Appalachia: The Pronunciation Matters

How do you pronounce Appalachia? Do you say Appa-LAY-shuh or do you say Appa-LATCH-uh?

Tomato, tomAHto, let’s call the whole thing off. Or not.

If you are from Appalachia then you, without a doubt, say Appa-LATCH-uh. If you say Appa-LAY-shuh you are not only identifying the mountain range but you are also announcing to all that you are not from there. You can say a lot in just one word. In my 35 years, I have not met one person from my precious Appalachian Mountains that says that they are from Appa-LAY-shuh. There is a right way.

However, when I travel I run in to folks who argue with me about the pronunciation. Usually the debate ends with, well, “this is the way we say it here.” Does it matter how people say it elsewhere? I feel that the pronunciation of the locals is pretty persuasive in establishing the right way. Yet, many folks (probably those holding on to the nonsense stereotypes that all of us are shoeless, toothless, and uneducated) think that they know best; but they are wrong.

This morning I was introduced to what I believe is the best way to explain why everyone should say “Appa-LATCH-uh.” Southern novelist Sharyn McCrumb tells it best (she speaks the truth) . . .

“Appa-LAY-shuh is the pronunciation of condescension, the pronunciation of the imperialists, the people who do not want to be associated with the place and the pronunciation Appa-LATCH-uh means that you are on the side that we trust.” Sharyn McCrumb.

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27 thoughts on “Appalachia: The Pronunciation Matters

  1. Several years ago, while engaged in an educational consultancy in Appalachia, I was corrected on the pronunciation of Appalachia by a board member of the institution…”Say it right–it is like throwing an apple at cha.” This is one admonition I have never forgotten.

  2. As a fellow Southerner from NC let me add further validation to your claim. The most beautiful part of my state is the Appa-LATCH-uhn mountain range. If someone tells you they are headed to the Appa-LAY-shun mountains for a weekend, you immediately know they are a transplant (due to our state’s beauty and weather, we have many). Of interest, however, is that no one mispronounces the name of one of our state universities locate there…it is pronounced Appa-LATCH-uhn State by everyone…go figure.

  3. Well, I’m from Ohio but have lived in East TN for 15 years. I learned the “correct” way to pronounce it, from some friends in Ohio, before I even moved down here, and whenever I hear people pronounce it the “incorrect” way, it does have a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard kind of effect. AND YET, there is such thing as regional dialectical variation. And I get uneasy when I see people sorting others into the good and the bad — the sinners and the saved — based on their pronunciation of certain words. That’s actually the classic definition of a “shibboleth” (look that up on wikipedia). Johnny Cash pronounced it app a LAY sha. Is he a bad man? His wife was from Hiltons VA, but until the year he died, he pronounced it the “wrong” way. People in the Ohio-river valley region of Kentucky say it the “wrong” way. People in Central Appalachia–especially western PA–say it the “wrong” way. Are they condescending and colonizing? Not necessarily. Oh, and are Kentuckians wrong to say ver-SALES Kentucky, instead of ver-sigh (versailles). If some French person came to Versailles KY and started berating people for mispronouncing the name of their town, I wouldn’t like that person. Pronunciation varies, from region to region, –even family to family, within a region –and over time, and dialectical variation is a beautiful thing, not a sword we should use to divide ourselves from others. There’s a hint of linguistic despotism to McCrumb’s comments. Oh, also, what’s wrong with being a “transplant”? Are people bad because they migrate, either out of choice or necessity?

    • Kevin, I hear where you’re coming from. I bristle a bit at the “right” vs “wrong” terminology as well. I appreciate that the preferred pronunciation is different in different parts of Appalachia. And I’m not from here either so I don’t like the implication that I’m bad for moving from my hometown.

      That said, let’s not miss the forest. The message here is, “I thought you might like to know that it’s hurtful when you insist on saying the name of my home that way.”

      When introducing myself, men with overly firm handshakes sometimes shorten my name. To me, it feels like an attempt to establish dominance. I could be wrong, but that’s how it feels. So I politely correct them. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I be considered the expert on my name.

    • We get it. Sometimes I can look over how a person says something, and sometimes i really really care that they don’t try to choose the preferred pronunciation if there is a preferred. When we traveled as a kid, I tried to pronunce the way the locals said it, and I got corrected. But the only question I really see here is would I have corrected Johnny Cash. I love and loved him so much that I don’t even recall how he said the word. I’ll never forget seeing the Johnny Cash and June Carter Family at our local high school in the Appalachian area during Jonesborough Days when I was younger. Johnny Cash had a ticket from me to say it either way it pleased him.

    • No, not bad if they migrate. We love our new friends. But they are not ‘from around here.’ Not a bad thing. Just a true thing. The greatest compliment a transplant an hear is ‘you’re one of us now.’ We don’t mean we are against those that aren’t. Just that it’s hard to be from somewhere when you were born somewhere else. Some transplants just take so well that it seems like they were born here. But we are a loving people, despite the stereotypes.

  4. The mountains were named for a Native American tribe. The Apalache. That should tell everyone exactly how to pronounce the word. Think about the Apache tribe. Would you call them the “a pay she”? Plus, if you look at maps from 16th century the mountains are labeled and the word is spelled phonetically. Labeled as the Apalatchin Mountains….

  5. It seems that the name transitions around the Maryland border. From that point north, the alternative pronunciation is local. I love my Southern Appalachians.

  6. I agree about respecting the way people name their places, but I think it’s narrow thing think of the Appalachian Mountains as a strictly southern range. The Appalachians (along with the eponymous Trail) run from Maine to Georgia.

    New England, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have their own Appalachian identities and history, Can we really say a mountain range that stretches from the far northeast all the way to Georgia is a merely regional thing? Seems to me that seeks to diminish the shared history of much of the eastern seaboard, not just the southern end of it.

    That said, I learned happily to say it the southern way since living here, but I have no problem with my northern brethren who prefer their name for their own mountains too.

  7. Grew up in Florida as a 4th generation Floidian and we called it AppaLACHIcola so it seemed right for me to say I was going to the ApaLACHan mts.

  8. My theory is that this business began when Walter Cronkite began doing stories on Poverty in AP-PA-LAAAY-SHUH in the mid 1960s. First time I heard him say it that way (I was a teenager) I was stunned and instantly thought, “Have we been saying it wrong all this time?” Apparently a lot of Indigenous People had the same thought and began saying APPALAYSHUH because they didn’t want to be perceived as Ignorant Hillbillies. When one traces the word back to its origins, the Appalachee Indian tribe, the Spanish Conquistadors who heard about the tribe assumed that they inhabited a land beyond a rumored distant mountain range, which they then proceeded to call (and place on crude maps) the Appalachee Mountains. The Appalachees, by the way, lived nowhere near any mountains–merely northern Florida, but the Spaniards had no idea what topography or anything else lay in the interior they were determined to conquer and loot. Since the Appalachee Indians (as a direct or indirect result of said Spanish Conquistadors and their destructive ways, not to mention certain microbes) along with their language became extinct, there is no way to prove correct pronunciation of “Appalachian.” But “Ap-pa-latch-ion” is the way our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and every ancestor all the way back to the First Hillbilly pronounced it and that is the right damn way to say it. Any questions?

  9. Both of my parents were born and raised in Southeastern Kentucky and I never heard it call anything but Appa-LAY-shion Mountains. Clay and Laurel Counties. But……….we also warsh clothes, instead of wash clothes. Never-the-less, the clothes are clean.

  10. The App-uh-latch/e/an mountain was derived from the Native American tribe original called (by translation in 16th cen) Apalchen (Apal-chen) which was later changed to Apalachee (a-pə-latch-ē). The true pronunciation has been a matter of debate which they tried to settle it in the 1960’s but the scholars could not agree on the long “a” and short “a”. Adding the 4 vs 5 syllables makes it even more difficult so it continued being pronounced different ways according to regional and cultural dialect. In addition, another variant is brought into the mix when the “ch” is pronounced as a “sh” (18th cen. French immigrant influence in the north) when the Appalachian Trail Conference (in NY), founders/organizers in the early 20th century pronounced the Trail, the app-uh-lāy-shən trail.
    People in the north will also call the Mountains app-uh-lāy-shən but that’s not truly proper, I live in PA along the mountain and I will even agree to that. To be the most correct, we would all say… I was hiking on the App-uh-lāy-Shən Trail in the App-uh-Latch-ē-an/ App-uh-Latch-an Mountains.
    To ad insult to injury, the southern Appalachians can’t agree on the 2 different ways they say it either, App-uh-Latch-ē-an (derived from Native American tribe name) and App-uh-Latch-an, (derived from the areas known as Appalachia Ap-pa-Latch-uh)… so I added both.
    What is comes down to is, the people in the north hold true to their culture and the same goes for the mid-atlantic and southerners. Though it was once a smaller area, the Appalachian became a huge region encompassing many states and subcultures. There are histories associated with each pronunciation, and to say one is more correct than the other is erroneous. If scholars would agree to “one” correct way, our authoritative educational tools such as my Webster’s Dictionary for the Appalachian Mountains wouldn’t offer 6 pronunciations, but it does and they are: ( 5 syl) a-pə-lā-chē-ən, ˌa-pə-lā-shē-ən ˌa-pə-la-chē-ən, and (4 syl) a-pə-lā-chən, a-pə-lā-shən & a-pə-la-chən.
    As Michale W. said…. ” One should never have the arrogance to tell a local how to pronounce their location names. This just shows disrespect. Period.”

  11. I’m from Cabell County, West Virginia born and raised, and my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have always pronounced it, “Appa-LAY-sha”, and so did my relatives on the other side of the river in Kentucky. So it’s a little bit frustrating to be told that I must be a “transplant”. Remember: there are more dialects in this region than you can shake a stick at…

  12. Pingback: 2013: A Very Good Year | It is pretty.

  13. I agree one doesn’t tell a local how to pronounce names. However, I grew up in the Appalachian mountains in central Pennsylvania and everyone pronounces it LAY. And believe me, no one in Clearfield PA is being condescending, because that would be above their raising.

  14. Thank you! I’m an Appalachian girl and always FELT this difference, even though no one explained it as well as you have here. Now I have a place to point folks when they doubt me.

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