English place names: where did the missing syllables go?

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.

Camel Estuary. Padstow. North Cornwall.

Irrelevant photo: the Camel Estuary.

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?

77 thoughts on “English place names: where did the missing syllables go?

    • I had to deconstruct Edinburgh to get that one. It’s terrible. Which for a pun is a compliment, in its painful way.

      But to the serious part of your comment: Did got give out syllables? This is a serious philosophical issue that probably deserves a full blog post, if not a bit of damning and anathema-shouting from the pulpit. None of which I feel qualified to do, although that hasn’t stopped me in the past. I don’t know yet if I’ll follow up on it, although I should because I suspect no one else will. But I thank you for raising it, regardless.

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  1. Haha – I really enjoyed this! It is a wonder how we come about our spellings and pronunciations. I used to live in town called Towcester, pronounced Toaster. An Australian friend of mine visited the town of Loughborough – properly pronounced Luff-Bur-Er, but he decided to call it Looga-Barooga – a big improvement on the original, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Poor fools visiting these places and have no clue how to ask for directions. I mean, the neophyte (like me) has no clue there are drunken letters and syllables hanging around the pubs and tea houses!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Coming from a language whose spelling matches its pronunciation must make English a real nightmare. Lo siento mucho, but it wasn’t my idea. Honest.

      As far as I know (and you shouldn’t take my word for this), Canterbury is actually pronounced Canterbury. At least, no one’s started laughing when I’ve pronounced it that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Everywhere must have these issues, but you’ve put such a clever, humorous spin on them! Letters off for a pint, French excess — love it!
    Here we have Hobart, Indiana which is called O-Bert. My personal favorite is Louisville, Kentucky though. We recently had company, originally from Oregon, but staying in Louisville, and after several times, our daughter couldn’t stand it anymore and informed her, “It’s not Louie-ville, it’s Loo-a-vul,” and my husband and I had a good laugh. Sassy said, “Well, why does SHE get to say it wrong?!”
    Everywhere has at least one :)

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  4. Not to worry. If you do ever sell off the unused letters, you can always peek over here in New England for the original versions. It’s seems you exported them (Worcester for sure) as part of the original settlements. Why we didn’t change these things after the Revolution, I’ll never know, but then, as you say, yours might stem from the French. I work in Glastonbury, Connecticut – all letters in active use.

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  5. I’m from New England and we share a lot of our place names from the English: there’s a Worcester, Massachusetts (pronounce Wooster, a la the English) but we also have a Thames River, only we pronounce it as God intended, THames, not Tems, which is a pronunciation that is an abomination to God and man and woman. There’s also a Cornwall, an Oxford, Norwich, Essex, yada yada, and a whole bunch of “New” stuff: New London, New Britain, New Haven, etc.

    Standing alongside all those very British place names, we have the names of places given by the native people of the areas. I think that’s where all those missing consonants from the English place names wound up, in unpronounceable (never mind trying to spell them) places like Connecticut, Shepaug, Ogunquit, Wampanoag, Quinnipiac, Passamaquoddy. It’s as if they named places from random Scrabble tiles.

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    • Why thank you. And it’s the end of the week, so the competition’s had time to build up.

      Cheers does seem to be pronounced sort of like cheers. But a lot of the English accents have what I’ve come to think of as the disappearing R. It leaves an almost imaginary space where it used to be. Writing it out as chee-uhs doesn’t seem to catch it, but–well, try saying “cheers” without the R. When you stop laughing, try again, because you didn’t get it right the first time. And neither did I.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My family is originally from Massachusetts, near Boston, but I’ve been living in Virginia since I was 9. We lived in northern VA for a couple of years before moving again to a VERY rural part of central VA in the foothills of the Appalachians. The culture shock was staggering. I say this so you understand I’m acutely aware of accents and pronunciations, particularly in New England. I can no longer speak that dialect, but it’s a part of who I am. It’s always a cringeworthy experience to watch actors in movies try to imitate the New England accent, especially the South Boston version.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ok, so this isn’t really relevant, but this episode from my life made me think of you and your blog:

        I had a meeting the other day with a woman who is a native Australian. During the course of our conversation, I made an offhand comment about how terrible I am with names and then we continued to discuss our business. When our meeting concluded, she shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said the single word, “Power!” before she left my office.

        I was slightly baffled by her exclamation but then I thought, “Hmm. Maybe that’s something Australians say, sort of like the way the British say ‘Cheers!’ all the time even when they’re not drinking.”

        After she left, I looked down at my notes and up at the top I’d written, “Ms. So-and-so Power.” That was her last name: Power. She repeated it to me as she left, thinking it would help me remember, I guess.

        Thank God I realized this before I started going around shouting “Power!” at every Australian I encounter (not that I encounter very many). Anyway, yes, I’ll remember her name always. ;)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. And now we know! Seriously when we flew to Edinburgh, Scotland, I tried to get the pronunciation right. I knew it wasn’t “Edinburg” as many say, but “Edinburr” didn’t sound correct either. Then we had a man explain it perfectly: say Edinbutter but leave out the t’s. It works quite well! But then even in Scotland there was a bit of disagreement on this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Ellen,
    And what about Cirencester, locally pronounced “sister”, of the family name Urquhart, pronounced like “farker”?
    I LOVE the English (language),
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Seriously ? Woolfardisworthy …there has to be a better use of those consonants somewhere. The French, the Methodists, teetotalers and pint-drinkers…this post is so colorful !
    Ya’ll is one funny lady, Miss Ellen.☺ Van

    Like

  9. Now then, what you yanks don’t know is that the old Cornish name for the church at Launceston (slightly out of town on the road heading north) Lan Stephan, from whence cometh Lansen as a diminutive. Actually nothing to do with the Roman Launceston for the castle on the next hill to the south. Not many Cornish people remember that, either.

    Next, taken from the poem about Menzies above, I can also offer an explanation. In earlier days, in middle and late Anglo-Saxon times, the letters for z and g were written almost, but not quite, identically. Unless you had 20/20 vision it was difficult to tell them apart. And so, Mengies (Pronounced Mingis)became Menzies but still kept, in traditional circles, the pronunciation.

    Love your blog,

    John

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know. I’m guessing each of us individually knows what we’re saying. The problem comes in getting other people to understand it. And then, of course, spelling it.

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  10. My home of Virginia seems to have kept some of this at least. In the Hampton, VA area there’s a region called “Kecoughtan”. Which of course is pronounced “KICK-uh-tan”.

    For pronunciation, it’s a mixed bag. Staunton is “STAN-tun”, Norfolk is “NAH-fuk” and Buena Vista is “BYOO-nuh Vista”, but I’ve never heard anybody do anything odd to Jamestown, Charlottesville, or Roanoke. And almost nobody seems to know what to do with “Fauquier” (which is properly “Faw-KEER”).

    Liked by 1 person

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