The Case of Unawatti Creek

Unawatti Creek flows into the North Fork of the Broad River, not too far from Canon, in Franklin County, Georgia.  Locally, it is pronounced “YunaWATTy.”  I like that pronunciation, and it gives a better clue to the origin of the name than the spelling does.

We need to remember that the “correct” pronunciation of any place name is the one used by the people who have lived there most of their lives.  I am reminded of hearing TV newsreaders butcher the pronunciation of local names, showing how little research they must have done and displaying their ignorance of the the area they cover.  Down in Gwinnett County [GwiNETT, not GWINett]. Georgia, is the town of Dacula–its name has no connection to any Cherokee root–; it is almost painful to hear its name pronounced to rhyme with Dracula, when the correct form is “daCUEla.”

Unawatti was, until recently, almost always spelled Unawattie.  Now, I notice that MapQuest and Google Maps have it as Unawatts.   I hope someone will correct them.  Maybe I will.

The creek was named for a Cherokee man who lived on its banks long ago.  His name translated into English was Old Bear; in Cherokee, it would have been something like “Yanaweti” or “Yonaweti,” from “yonah”, bear, and “uweti,” old.  The actual pronunciation would have been something like “Yawnawetty,” with the “yawn” part not quite so drawled as in our Southern speech.  Cherokee tends to join two or more words into one.

Using old maps and documents, the various English spelling attempts at Old Bear’s name have been recorded.  No, I did not do that research, but I have verified it, because it gives us some idea of how old Cherokee place names have changed over time.

An early spelling was “Yanuhweti”; we can be reasonably certain of that because it is closest to Yanuweti.  Soon afterward, the “-weti” became “-wattee” and the creek became Yonawattee or even Yonawatte.   A later attempt at spelling was “Yeounawattee,”  or “Yeounuwattee.” Other variations were “Yone Water” and “Yonawattoe.”   Eventually, the Yonah part came to be pronounced “Yuna” and spelled “Una-.”

We could trace the sound evolutions something like this:

Yawna [bear] –> Yonah –> Yeounu –> Una

Uweti, shortened in Cherokee to weti [old] –> watte –> wattie –> watti.

We can see how names and sounds change as they move more and mores steps away from the original language into English.  In this case, the Cherokee name was not quite as difficult for English tongues as most other words, and the current name might even be understandable enough for Old Bear to have recognized it if someone had spoken it to him.

By the way, the Western Cherokee still call North Carolina “Tsalaguwetiyi,” “the Old Cherokee Place.”

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