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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Appalachia--What's In A Name

Appalachia, More Than Just A Word

The general rule of thumb in pronouncing proper names is that the owner of the name sets the rule.  In the case of place names, the rule is to pronounce the place name as the majority of residents of a place pronounce it.  We Appalachians generally pronounce the word Ap Uh Latch Uh.  Appalachian writer and song writer Billy Ed Wheeler said that his mother always said, "Billy, if you don't quit, I'm going to throw this Apple AT Cha."  Those two ways are correct.  All The Others are Wrong.  Several non-Appalachian place names provide illustrations of names which are pronounced somewhat differently than they are spelled and would include Mackinac, Michigan, which is pronounced Mack-uh-naw, and Poughkeepsie, NY, which is pronounced Puh-kip-see. The area of New York state which includes Poughkeepsie has several local place names which are Native American in origin and not pronounced anywhere near how they appear based on spelling.  There is also Apalachicola, Florida, which is pronounced Ap Uh Latch Uh Co Luh which is an amazing coincidence. Or is it? It is also interesting that the very same people who mispronounce Appalachia generally do not mispronounce Apalachicola.


Map of the Allegheny and Cumberland Plateau--Central Appalachia

Living my life in Appalachia, I have seen hundreds of outsiders, including my own Wisconsin born wife, come to the region with the best of intentions.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions. But, let me state for the record that my wife has adapted well to the area and learned a great deal culturally.  She has, to a degree, been assimilated into the Appalachian culture. In my post on visiting the urban Appalachians, I also quoted from an obituary by an unknown author writing in the Minutes of The Northern New Salem Association of Old Regular Baptists who had assimilated into the Appalachian culture in a very similar way.  However, this type of adaptation is rare.  Many, if not most, non-Appalachians make an ill founded attempt to change us. 

Appalachian Mountain Cabin


But back to the name Appalachia,  most times native Appalachians may not directly or immediately correct the mispronunciation of visitors or missionaries other than by pronouncing it correctly every time in the person's presence.  But they will place some degree of negative importance on a mispronunciation.  The point is that if the visitor or missionary does not care enough to learn how to pronounce the name of the region where we live correctly they generally do not care enough to matter much to us.  Visitors and missionaries will almost always put the Ap ah lay cha pronunciation on the word with a few adding an extra syllable to make it Ap ah lay che ah.  Both pronunciations are wrong, have always been wrong, and always will be wrong. The reasoning which goes into their persistent mispronunciation is identical to that espoused by the Europeans who settled America and believed they had a divine right to take the land which had been owned and occupied for thousands of years by Native Americans.  This concept is known as "manifest destiny" and is defined as:
"Manifest Destiny was a phrase which invoked the idea of divine sanction for the territorial expansion of the United States. It first appeared in print in 1845, in the July-August issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The anonymous author, thought to be its editor John L. O'Sullivan, proclaimed "our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our multiplying millions."  http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h337.html
Manifest destiny has also been practiced in Appalachia by groups as diverse as the VISTA Program, church groups from the northeast and midwest, and outside land owners and/or mineral holding companies.  This total disregard for the free will of citizens is rarely seen elsewhere in the USA.  But it is common in Appalachia for a group of outsiders to show up driving either a U-Haul full of second hand clothes or piece of equipment for mineral extraction and to tell the locals that their actions are in our best interests.  They come mispronouncing the name of our homeland, misunderstanding or denying the authenticity of our culture, and simultaneously expecting us to believe every word they say and adapt our ways and beliefs to their expectations.  Is it any wonder that we take offense at strip mining, clear cut logging, and the way they mispronounce the name of our homeland?  Manifest destiny is also a topic I will approach in a complete blog posting at some time in the future. It has contributed greatly to the overall general negative attitude toward Appalachians and the justified anger of Appalachians toward strip mining, mineral extraction in general, clear cut logging, VISTA, and most other missionarys and missionary organizations.

It is interesting to note that when Alice Geddes Lloyd came to Knott County Kentucky shortly after the turn of the 20th century she made a  public commitment to never meddle in three issues: religion, politics, and moonshining.  Oh, how much better off Appalachia would be if all the others who followed Ms. Lloyd to the mountains had taken similar positions..

The name Appalachia is an old Native American word and has been pronounced in the region for hundreds of years in the way it was originally pronounced when the first Europeans stepped off the boat in the tidewater region.  It comes from the name of the Apalachicola tribe and actually has been translated to mean "the land of the ruling people."  My, how that interpretation has been changed over the history of Appalachia.  The mispronunciation began about the time the first missionary came to Appalachia to save us from ourselves.  It has persisted since that time.  Native Appalachians have tried to educate these people about their mistake for hundreds of years.  But it is nearly impossible to educate and correct anyone when they live under the mistaken belief that they are superior and are working to alter your life in a way to make it meet their expectations of normal.  This is what forced cultural assimilation is all about. I will, in the future, write at least one complete blog posting on the subject of cultural assimilation and ways to resist it.

Having grown up in Knott County, Kentucky, I honestly do not remember the first time I realized I was an Appalachian.  I do not recall having heard about it from my grade school teachers and I am doubtful if any of my high school teachers mentioned it either.  But I was in the first group of Upward Bound students during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations.  I also clearly remember the famous visit by LBJ to Martin County Kentucky to kick off the War On Poverty.  But when I entered the Upward Bound Program, I was exposed to several people who made lasting impressions on me and who had varying degrees of knowledge about and commitment to Appalachia.  I met Albert Stewart who founded "Appalachian Heritage" magazine and was one of the greatest poets the region has ever produced.  He was arguably one of the best writers of the modified sonnet in this country.  He also made a lasting positive impression on hundreds of native Appalachians and students of Appalachian Literature.  His commitment to Appalachia was total and lifelong. I was lucky enough to know Al and stay in touch with him until his death.  Watch for a complete posting about Albert Stewart in the Appalachian Heroes section of this blog. 

Photo of Albert Stewart, Appalachian Hero

I also met William Howard Cohen who was not Appalachian but spent much of his life in Appalachia teaching and writing at Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes in Knott County.  Bill Cohen was, to say the least, unique.  He was totally committed to abolishing strip mining in America and literally put his life, his job, and his reputation on the line dozens of times by opposing strip mining.  He was devoted to Appalachia and its preservation.  He was also generally misunderstood at best and not at all understood at worst.  He was brilliant, eccentric, and one of the finest humans I have ever known.  Watch for a complete posting about William Howard Cohen in the future.  Since he was not Appalachian, it will not be in the Appalachian Heroes section.  Bill Cohen was a non-native hero who lived and worked in Appalachia.  At this point, let me state for the record that spending some significant number of years in Appalachia does not make a non-Appalachian an Appalachian any more than my spending an equal number of years in Harlem or Los Angeles would make me African American or Hispanic.  Bill Cohen was many things.  But most of all, he knew he was not Appalachian and never tried to be.  Thereby, he avoided the most classic and egregious mistake made by the missionaries who still keep flooding our borders. Bill Cohen used that key piece of self awareness as the foundation of a long career working in Appalachia and actually being a positive influence while he was here.

During my Upward Bound days, in my first year on the Stuart Robinson Campus at Blackey, Kentucky, in Letcher County, I had the educational experience of meeting Harry M. Caudill.  I do not use the term educational in the same sense that many others refer to Harry M. Caudill.  He spoke to the Upward Bound group that summer and his best seller "Night Comes To The Cumberlands" had just come out not long before.  Each student in the program had been provided a copy of the book and it was the basic text in our summer history course that year.  Many of the students in that group, who were among the brightest in the area, showed up for Caudill's speech carrying their book and many well grounded criticisms of his low regard for his fellow Appalachians.  While he was a pretty good historian and writer, Harry M. Caudill did more to help perpetuate negative stereotypes of Appalachians than nearly any other native of the region.  His interpretation of historical and sociological data, when it referred to Appalachia and Appalachians, was nearly always wrong.  His conclusions were derogatory, defamatory, and debilitating. He was guilty of believing, expressing, and spreading most of the prejudices which continue to damage Appalachian people to this very day.   "Night Comes To The Cumberlands" is the last book anyone should ever read about Appalachia.  It should only be read after the student of Appalachia and Appalachian culture has read and learned enough to be able to see through the cultural fallacies in Caudill's work. 

Another work which is often well spoken of but has served as a millstone around the necks of Appalachians is "Deliverance" by James Dickey.  Far more people have seen the movie than have read the book.  Based on reviews by my friends in the Appalachian movement at the time, I have chosen to never bother to read the novel.  I have seen key scenes from the movie and based on their devastating portrayals of mountain people have chosen to never watch the entire film.  I am considering reversing myself and reading the book in the near future in order to write a blog posting about the damage Dickey did to the Appalachian image. 

But, to return to the stated subject of this posting, the name Appalachia is pronounced "Ap uh latch uh".  Any other pronounciation is a dead give away to natives that the speaker knows little or nothing about the  region and its people.  It is also a pretty good indicator they probably care less. If you are among the thousands of people who mispronounce the name, learn the difference and change.  Whether you are a native Appalachian or a non-native, show enough respect for the land, culture, and people of the region to learn about it, help educate others about it, and protect and defend the land, its culture, and its people.

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