Sunday, May 1, 2011


I was watching my favorite program Sunday Morning this last Easter Sunday – getting caught up on the world and readying myself for services at St. Matthew’s. Sunday Morning did their usual jamming job including a story on the longest professional baseball game ever played – 33 innings between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, two teams from the Triple-A International League. The game lasted eight hours and 25 minutes with those 33 innings played on both April 18 and 19, 1981 at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Fittingly, the Red Sox won.

Two future Hall of Famers played in this barn burner including Cal Ripken, Jr. playing third base for Rochester and Wade Boggs who played third base for Pawtucket. While the game was worthy of this mention, the story featured yet again another so called professional reporter/broadcaster this time in the person of CBS Correspondent Steve Hartman who didn’t know how to pronounce, “PAWTUCKET.” After years of enduring the slings and arrows of this verbal ignorance/harassment this for me was the last straw and fodder for yet another ranting post. Gees people, can’t you get the name straight?

I lived in Pawtucket, RI for several years off and on with my Mom’s parents during my early years and then when Mom decided to split with Dad, lived there with my two Brothers from 1953 until 1962 when I went off to university. I had been away at school for those last four years and while the 1958 to 1961 Lenox School yearbooks gave a Dallas, Texas address, Pawtucket was still home.

When I went to school at Moses Brown and then on to St. Dunstan’s in nearby Providence never did I hear anyone - Family member, fellow student, faculty or any Rhode Islander mispronounce (OK, let’s be objective now) – pronounce the name of this august little town – ancient fishing grounds and the birthplace of the industrial revolution in the United States of America via the Old Slater Mill – any other way than the correct way.

Seems that Steve Hartman and admittedly many other broadcasters, sportscasters, commentators want to accentuate the "Paw" in Pawtucket so it comes out like, "PAAAAW-tucket" when the name is correctly pronounced Puh-TUCK-et as in "Bucket" with a soft “P” and the stress on "tucket". Maybe it’s their way of amusing themselves and having fun like a carnival barker accentuating what they think is an affectation of the name. No more, you masses of ignorant jesters… it’s time to fess up and get it right.

So what is the origin of the name, Pawtucket?

As is the case all across North America folks were already here when the Europeans came and decided to “civilize” this land that included present day southern Massachusetts and all of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Those First Nations included the Nanhigganeuck - Nanhiggonsicks aka the Narragansett, the Pokanoket – Poncakanet aka Wamponaog and the Niantic though there was great influence from many other local and remote native cultures. The English, French and the Spanish managed to upset the applecart, but that’s another story.

At the height of their influence the Wampanoag controlled all the country extending east from Narragansett Bay (including Rhode Island aka Aquidneck Island) and Pawtucket River to the Atlantic, including the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. They were surrounded by both friendly though many aggressive groups who coveted their land. The Blackstone River long served as the boundary between the Wampanoag and Narragansett.

The Blackstone River [originally known as the Kittacuck (the great tidal river)] runs from Worcester, Massachusetts through Pawtucket where it is known locally as the Pawtucket River to The Pawtucket Falls under what is now the Main Street Bridge. Below The Falls it becomes the Seekonk River and is influenced by the ever present salt water tides from Narragansett Bay. The Seekonk meets the Providence River in Providence and then onto Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic. These were all important rivers in ancient and colonial times. The Dutch called the Providence River the Nassau River significant as the northeastern boundary between the Dutch colony of New Netherlands and the English New England.

Pawtucket and specifically the locale of The Falls meant “Great Falls” in Algonquin, literally the place of a larger waterfall. This area was the confluence of several major overland trails and already important as the natural, convenient and shallow crossing point above The Falls. We also need note that the Wampanoag gathered to fish for salmon, alewives (herring) and shad which abundantly proliferated well into the 19th century. Not so in what is now a much improved though still polluted river where it is no longer safe to swim or fish. Yes, the Native Americans were right… So the name came from The Falls and the area which was later known as the Pawtucket Fields.

So, how to pronounce Pawtucket? It is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to pronounce native names like Pawtucket as the original speakers did. On that supposition all historians and linguists agree. When the New England colonists arrived they pronounced the names as they heard them, through the filter of Old English. When they heard the Algonquin and all its dialects they really couldn’t tell where one word ended and another began. Nor could they tell what sounds were being spoken. As esteemed linguist Dr. Elaine Chaika of Providence College states, “If foreign speakers make a sound you don't have in your language, your ear automatically converts it to the nearest sound you do have. That's why people have foreign accents.”

We are also importantly dealing with concepts where a foreigner might attribute a meaning consistent with their culture and not remotely close to the intention of the speaker. Yes, Roger Williams’, A Key Into the Language of America in 1643 provided great insight into the Narragansett and other nearby Algonquin cultures, but was just a start.

What we do know is that no contemporary residents with a serious eye on culture and the English language (with or without a sense of humor) do not pronounce Pawtucket as Steve Hartman did in his Sunday Morning piece.

So, please, Mr. Hartman and you other guilty parties, we implore you to get it right. Though we know that you’re not from around here - as a professional you should know how to pronounce the principal name of your story line. Maybe if you ever get “Pawtucket” mastered you can try your luck with other Rhode Island place names including Scituate, Misquamicut, Pascoag, Quonochontaug, Cowesett and Usquepaugh - for a start. Where’s Pawtucket Native David Hartman when you need him?


Ned Buxton

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