barbtaub asked why some English place names have “whole syllables missing? How could Worcester only have two syllables? Where do the L and the W go when you say Alnwick out loud?”
Well, I’m here to enlighten. The L and W go out for a pint, and after that, y’know, you just can’t count on them so it’s better to pronounce the word as if they’d never been there at all.
Now the R, C, and E—that’s a whole ‘nother story. They’re tea drinkers, and they’d come back if they were invited, but no one thought to so there they sit, with their cooling cups of tea, waiting for someone to remember them. It’s all very sad.
Why tea instead of beer? If they’d dropped out of Cornwall, I’d guess they were Methodists—Cornwall is historically Methodist country and the Methodists are serious teetotalers—but since we’re dealing with Worcester I won’t risk a guess. It just is that way. Some people want a pint, others want a cuppa.
What I can tell you is that the letters in English place names are unreliable. I expect that’s a cultural inheritance from French. You know, 1066, the Norman invasion, all that French influence pouring into what was until then a Germanic language. Whether you could count on the spelling of Old English to be even vaguely sensible I don’t know, but I do know that French is wasteful with its letters, not just in place names but in everything. It tosses in handfuls it has no intention of pronouncing as if to say, “See how rich we are? We have so many of these we can afford to throw them away.”
When you treat letters like that, why should they stick around? They’re not needed, so of course they seek solace in the pub or the café. Who wouldn’t?
Now that Britain’s in an age of artificially induced austerity, you’d think the government would want to claw some of those wasted letters back. I mean, at one point, the government considered selling off nationally owned woodlands, which were being used and weren’t in the pub, and it only backed off because the proposal caused an uproar. I’ve read speculation that they’ll sell off property owned by the National Health Service soon. You know—balance the books in the short term, even if it impoverishes the nation in the long term. What the hell: by the time the problems show up, some other government will be in power, so who cares? It’ll all be their problem to solve.
What I’m thinking is that they could easily sell off those vowels and consonants that no one’s using. A prime example lies up the coast from us: Woolfardisworthy is pronounced Woolsery, and the spelling’s so out of whack with the pronunciation that the road sign (in a rare moment of linguistic sanity) gives both spellings. So we could not only save on letters, we could have a smaller road sign.
Not all place names present as clear a case. The town of Launceston has three pronunciations: LANson (that’s the Cornish version), LAWNston (I’m not sure who pronounces it that way), and LAWNson (I think of this as the compromise version and it’s the one I use; with my accent, LANson sounds too strange). The only pronunciation that’s wrong is lawnCESSton—the one that uses all the letters. With three pronunciations, it’s not clear what letters we should sell off, but that doesn’t have to stop the program. Sacrifices must be made.
For what it’s worth, I’ve read that over centuries the sandpaper of time tend to wear away at difficult pronunciations. I’m still waiting for it to smooth out the pronunciation of sixth. Try saying that quickly three times. Still, the theory would explain the bizarre spellings of place names. English spelling was codified when the pronunciation was still changing rapidly, and it reflects (or so they say) pronunciations we no longer use. So place names were frozen even as the residents went about the natural business of simplifying the pronunciation, leaving us to wonder, What were they thinking?
Aren’t you glad you asked, barbtaub?