Imagine you're an intrepid 17th-century French explorer traversing the expansive wilderness of Louisiana (New France), a territory spanning the entire Mississippi basin from modern-day Louisiana through Illinois and northward into Canada. You encounter dozens of native tribes, each with its own confounding language or dialect, and you attempt to record their names in your journal as best you can.
This imperfect system is how English-speaking Americans arrived at many of the names for Native American tribes, including the Dakota, Iowa, Alabama, Nebraska, Ottawa, Chippewa and Tuskaloosa. Think of it as a centuries-long game of multilingual "telephone." Tribal names evolved from their original native pronunciation into a French approximation and finally into an Anglicized mangling of the French.
Which brings us to the legitimately confusing question of how the state of Kansas could be pronounced "KAN-zis" while the nearby state of Arkansas, with the addition of two simple letters, is pronounced "AR-kin-saw."
The Politicians Weigh In
This very question was the subject of a fascinating pamphlet published way back in 1881 titled, "Fixing the Pronunciation of the Name Arkansas." The booklet, written by members of the Arkansas Historical Society, was meant to provide historical context to a resolution passed by the Arkansas General Assembly declaring the one and only correct pronunciation of Arkansas:
"It should be pronounced in three syllables, with the final 's' silent. The 'a' in each syllable with the Italian sound, and the accent on the first and last syllables, being the pronunciation formerly universally and now still most commonly used."
Apparently, some eggheads at Webster's dictionary had changed the entry for Arkansas to include a new pronunciation note — "Ar-kan-sas, formerly Arkansaw" — and that sent red-blooded Arkansans into a lexicographical tizzy.
The authors of the Arkansas Historical Society pamphlet called it a "vicious pronunciation" with "no basis of reason, authority, or prior polite usage." Moreover, people who said "Ar-Kansas" "failed to consider that they would thus render ridiculous a name highly poetic in its sounds, and associated with the grandest memories of the past, from the days of [French explorer Jacques] Marquette downward."
Blame the French
The Arkansas Historical Society members argued that the divergent pronunciations of Arkansas and Kansas stem from similar French names given to two different Native America tribes. A Siouan tribe lived near the modern-day Kansas River and early French explorers called them by a version of their name, which sounded to their French ears like "Kansa." The second tribe, the Quapaw, lived further southwest along the modern-day Arkansas River and, for reasons unknown, the French called them by their Algonquin name, "Akansa."
Those tribal names, as the French rendered them, look and sound very similar, but again, for reasons unknown, early French explorers wrote out the associated place names very differently. Explorer Henri Joutel, writing in 1687, called the area around modern-day Arkansas "Accançeas" and spelled Kansas "Chanzes." By 1723, Arkansas was routinely spelled "Arkansas," but as late as 1805 French cartographer Perrin du Lac called Kansas "Kancès."
Clearly, at some point an "r" was added to the original Algonquin name Akansa. One theory, mentioned in a 1945 article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly, is that the Akansa used a particularly cool bow when hunting and the French word for bow is "arc." It's possible that the French explorer's admiration for the weapon influenced their pronunciation. Other French explorers called the Arkansas river "la riviere des arcs" ("river of the bends") for its curvy course. Either example could explain why the French Colonel de Champigny, writing in 1776, chose to call the region "Arckantas."
The Ahs Have It
Which brings us to the pronunciation question. The 1881 Arkansas Historical Society pamphlet concluded that both Kansas and Arkansas have roots in similar Indian tribal names, but that Kansas chose to follow the standard English pronunciation — marked by the hard "a" sound in "can" and vocalizing the final "s" — while Arkansas stuck with the original French pronunciation.
It's the long French (and Italian) "ah" sound, wrote the Arkansas Historical Society, which explains why Arkansas was sometimes spelled "Arkansaw," including in the 1818 peace treaty between the United States and the Quapaw. The inclusion of the "s" at the end of Arkansas was likely a product of pluralization. If the tribe was called the Akansa, then multiple members of the tribe were the Akansas. But since the final "s" is silent in French, all that's left is the "ah" sound.
The 1945 article in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly makes an interesting point, though. The Arkansas legislature made a big deal in 1881 about fixing for good the true pronunciation of the state name, emphasizing that all three "a"s should be pronounced "with the Italian sound." Yet the unanimous pronunciation of Arkansas by native Arkansans and interlopers alike is "AR-kin-saw." So much for adhering to the letter of the law.