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How to Pronounce the Names of Places August 2, 2009

Posted by hamcoder in Uncategorized.
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My family has been reading a lot of Sharyn McCrumb recently.  We thoroughly enjoy her stories of western North Carolina and the way she mixes the history of the region into her stories set in the present day.  This particular passage struck a cord with us and we wanted to keep it around.  But the library won’t let us keep Ms. McCrumb’s books forever.

Without permission, this is from The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb, copyright © Sharyn McCrumb, 2001.

“Well, I’ll be interested to hear some stories.  This is my first visit to Appa-lay-chia.

Baird said gently, “Well, folks in these parts call it Appa-latch-a.”

Eeyore shrugged, as if the information did not interest him.  “In New York we say Appa-lay-chia.”

Baird had this conversation rather often, too, and in this round he was less inclined to be charitable.  The statement We say it that way back home sounded like a reasonable argument unless you realized that it was not a privilege Easterners granted to anyone other themselves.  If a Texan visiting New York pronounced “Houston Street” the same way that Texans pronounce the name of their city back home, he would be instantly corrected by a New Yorker, and probably derided for his provincial ignorance.  But here in rural America, the privilege of local pronunciation was revoked.  Here, if there was any difference of opinion about a pronunciation, Eastern urbanites felt that their way was the correct one, or at least an equally acceptable option.  One of Baird Christopher’s missions in life was to set arrogant tourists straight about matters like this.

“You know,” he said to Eeyore, gearing up to his lecture in genial conversational tones.  “Over in Northern Ireland once I visited a beautiful walled city that lies east of Donegal and west of Belfast.  Now, for the last thousand years or so the Irish people who built that city have called it Derry, a name from darach, which is the Gaelic word for ‘oak tree’.  But the British, who conquered Ireland a few hundred years back, they refer to that same city as Londonderry.  One place:  two names.

“If you go to Ireland, and you ask for directions to that city, you can call it by either name you choose.  Whichever name you say, folks will know where it is you’re headed and most likely they’ll help you get there.  But you need to understand this:  When you choose what name you call that city — Derry or Londonderry – you are making a political decision.  You are telling the people you’re talking to which side you’re on, what cultural values you hold, and maybe even your religious preference.  You are telling some people that they can trust you and other people that they can’t.  All in one word.  One word with a load of signifiers built right in.

“Now, I recon Appalachia is a word like that.  The way people say it tells us a lot about how they think about us.  When we hear somebody say Appa-lay-chia, we know right away that the person we’re listening to is not on our side, and we hear a whole lot of cultural nuances about stereotyping and condescension and ethnic bigotry, just built right in.  So you go on and call this place Appa-lay-chia if you want to.  But you need to know that by doing that you have made a po-li-ti-cal decision, and you’d better be prepared to live with the consequences.  Friend.”

Eeyore blinked at him and took a deep breath.  “Ap-pa…latch-ah?” he said.