How many times have you encountered two seemingly very close names pronounced quite differently? Except for the prefix AR-, Kansas and Arkansas are spelled identically. Yet, Arkansas is pronounced as AR-kən-saw, while Kansas is pronounced as KAN-zəs.
Origin of Kansas and Arkansas
The names of these two neighboring states actually came from two different Native American tribal languages. Located in the southeastern U.S., Arkansas takes its name from the Quapaw tribe, which was called akansa by the Algonquin people who first informed the French explorers in this area of the Quapaws’ existence. On the other hand, Kansas’ name is derived from the Kansa tribe that once populated this Midwestern region.
Nonetheless, this still does not explain why there is a difference in the pronunciation. Apparently the French explorers and settlers share some of the blame. They named their settlement, Arkansas, the French plural form of the tribe that occupied the region at the time of European settlement. The letter "s" at the end of French words is usually silent, which explains why Arkansas is pronounced as it is. The French used the local name Arkansa to refer to the tribe and its settlement. They utilized the plural term, Arkansas, to denote the members of the tribe and the Arkansas River (la rivière des Arkansas, or “the river of the Arkansa people”).
Same root word
Technically speaking, both Arkansas and Kansas are based on the same root – akká:ze, the name of the Kansa people (technically meaning, “people of the south wind”). The Kansa tribe was honored in the naming of the Kansas River, and the area through which the river ran was called Kansas.
The spelling of the word Arkansas was not standardized for many years. In various historical French books and documents, the name of the state appeared as Arkanceas, Akansa, and Arkancas. According to the Arkansas Historical Association, there is no absolute certainty that the French pronounced the word the same way as the Algonquins did. Kansas was a word used by the English, while Arkansas originated with the French, which would have resulted in the names not being similarly pronounced due to the linguistic differences between the two European languages.
After the formation of the state government of Arkansas, a group of influential people tried to change the pronunciation of the state name to Ar-kan-zus. However, in 1881, the state legislature ruled on the issue, saying that to avoid confusion, it endorsed the use of the "saw" ending, thereby putting an end to any further attempts to change the pronunciation.
Just in case you were wondering who gave the name Kansas to the other state, the French did that as well. However, the state quickly adopted the English pronunciation instead of the French one.