Why doesn’t Arkansas rhyme with Kansas? It’s one of those questions you might never think to ask, but are probably curious to know the answer to—and the answer (or at least part of it) popped up on HH this week.
The fact is that Kansas actually did rhyme with Arkansas originally. Prior to 1881, both pronunciations of Arkansas—the “AR-kan-saw” one that’s the norm today, and the looks-right-but-isn’t “ar-KAN-sas” one—were in widespread use in the United States. But it turns out that having two entirely different pronunciations of the one state name isn’t exactly a tenable situation. So a debate was held, championed by two opposing Arkansas senators, to decide which one was to be adopted as the state’s official pronunciation. And the “saw” pronunciation won out on the day.
But why the confusion at all? Well, Kansas takes its name from the native American Kansa tribe, while Arkansas takes its name from Arcansa or Akancea, the Algonquin name of a related tribe properly known as the Quapaw. Both of those indigenous names were adopted into English via French, and it’s the French influence that ended up adding that muddlesome plural S to both names.
It just so happens that with a little more English influence, that final S ended up being pronounced in Kansas, while a more French-style pronunciation ignoring the final S won through in Arkansas.