, it was ultimately the English Kansas that won out over the rest. Remember that in English, we pronounce the “s” at the end of words.
Arkansas was named after a similar, related Siouan tribe, the Quapaw. The name Arkansas has its origins with the Algonquian peoples, who were known to comprise one of the largest North American native language groups. The Algonquians called the Quapaw “akansa”, combing the a- prefix (which they placed in front of ethnic groups) and the “Kansa” name (which was the same root that makes up Kansas).
Much like Kansas, Arkansas also came to be spelled in various ways. Among the different spellings were Akancea, Acansea, Acansa. Ultimately, it was the French spelling, Arcansas, that would inspire the name of the eventual state. But it wasn’t just the spelling that stuck. The traditional French pronunciation of Arkansas, which does not pronounce the final “s”, also became popular, even after the Louisiana Purchase.
Do You Pronounce the “S” in Arkansas?
The fact that Arkansas derives from French did not stop many Americans from applying English pronunciation standards to the state (much like how many still pronounce the “s” in Illinois). In fact, debate over the correct pronunciation of Arkansas reached a boiling point back in 1881. A particularly infuriating fight between two state senators over the way the two men were saying the name led to the courts having to settle things once and for all. It was ruled that the French pronunciation should be followed, meaning the “s” at the end should be silent (Ar-kan-saw).
So there you have it. Arkansas and Kansas are pronounced differently simply because they are similar words, but with different languages of origin. If you liked this post, make sure to check out other Language and Grammar articles from the Sporcle Blog.
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