Is there a correct way to pronounce “Appalachia?"
This past summer, I interned for the Appalachian Prosperity Project and the Center of Appalachian Studies. For three months, a co-intern and I gathered oral histories from the townspeople of Appalachia, Virginia, a town whose namesake was a result of being built in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Over the course of three months, we interviewed twenty-two residents. Amid the recollections of years gone past, one of the most noticeable things were the colorful ways in which the residents pronounced Appalachia:
Ap-uh-ley-chee-uh, Ap-uh-lach-uh, Ap-uh-ley-chuh, Apple-at-cha, Appal-at-chee.
Each time a new pronunciation was uttered, I wrote it down and wondered if anyone had ever told them their way was wrong. Then I began to wonder how many times I unintentionally belittled someone or seemed intolerant because I did not know that a pronunciation was a feature of time and place, not an intentional slight against my home. Then I began to think of where I was raised and the experiences I had with the term “Appalachia."
Growing up in Dickenson County, there were several words my paternal grandparents pronounced differently from my maternal grandparents, who lived in Russell County. For example, “heathen” was pronounced “heathern,” “school” was pronounced “skew,” “fire” was pronounced “far,” and so on.
“Appalachia,” however, was pronounced “Ap-uh-latch-uh” in both counties.
So, when family from “off” would visit the mountain, lengthy measures were taken to teach them the “correct” way of pronouncing Appalachia, which was, at that time, pronounced “Ap-uh-latch-uh.” It was improper, as far as I was concerned, to allow a member of my family to mispronounce Appalachia. The sound of someone saying “Ap-uh-lay-cha” instead of “App-uh-latch-uh” made me cringe. It was the sound of my own dialect being manipulated into something foreign. Something other.
It was as if App-uh-lay-cha was tracking its muddy boots across the clean floors of my App-uh-latch-un home. I wanted to whip App-uh-lay-cha; to take a switch to its legs until it yelled “Ap-uh-LATCH-uh! Ap-uh-LATCH-uh!” in defeat and agreed to take its boots off at the front door from then on.
It was years before I realized that Appalachia was not exclusively mine. Nor was the pronunciation. How could I, someone whose dialect was the subject of past scrutiny, make others feel poorly about how they pronounced Appalachia, a place that was just as much their home as it was mine? I thought about all the times my aunt, an English teacher, would call me a “redneck” because of the way I spoke. I thought about how her words made me feel. Then I began to understand.
The pronunciation of Appalachia is much more than “You aren’t from around here, are you?” or memes on our newsfeeds telling us which is the correct pronunciation and which is not. From Georgia to Maine, from “Ap-uh-latch-uh” to “Ap-uh-lay-chuh” and every variation in-between, each is our unique way of speaking which says “This is my history. This is where I am from. This is where my ancestors are from.” Now, I take my muddy boots off at the door of every mountain home I meet, because the pronunciation of Appalachia is a dialectal feature, not a war cry.