“It’s PEE-can, not pick-AHN.” I’ve driven two hours from Durham to the southeastern corner of North Carolina where Elbie Powers, a pecan grower and president of the North Carolina Pecan Growers Association, cultivates almost more pecan trees in his orchard than there are residents of the nearby town of Roseboro. I’ve come to pick his brain about all things pecan. Less than thirty seconds into our conversation, Elbie corrects my pronunciation. He’s politely adamant—a purely Southern virtue to smile during a disagreement—about the “correct” way to say pecan. “It’s PEE-can, not pick-AHN, he states matter-of-factly. No matter where you go in the country it seems everyone is a linguistic authority on the word.
In 2003 a true linguistic authority with Harvard University, Englishmen Bert Vaux, led a study quantifying the dialects of the United States. While preparing lectures for his 1997 Dialects of English Course for non-majors, Vaux realized that most of the work on American dialects was badly out of date as well as out of touch. It seemed this body of research focused on old white male farmers, and dealt with high level, abstract linguistic concepts of little interest to the general public. To rectify the situation, he conducted an online survey with 50,000 participants on word usage and pronunciation of a variety of words participants used to describe common objects.
It just so happens that one of the key words in Vaux’s survey was pecan. Where I grew up in Arkansas, pick-AHN is the favored pronunciation. It turns out this version follows the Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana, extending west into Texas and Oklahoma. Folks hailing from a majority of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan pronounce it PEE-kahn. If you’re from anywhere else the pronunciation is “pee-KAHN”, with the exception of a few areas of New England and the Ohio valley that use the rarer pee-CAN or pick-Ann.
So what is the correct pronunciation of the word pecan? I decided to ask an expert. Patrick Taylor obtained his doctorate in Indo-European historical linguistics followed by work for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language researching and writing etymologies. Surely Patrick could help me sort through the complexities and declare a winner in this gentlemen’s debate. The etymology of the word pecan stems from Algonquian languages for the general word for nut. In the Abenaki tribe the word was pagan, in Miami-Illinois tribes it was pakaani, the Objibwa called it paga, the Sahwnee word was paka:ni, and the Atakapa tribe used pa’kan. For a moment it seemed as if this debate was only becoming more complicated. The Algonquians couldn’t even agree on a word, much less a pronunciation.
The native range of the Pecan tree, Carya illinoinensis, extends along the Mississippi valley from Louisiana north to—as the scientific name suggests—Illinois. Populations of pecan trees are also found throughout Texas and Mexico. This is much of the same area inhabited by Algonquian tribes. In the early 1700’s the Spanish and French who explored this area, borrowing from the Algonquian languages, referred to this nut as the pacana and pacane.
In the French pronunciation the last syllable receives the stress, as is typical for the language, and the a is pronounced as in the word father. The “correct” pronunciation of pecan would place the emphasis on the end syllable as typical of French and have a first syllable with a pronunciation of the soft a of the original pacane. The closest of the modern pronunciations would be pick-AHN with its first syllable schwa and second syllable stress. Interestingly, the region where the pick-AHN pronunciation dominates overlaps completely with the native range of the pecan tree. The word pecan originated and was in frequent use in this same region. Perhaps, it is not surprising that this area is the closest to the root pronunciation.
Early American dictionaries from 1844 and 1895 by Noah Webster, the noted lexicographer, and W.D. Whitney, the well-known and respected linguist, also place the emphasis on the second syllable. Interestingly, both hailed from the North where the current preferred pronunciation is PEE-can with the emphasis on the first syllable. This suggests that derivations in pronunciation may not have occurred until later.
Commercial production of pecans didn’t really occur until the late 1800’s. In 1847 a slave named Telesphore J. Roman first successfully grafted pecan trees. With this innovation, commercial pecan orchards were achievable in much less time than it would take a tree to mature and produce nuts. By the mid to late 1880’s pecan orchards started spreading outside of the native range, primarily in Florida. In 1890, 1,000-acre orchards began popping up in South Carolina. It’s during this time that the different pronunciations, the ones we defend so fiercely now, most likely emerged.
I do declare that I’m sticking to my guns in this gentlemanly debate. While PEE-can is a perfectly acceptable pronunciation, historical precedent is on my side. Pick-AHN is indeed the most correct way to pronounce pecan. Now I just have to break the news to Elbie.