Pro­fes­sor ex­plains lan­guage tra­di­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - Northwest Arkansas - BILL BOWDEN

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a and y?

In the Ozark Moun­tains, it can be a per­plex­ing ques­tion.

Names that ended with an “a” sound were of­ten pro­nounced by hill peo­ple as if they ended in “y” or “ie,” at least through the first half of the 20th cen­tury.

Iva be­came Ivy. Alva be­came Alvy. Oba be­came Obie.

And it wasn’t just first names.

“The early Luna set­tlers of Arkansas be­came Looneys,” said Brooks Blevins,

a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Mis­souri State Uni­ver­sity who spe­cial­izes in Ozark Moun­tain cul­ture. “And, lest we for­get, the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas once had a foot­ball player, Jeb Huckeba, who pro­nounced his name just like that of a cer­tain gover­nor.”

Blevins was re­fer­ring to for­mer Gov. Mike Huck­abee.

Blevins grew up in Vi­o­let Hill in Izard County. His par­ents ran the Vi­o­let Hill Store.

“My grandma was Alverda (al­ways Alverdy or just Verdy), and in our lit­tle coun­try church was an Al­vah (pro­nounced Alvy) and an Alta (Mrs. Alty),” Blevins said. “The one ex­cep­tion I re­call was my el­derly great­great-aunt Cora, who never pro­nounced it Cory. But she was an artis­tic and so­phis­ti­cated woman (at least by Izard County stan­dards), and I sus­pect she prob­a­bly in­sisted on be­ing called the more proper Cora. I’ll bet she was Cory as a kid.”

The un­usual pro­nun­ci­a­tion also ex­isted in Ap­palachia, Blevins said.

“Tom Doo­ley of the fa­mous folk song was ac­tu­ally Tom Dula,” he said. “Ac­cord­ing to Michael Mont­gomery’s work on Smoky Moun­tain speech, the prac­tice ac­tu­ally dated to colo­nial Amer­ica and just seems to have dis­ap­peared from com­mon us­age ex­cept in Ap­palachia and the Ozarks,” said Blevins, re­fer­ring to Dic­tio­nary of Smoky Moun­tain English by Mont­gomery and Joseph S. Hall.

June West­phal, a Car­roll County his­to­rian, be­lieves the a-to-y pro­nun­ci­a­tion was more tena­cious in the Ozarks.

“It’s unique to this re­gion, I think,” West­phal said. “It’s very, very com­mon.”

West­phal said the pro­nun­ci­a­tion has be­come rare over the past cou­ple of gen­er­a­tions, but peo­ple re­search­ing grand­par­ents and more dis­tant rel­a­tives from the Ozarks should be aware of it. The spell­ing of names on of­fi­cial doc­u­ments might not match the pro­nun­ci­a­tion passed down by an­ces­tors.

In some cases, West­phal said, names end­ing in “a” were given an “r” sound in­stead, such as in the case of her mother Lena.

“We called her Len-r,” said West­phal, as if re­fer­ring to some­one who leans.

The trend goes be­yond names, ac­cord­ing to Troy D. Smith, an au­thor and his­tory pro­fes­sor at Ten­nessee Tech Uni­ver­sity.

“An a at the end of a word of­ten be­comes a y/-ie,” he wrote on his Ten­nessee WordSmith blog. “Thus the names Lula and Sara be­come Lulie and Sary, and the town Sparta is some­times Spar­tie. Ex­tra be­comes ex­trie, soda be­comes soadie. Noah be­comes No-ee.”

Smith noted the “r” end­ing that West­phal men­tioned.

“In a few rare cases, though, an r is added at the end of the word in­stead of chang­ing the a to ie/y: Cuba = Cu­ber and Jonah = Joner.”

Smith said he still hears the “a” at the ends of words pro­nounced like a “y.”

“I am 50,” Smith said. “I rarely hear it from peo­ple my age or younger but of­ten hear it from peo­ple 65 or older. So, like a lot of South­ernisms, it seems to be dy­ing out.”

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