contributed by Dr James Everett
LS Cultural Committee Chairman, Maybinton, South Carolina
LESSON FIVE – PLACE NAMES
9 (continued). Pronunciation. 9.c) There is one important pronunciation of
a place name that we Southerners must be vigilant about protecting. That
word is Appalachian. Before you read further, pronounce it out loud as a
test of your Southerness, or else of how nonSouthernness may have affected you.
If you pronounced the third syllable as lay, you are in serious trouble.
The homogenising culture-killers on the national TV networks have made headway
in the cultural genocide they seek. And beware what other of their malign
influences may have crept upon you. But if you pronounced the third
syllable as latch, the Southern sunbeams after an early Easter morning shower
should light your face with radiance, and a golden nimbus should play about your
angelic head, for it is surely Appa-latch-chan in our South—Appa-latch-chan,
Appa-latch-chan, Appa-latch-chan, Appa-latch-chan. Only in a distant land
north of the Kentucky River do they use the lay pronunciation.
This past April, I was privileged to hear Fred Chappell, an Appa-latch-chan poet and novelist read his moving ‘A Prayer for the Mountains,’ a poem that among other things, prays for the gentle treatment of quiet, natural places -- mainly by leaving them alone, untouched, maybe even unseen. In the series of questions and answers that followed, one non-native told Mr Chappell she was planning to visit the mountains and asked where his favourite, most beautiful spots were for her to seek out and tour. Had she heard the poem he’d just read? More to the point, had she understood it? Our gentle-natured author did not let on, but the thing that caused him to flinch most visibly was her pronunciation Appa-lay-chan. He kindly, but firmly and quickly, corrected her pronunciation, saying accurately that the lay word should be reserved for an area north of the Kentucky. I silently noted that this is the kind of instinctive response that reveals a proper and healthy valuing of place, one might go so far as to say, the sacredness of a place.
In his novel Remembering, Wendell Berry’s main character (from Port William) is introduced at an academic conference as being from Fort William. He stands and corrects the introducer, because where he is from, is important to him. Place does matter. The other academics feel he is being petty and ill-mannered to correct the speaker, because why should this matter after all? These university educators go where the job is. Place is little better than real estate, a convenient site to make money. Port William, Fort William, Appa-latch-chan, Appa-lay-chan, why should one care? Why should it matter? Isn’t it all the same? That is, isn’t place essentially irrelevant, and no matter how you name or pronounce it?
Well, we Southerners know different. Home is not simply where the job is. Place is not real estate. And how we pronounce the place matters just as essentially too.
We locals, we natives of Place, wherever our native heaths and hearths happen to be, need to be closely aware of how all local names are pronounced by the native elders of our place. We should guard these native pronunciations closer than gold because these pronunciations are bonded to the place itself and are integral therewith.
In my own South Carolina, I must frequently suffer the horrible garbling of the street name Huger in nearby Columbia. It is correctly pronounced You-jee. Reporters (from Anywhere, U.S.A.) just cant learn to be native and get it right before they move (in a year or so) to the next place where they will go on to garble the place names there. Or take Moultrie, either the South Carolina town or lake of that name. It is Mool-tree, in Carolina, where Gen. William Moultrie lived and died. Reporters just cant ever get that right either. In Georgia, it is properly pronounced Molt-tree, even though named after the General, whose name is Mool-tree. But that’s OK. When in Georgia, do as the Georgians. Georgians have a right to their version, but natives of Atlanta should not impose it on Carolina.
And the pettiest peeve of them all for this author is to hear reporters and new ‘Charlestonians’ pronounce the Cooper River with the first syllable sounding like a military coup or James Fenimore Cooper, rather than with the correct pronunciation of the first syllable rhyming with look or book.
Each one of our place-based Leaguers will likely have particular examples of his or her own that will parallel mine. Maybe this fifth essay in our Verbal Independence Series will stand to make us more keenly aware of the proper local pronunciations of our place names -- again tied closely to a valuing of place, and a register of how well that place is known, understood, and loved.
An excellent model for the scholarly recording of place names and their pronunciation is a fine and unostentatious volume published in 1983 by Claude and Irene Neuffer, entitled Correct Mispronunciations of Some South Carolina Place Names (University of South Carolina Press). It contains guides to 400 pronunciations. Other Southern states might benefit from similar volumes. Dr and Mrs Neuffer, who began the first place name journal in America in their native South Carolina, diligently collected and recorded more than 25,000 legends, origins, and pronunciations of place names in the state of their birth over a period of three decades. It is a vastly useful and enjoyable book. It could have been ponderous and pedantic but instead has the wit, grace and down-to-earthness that always accompanied the lives of this wonderfully Southern couple.
Claude died in 1984; but what a great legacy he has left the place that he loved. It is worth mentioning that he was a great traditionalist in other ways as well. His annual Robert E. Lee birthday party was not to be missed. The bowls on his board overflowed with cheer and the rooms rang with the sounds of his and Irene’s hospitality. As Claude and Irene wrote of us Southerners, ‘the impulse to preserve a tradition is almost as instinctive as breathing.’ I was fortunate enough to have had Dr Neuffer as a teacher in the 1960’s. His lessons caught, or maybe I should say, his example caught -- the best and most effective way of teaching, after all.
And on the connected subjects of place, tradition, and hospitality, I must return again to Fred Chappell. One of the questions at this same session that produced his lesson on the proper pronunciation of Appa-latch-chan, was whether or not he liked being a Southern writer. He replied in his usual droll way that he didn’t have anything to compare it to, not ever having been a nonSouthern writer, but then answered with the unforgettable, profound statement that he was ‘privileged’ to be a Southern writer because ‘here in the South, we have a kind of generosity and hospitality of the spirit’ that has nurtured his creativity. Such a brilliant and distinguished literary achievement as Mr Chappell’s, is no doubt at least partly the result of such an attitude -- stemming from the proper valuing of his native Appalachian place, reflected in his caring about every detail -- down to the very last syllable of how it is pronounced. Food for thought.
Editor’s Note: Hardy Plantation, Dr Kibler’s home and the setting of his nonfiction blockbuster Our Fathers’ Fields, was featured on Home and Garden Television’s (HGTV’s) series, ‘If Walls Could Talk.’