I recently wrote a breezy little story about a weekend trip from the Bay Area to the Sierra foothills. The piece was an argument for taking the trip slow, navigating back roads versus the interstate, and spending a night in Sacramento, our chronically underappreciated capital, rather than powering through Friday traffic in the mad rush to Tahoe. It was intended to be a loving, and uncontroversial essay about a Northern California trip most of us have done. So I was surprised when email after irate email began crowding my inbox.
My mistake? I wrote Sierras. Not Sierra.
My credibility was questioned, my intelligence challenged, several letter-writers accused me of not being “from here.”
After a lifetime here, I’m not naive about my home state’s many internal rivalries and tensions. But even after 15 years of travel writing, much of it about the American West, I was stunned by the hostility that resulted from an errant ‘s’ slipping onto the end of Sierra. I simply wouldn’t have suspected a mountain range to have such a cranky following. But, as I learned the hard way, the Sierra Nevada is no ordinary sawtooth.
The Sierra Nevada, like too many other places in California to list, takes its name from Spanish. It means “snowy mountain range” and was first used in 1542 by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who spotted the Santa Cruz mountains from the ocean off of the San Francisco peninsula and named them the Sierra Nevada, somewhat surprising considering how comparably snow-free those coastal mountains are. The name continued to migrate, shifting from one distant interior mountain range to another, a sort of placeholder for whatever snow-capped peaks had yet to be mapped.
It wasn’t until 1776, in a famous map by Padre Pedro Font, that the mountains now known as the Sierra Nevada were clearly labeled as such. But as late as 1841, the Sierra Nevada was still being called by other names, including the Californian Range, according to Francis P. Farquhar, the environmentalist and mountaineer who edited the Sierra Club Bulletin from 1926 to 1946.
Almost as soon as the range’s name was formalized, it began being called by its nickname, the Sierras. Joaquin Miller, the author and frontiersman, wrote “Songs of the Sierras” in 1871. Later, he wrote at least four more celebrated works devoted to California’s most notable mountains, all using the “Sierras” in the title. There are probably more that I’m missing. The man isn’t called the “Poet of the Sierras” for nothing.
But while Miller was perhaps the most famous chronicler of the Sierra Nevada, he was hardly the first to slap it with the common colloquialism “the Sierras.” Bret Harte wrote “Stories of the Sierras And Other Sketches” in 1872. Horatio Alger wrote “The Young Explorer, Or, Among the Sierras” in 1880.
This construction wasn’t new, after all. For example, the Americans volume of “Modern History: Or the Present State of All Nations” (1739) refers to the Andes, the Llanos, the Pampas and the Sierras, all indigenous or Spanish words that became English proper nouns. These words could have been translated or anglicized, but instead they embrace the sort of Spanglish that likely feels familiar, if not uncomplicated, to most Californians.
The Grammar Argument
As a writer, it might seem that I’d be particularly invested in grammar. But ultimately, I fall into the camp of people that love language as an expression of culture — of the ever-changing way humanity communicates with itself. For me, the idea that language would be stagnant or strictly rule-bound takes a good amount of the fun out of it. And those who most aggressively insist on “proper grammar” in every instance are, I’ve found, often pretty miserable. Not because they’re wrong, but because they care more about being right than they do about hearing what someone else is saying.
But I can’t know what’s in the minds of the most militant Sierra-no-s hardliners. All I can do is ask them. So I did.
I responded to every letter I received, and in doing so, I found the almost universal explanation for the offense was surprisingly straightforward. Again and again, they said my use of “the Sierras” was simply “incorrect.”
Why? Because the Sierra Nevada is borrowed from Spanish (sierra = sawtooth mountain range, nevada = snowy or snow-capped). It's already plural in its root language, so therefore it's wrong to pluralize it in its proper noun usage.
One reader proposed that the controversy began with Ansel Adams, the great photographer of California’s landscapes, who wrote in his 1985 autobiography about his “chagrin” at “the High Sierras” sneaking into the title page of one of his early photography collections. “The name Sierra is already a plural,” he wrote. “To add an ‘s’ is a linguistic, Californian, and mountaineering sin.”
As a lover (and mediocre speaker) of Spanish, and a student of Latin American history and politics, I’m naturally sympathetic to this argument. But I was struck that, as far as I could tell, these letter writers weren’t Spanish speakers, anti-colonialists, or people particularly passionate about California’s relationship to Mexico. Their argument wasn’t, at first blush, rooted in history or politics or ideology. Instead, it was semantic.
I wondered, if the Rocky Mountains are the Rockies and the Smoky Mountains are the Smokies, is there a hard and fast reason to steer clear of using the same construction, the Sierras, when referring to my home state mountain range? And, if so, should I alter my own speech or stick with the phrasing that feels natural to me, 41 years into my life as a Californian.
“You are traveling to ‘The Sierra’, not ‘Sierras.’ ‘Sierras’ is grammatically incorrect and stories that use the word ‘Sierras’ lose all credibility with those who know better,” wrote one comparably polite emailer.
“You're not alone with your use of the word ‘Sierras,’” he continued, “but as a journalist, you and your editors are not presenting yourselves as a credible news source with such a faux pas.”
So I called an expert: Paul Brians, retired Professor of English at Washington State University and the author of “Common Errors in English Usage,” now in its third edition. The website devoted to his book has a section devoted to the Sierra Nevada, which suggested Brians had given the question some thought.
Himself from California (he now lives on Puget Sound), Brians acknowledges the Spanish meaning and notes that “knowledgeable Westerners usually avoid a redundancy by simply referring to ‘the Sierra Nevadas’ or simply ‘the Sierras.’” It is, he adds, something that “transplanted weather forecasters” often get wrong.
He goes on, “Some object to the familiar abbreviation ‘Sierras,’ but this form, like ‘Rockies’ and ‘Smokies’ is too well-established to be considered erroneous.”
I’d sent the link to a few of my detractors, but they were unswayed. One woman, who described herself as a retired elementary school teacher from Mono County, was particularly pointed (“Sweetie - it is spelled SIERRA - with no ‘s’. You are the travel editor? What a joke”). She was equally curt in response to Brians’ defense of “the Sierras.”
“I live in the Sierra,” she wrote. “You're a tourist.”
How would Brians answer this critique, then?
First, he makes the point that a mountain range is a collective plural, meaning it’s both singular (a range) and plural (it represents a group of things together, like a team). Those collectives, Brians says, “don't really function very much as plurals in English.”
So saying it’s grammatically incorrect to add an ‘s’ because the word is already plural isn’t exactly right. It’s grammatically “complicated,” says Brians. “Nobody is bothered by saying the Rockies or the Smokies, right,” he asks rhetorically. “Same thing. That's a range of mountains. They have a nickname.”
But the bigger issue, says Brians, is the idea that the Spanish meaning and rules would apply to this borrowed word at all. “You do not need to follow the rules with which a foreign language, which is the source, treats something grammatically,” says Brians. “The French do horrific things with English when they import it.”
That’s how language works, says Brians. “A name that has been developed in a foreign language cuts its roots with the parent.”
The fact that Sierra Nevada is rooted in Spanish doesn’t mean we’re married to Spanish grammar any more than we’re married, necessarily, to a Spanish pronunciation. And this is when Brians pointed to the second half of Sierra Nevada — the adjective “snow-capped” in Spanish, which is, not incidentally, also the name of California’s neighboring state.
“People from the East Coast, especially New York news broadcasters, constantly use the pronunciation [Ne-VAH-duh], which is closer to the Spanish,” Brians explained. That’s because, “if you know enough Spanish to know that that ‘a’ should be pronounced, ‘ah,’ then you think you know how to say it. Of course, nobody from the West Coast says it's [Ne-VAH-duh]. It's always [Ne-VAD-uh].”
That’s just one of many examples of the parent language not dictating how something should be said, but it was striking that those who most militantly oppose adding an ‘s’ to Sierra would likely recoil at the sound of some Easterner butchering Nevada with that long spa-like “VAH”.
Brians had largely convinced me that my grammar was sound, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t missing something, so I reached out to David Bunker, the former editor of the Sierra Sun, one of the oldest newspapers in the state. He explained that it had been “drilled into [his] head as a young reporter to never use ‘Sierras’ for the same reason my critics had articulated: it’s Spanish and a single mountain range.
“But of course words are fungible,” he added magnanimously, “and if you consider how a Spanish word like Los Angeles is pronounced in the States, perhaps none of us have a leg to stand on. I still think a strong case can be made for ‘the Sierra’ being the correct phrasing, since it would never be pluralized in Spanish.
“But hardly the thing to get outraged about these days, considering our much more pressing issues the world over.”
The Sierra has its way with me
In an effort at diplomacy, I followed up with one of the more hostile letter writers, the Mono County woman who said she lives “within sight of the state line.” She had a lot to say on the subject:
“I'll bet you have heard about the tourist induced chaos and environmental degradation in the Lake Tahoe area,” she wrote. She lives in Mono County, another tourist destination, she explained.
“Most Sierra locals (those who don't make money off tourism) have more than ample reasons to despise tourists,” she continued. “Shall I tell you how many hours I spend picking up dirty diapers, malt liquor cans, human excrement, shit coveredtoilet paper, discarded food, broken camping and fishing gear and more from the place I have called home for most of my life?”
I don’t like the way she lumped me in with the careless trash-leavers and fire-starters, but her anger and frustration ring true.
“Do tourists expect to be ‘liked’ or even welcomed when they behave like slovenly spoiled brats and self entitled sociopaths? We laugh at you. We make fun of you. And then when you leave your garbage behind for us to pick up and build illegal campfires which threaten our homes and the land that we love we do indeed hate you. If tourists want something other than derision, they need to practice respect.”
And this, I think, is the conclusion I came to. Because what underlies this hatred, however extreme, is something real and relatable. Without having corresponded a bit more with her and others, I would have been tempted to think the anti-“Sierras” commenters just wanted to be smarter than some dumb ass travel journalist offhandedly referencing a place they hold dear.
And, frankly, I get that. Knowing more than some outsider feels like its own kind of reclamation — an assertion of authority and ownership. That feeling is an early, visceral memory of mine, too. When I was asked directions by visitors to my hometown of Mendocino, then a fledgling tourist destination (now a thoroughly branded Victorian wonderland), my younger brother and I delighted in sending them astray. We were just kids, but there’s a piece of me that smiles, even now, at the idea of stealing Mendocino back from those incoming hordes — to assert that it was our place, not theirs.
I followed up with David Bunker one more time to see if he had any thoughts about why people feel so strongly about all of this. He made a point some others had made: “Maybe it's like when you hear someone say ‘Frisco’ in reference to San Francisco,” he wrote. “There might be nothing wrong with that phrasing, but it just sounds off.” While granting that it “may not hold true universally,” he explained, it’s “one of those things that, for some people, signals an unfamiliarity with the area.”
“We humans are strange creatures, right? These battles over language may have roots in some tribal identity creation past, or provincial superiority complexes, or just pride of place,” he added. “Who knows.”
All I know is what at first seemed like curmudgeonly nitpicking ultimately feels like something else. These readers point to linguistic propriety as the reason they’re distressed by that ‘s’ on Sierra. And maybe I should take them at their word. But ultimately, I don’t think those emails were about grammar at all. They were, I now believe, about loving a place so much that you want to claim it as your own.
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