Pronunciation and British Geography

Let’s start out by all agreeing that English spelling is an invention of the devil—a being whose existence can only be confirmed by studying the way English is written.  The experts tell us that English spelling was systemized at a time when the pronunciation was still changing, so it’s correct enough for the way words were pronounced at the time. And I’m sure that’s true (sort of—it doesn’t allow for regional variations, but let’s keep this simple), but honestly, did we ever a letter like C when either an S or a K would have done just fine? If we needed it to spell chunk, couldn’t we have assigned it the CH sound and saved it for that alone?


Mousehole, in Devon. Photo by Waterborough

So let’s agree that the spelling of a word isn’t a trustworthy guide to its pronunciation. Place names, though, are the real killers. Along the north Cornish coast is a town called Widemouth Bay, pronounced WIDmuth. Drive northeast and you come to Sandymouth and think, Right, that’s SANdimuth. Wrong. That’s SANdymouth. Go figure. (That’s an Americanism, by the way—something I found out only recently, when I used it and was met with a blank look.) Keep driving and you come to Woolfardisworthy, which has gone so far out of whack that the road sign actually gives the pronunciation: WOOLsery, only they don’t capitalize the accented syllable, so presumably you could think it was WoolSERRy. Or WoolserrEE. It makes as much sense as anything else. Go to the south coast and you’ll find Mousehole, pronounced MOWZul. A couple of years ago, I drove through a town called Towster (we’re not in Cornwall anymore, Toto, but the pronunciation problems carry over), which is pronounced TOASTer. Yes, the spelling and the pronunciation both make sense, in an English-language, devilish sort of way, but that only points out how little sense the spelling of toaster makes.

I expected to reach Coffee Pot in a few miles.

No one thought a town called Towster was funny except me. I was grief-stricken to be left alone with the joke.

Turn the British loose on American place names and they fall victim to their own language. Michigan becomes MITCHigan. (For all you non-U.S. readers, it’s MISHigun.) Houston becomes HOOSton. (It should be HYOUSton.)

Guys, you have no one to blame but yourselves.

25 thoughts on “Pronunciation and British Geography

  1. And what about Cirencester, pronounced “sissite”? As it’s said in “The Chaos”, about English pronuciation, “Dearest creature in creation / Studying Engish pronunciation / … My advice is, “Give it up!” :)
    Best regards from southern Texas,


      • Hi Ellen,
        Now that you mention it, long-forgotten days of studying historical linguistics at the University of Bonn come back. And I think you may be right. I remember that we were taught there are 3 different pronunciations, and one of them was very short. That may be “sister”, with “sisite(r)” as an alternative by the locals, and “sai(e)renseste(e)” as the pronunciation of the “uninitiated”. A pity that I didn’t bring my pronunciation dictionary for English place names over.
        Best regards from southern Texas,
        P.S.: googling in Wikipedia confirmed the 3 different pronunciations


  2. I saw a movie version of Jane Eyre before I read the book. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the name of the clergyman who proposed to Jane was simply “St. John”. In the movie, it was pronounced “Sinjin”.
    Doesn’t matter, I suppose. To me he was a minor character. I preferred Rochester hands down, anyway. Especially as played by George C. Scott. *sigh*


  3. I sympathise. I also feel superior for knowing instinctively how these place names are pronounced.

    And therein lies the secret of the English class system…

    Seriously, my wife is American and we live in Edinburgh. She asks for an americano with hot milk on the side and has to use diction like the Lady Dowager Duchess Ponsonby – and aspirate the ‘h’ and make her mouth into a tight circle ‘h o t’ – otherwise they just stare at her wondering what ‘hat milk’ is. And she has a mellifluous accent – leaning towards Canadian. Go figure.

    By the way, you brought the toaster with you? :-D


    • I think it was George Bernard Shaw who argued for rationalizing English spelling by saying that, under the current system you could spell fish ghoti: GH as in tough; O as in women; and TI as in nation.


  4. The British do this to easily identify foreigners. You must have heard how the locals turned all the town signposts in the wrong directions to confuse potential German invaders during WWII? (Or was that just East Anglia? Or an urban myth??). When I first lived in the UK I was in a town in Northern Northumberland called Alnwick. I learned to call it Annik, but not before they spotted the American ;)


    • I’m not exactly hard to spot as a foreigner, no matter how I pronounce Widmuth, so for all the good that’s doing they might as well change the signs.

      As I heard the story, all the signposts were taken down. I’ll have to ask around.


  5. Pingback: Spider Season in Cornwall | Notes from the U.K.

  6. How Americans managed to have a Kansas (CANzus) and an Arkansas (ARcansaw) is beyond me. Years ago our filly’s sire, a Hanoverian stud from Germany by the name of Arkansas, gave me a devil of a time as the owners pronounced his name as OUR-Kansas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And just to make life more difficult, there’s an Arkansas River in Texas (I have no idea why) that’s pronounced are-KAN-zus. Take that pronunciation with half a grain of salt, because I’m not from Texas and have the wrong accent, but it’s close enough to complicate the picture.


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