How to pronounce British place names

A handful of British place names are spelled the way they’re pronounced. Britain, for example. Also England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Northern Ireland. Even Wales, although it could just easily be Wails or Wayles. But then Britain could be (and as a last name actually is) spelled Britten. And Cornwall could be Kornwall. It derives from the Cornish word Kernow, so you could make a pretty fair case for it.

I won’t go on. Are there any words in English that can’t be spelled at least one other way?

Never mind. The situation’s complicated enough without me making it worse, because once you brush those few clear place names out of the way, you’re reduced to guesswork.

Irrelevant photo: I'm not sure what these are, but they're in bloom right now.

Irrelevant photo: I’m not sure what these are, but they’re in bloom right now.

It was in response to a post about the British sense of humor that Dan Antion suggested I write about the war between the pronunciation of British place names and their spelling. Who wouldn’t get the connection? The whole island’s having a good laugh at the rest of the world. When no one’s listening, they say things like, “Har har, all those foreigners think Derby is pronounced Derby.”

How do they pronounce Derby? Why Darby, of course.

Why don’t they spell it Darby? Because, as the kids used to say where I grew up, and don’t look for anything as boring as an explanation to follow that because. There is none, and that’s the point. The adult world didn’t make sense and because was as good an explanation as the kids gave. Or got, I suspect. Things were the way they were. If you pushed the kids (and I did once or twice; I was the kind of kid who just had to), they’d escalate to a frustrated “just because,” which was followed by a silent but strongly implied you idiot.

And so it is with English spelling. It’s spelled that way because it’s spelled that way.

As an aside (and I’ll get to our topic eventually), my first Google search on the subject took me to a web site whose headline was, “English spelling is easy.” Sez whoo? (Or hoo. Or even whou.) English spelling not only isn’t easy, it isn’t even marginally sensible. All those kids being taught phonics? When they find out that nothing in English works phonetically, they’ll never trust a human being again.

All that creates enough of a problem when we’re wrestling with words we recognize—you know: tough, though, thought—but with place names the problem’s magnified. Because the country’s always throwing new ones at you, and an outsider doesn’t stand a chance.

Outsider, by the way, means citizens and foreigners alike. As far as pronouncing place names go, you can wave your birth certificate or your naturalization papers all you want, but they won’t help. Once you leave your familiar ground behind, you’re an outsider.

Time for a few examples.

Dan wrote, “In an earlier post of mine, about the doors at Barkhamsted Reservoir, my friend in England commented: ‘Here in the U.K. it would be spelled Berkhampstead (there is such a place!) and still pronounced Barkemstead!’ I’ll never understand. I’m blaming England for the way the people near Boston pronounce Woburn, Massachusetts (woo-burn).“

And in case you think spellings change when names cross the Atlantic while the pronunciation stays the same, you’re wrong: You can’t find consistency even there. The British Birmingham is pronounced Birming-am: the American one is Birming-ham. The spelling stays the same.

In response to Dan’s comment, John Evans wrote, “I used to live in the West Midlands, which includes the county town of Warwick (famous for its castle). This is pronounced Worrick. However, even British people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places that aren’t in their own locality. Thus, one day a truck driver from Lancashire (NW England) on his way to Warwick stopped and asked me ‘Is this the road to War-wick?’ He would have done any American proud—apart from his broad Lancashire accent, that is.

“And Barnoldswick in Lancashire is of course pronounced Barlick!”

Val, from Quiet Season, wrote, “In Shropshire they’re still arguing about whether Shrewsbury is pronounced shroosbury or shrowsbury, and some people still argue over whether a scone is pronounced skone or skon.”

Think she’s exaggerating? In 2015 the BBC staged a debate on how to pronounce Shrewsbury and invited people to vote. I’m sure they had a huge audience and even more sure that everyone went on pronouncing it exactly the way they had before.

Around here, Widemouth Bay is pronounced Widmuth. You hear that and think you see a pattern, don’t you? Silly you. Sandymouth is pronounced Sandymouth. A bit further away, in Devon, you’ll find the town of Teignmouth, pronounced tin-muth. The River Teign and its valley, though, from which the town took its name, are pronounced teen. The local authority (that’s the government) is teenbridge. I’d have sworn there was a third pronunciation, tane, but D., who told me about this to begin with, swears there are only two. Sad, isn’t it? I so wanted three, but what can you do?

Instead of going on to give you a list of absurd spellings, I’ll give you a few links, because the work’s been done for me. Several times over. For starters, you can look at BBC America and Anglotopia. If that’s not enough, google “pronunciation British place names.” Have fun.

In the meantime, let’s go in a different direction and talk about the spelling system that led to this mayhem. A few thousand years ago, when I was younger, someone explained it to me by saying that English pronunciation was still a liquid when its spelling was turned into a solid, and it’s the mismatch that did all the damage: The spellings stayed fixed while the pronunciations flowed away from them. As liquids will.

Or at least, abandoning my metaphor, the spellings changed more slowly than the pronunciations.

In the interest of minimal honesty, the explanation I actually got didn’t include the metaphor and may have been clearer that way, but it was less fun. According to what I now read, however, the process wasn’t that simple. The English Spelling Society has a fascinating web site on the history of English spelling and traces our current spelling back to Geoffrey Chaucer (who died in 1400, in case you don’t have that date fixed in your brain). Before then, everything that mattered in the country was written in French. Chaucer wasn’t responsible for the shift to English but he was around to give it a good hard shove. Thanks, Jeff.

Or Geoff. This is English. Who’s to say?

Chaucer’s English isn’t an easy read for—well, me for one, and let’s pretend briefly that I’m typical of something: the modern English-speaking reader in this case. But the Spelling Society seems to think his version was better than what followed. The scribes and clerks of the day were used to writing French, so they imported French spellings—double, table, and centre, for example. And if that didn’t make things murky enough, when the first English printing press was imported, printers came over from Belgium to run it, and since English wasn’t their first language they added some spelling errors, including, the article says, spelling a word pronounced eny as any. Plus they were paid by the line (and sometimes, more altruistically, wanted to lengthen a line to make the margins look better), so they might spell hed head, or fondnes fondnesse, and so forth.

(An interruption here: The article said they made spelling errors, but since no particular spelling was either right or wrong at the time, just more or less readable, I suspect they’re importing a modern concept to the discussion.)

The article goes on from there—read it on the web site; it’s not long and it is fascinating—until by the time the first Elizabeth was on the throne people were spelling words pretty much any way they wanted to. Which eliminates the need for spelling tests but slows down a person’s reading speed until they feel like a driver in a very thick traffic jam.

(They as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, by the way, isn’t something new. It was in common use until sometime in the nineteenth century. You needed to hear that today, didn’t you?)

We’ll skip a few important steps and jump ahead to Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking dictionary of 1755, in which he struggled heroically to standardize the mess he’d been handed and—well, folks, here we are. I doubt most of us would have done any better, given what he had to work with, but Derby is still pronounced Darby.

Why? Just because.

112 thoughts on “How to pronounce British place names

  1. I am so glad you cleared that up. The worst imported city name that we have, that might be pronounce “correctly” is Worcester, MA which is pronounced (Woost’-er). We also have a bunch of places that carry their old Indian name, like Poquonock ct, (pa-cwonik). Thanks for your research, it does explain some things. It doesn’t explain why people still can’t agree, but I guess that’s just people, and tradition, and people.

    I’m going to forward this to my friend in England who made the Barkhamsted comment. Thanks for taking up the challenge

    Liked by 3 people

  2. When we went to Scotland (three years ago this week) we landed in Edinburgh and stayed there for two nights. Quickly I learned that no one said, “Edinburg” although some said “Edinburrow.” A kilt wearing man who I took to be the last word on the subject because, well, he wore a kilt, told us to say “Edinbutter” BUT leave out the t’s, so it comes out something like “Edinburrrr.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I think Virginia caught a case of the same thing, probably a carryover.

    We have the town of Staunton, which is of course not “Stawnton”, but “Stantun, The town of Buena Vista, which you’d think would start “Bway-na, instead starts “Byoo-na”. “Buchanan” is instead “Buckannon”, “Botetourt” is “Bot-a-tot”.

    And my favorite “Kecoughtan” (on the Virginia Peninsula, part of Hampton), which is of course pronounced “Kick-a-tan”.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Well, there’s “Cirencester”, which sometimes – by the real old locals – pronunced “sister”. And then there’s names, too, e.g. P.G. Wodehouse’s “Stanley Featherstonehaug Ukridge”, the middle name pronounced “Fanshaw”. And of course, “Wodehouse” itself is like “Woodhouse”. Some more of those place names are to be found here: http://tinyurl.com/hhmmaud
    There’s also a YouTube video: http://tinyurl.com/q6y7qdn
    The difference between spelling and pronunciation in English has always fascinated me. There’s, e.g. the linguistic joke about “ghoti”, pronoun ced “fish”, if the “gh” is pronounced “f” as in “laugh”, the “o” pronounced like in “women”, and the “ti” is pronounced “sh” as in “nation”. I found another good one of that kind here: http://tinyurl.com/hmuexhv
    And then there’s my all-time favourite, “The Chaos” [http://tinyurl.com/2a9e5hr]

    Liked by 1 person

      • English place names and their (weird) pronunciation have kept me amused ever since I first came into contact with them while studying English, especially its history, at the university. You’re welcome re the links. :)

        Liked by 1 person

            • That’s as good to hear as it is surprising. You must have a gift for languages, though. From your written English, I wouldn’t have guessed that it’s not your native language.

              Like

            • Thanks, Ellen, for that compliment. :) I think my written English is not too bad. Well, after 28 years of teaching that as a foreign language, plus numerous holidays in the UK and the US, and especially after moving here to southern Texas in 2008, I should finally have learned to express myself in this language, don’t you think? ;) But once I open my mouth you’ll hear I’m not a native speaker. I describe my English as “British English with a Cologne accent.” But then, fortunately, I have not yet taken over any kind of Texas drawl. ;)

              Liked by 1 person

            • I’ve read that after the age or 11 or 12, no one can speak a new language with a native accent. Which is as strange as it is fascinating. But having wrestled with Spanish–admittedly, without the immersion you describe–I’m impressed that you can handle the written language so well. Because every language, it seems, has these little nooks and crannies that defy logic, making them harder than hell to learn.

              Like

      • Thanks for the link, James. :) I still have to sharpen my ear for American dialects. From what I know, they’re not as pronounced as those in England/GB. I used to be fairly good at determining the British ones. Well, no more so, unfortunately. And as to my English: I always describe it as “British English with a Cologne accent”. ;)

        Liked by 2 people

        • Brits would say “Go figger.” Or clip, which drives me crazy–not bonkers! “What a fig–your she has! ” Just our peculiarities, like bag, sack, poke, tin, can, kitty-corner, and forever. . .

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            • I remember our German teacher telling how differently the Swiss spoke German. On our travels from Chicago to southern Illinois, we probably went through three pronunciation zones. I could hardly understand the “deep south” Illini accents. Then to ask for groceries to be put/placed in/into a bag/poke/sack? Ain’t it fun/funny? Ciao!

              Liked by 1 person

            • I had some of the same feeling when I moved to Minnesota and was surrounded by people who called a rubber band a rubber binder and who asked, “Do you want to go with?” It took me a long time to get past the feeling that they were just plain wrong and I was right, right, right.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Well, James, it’s not only the Swiss, or the Austrians, for that matter. I’ve always maintained that a native Bavarian and a native Frisian would not understand each other if they spoke their dialect. Let me add my own experience. When I got my first apartment in a suburb of Bonn [only about 60 Kilometers away from where I was born and raised], I could definitely not understand my landlady when she spoke her local dialect.
              But … I LOVE dialects.
              Habe an enjoyable weekend,
              Pit

              Liked by 2 people

  5. Love local pronunciations. Currently, here in Oregon I loved driving my native Oregonian hubby nuts by saying “sluff” for Slough (slew), or William-ET (not noticing the missing ‘i’ at first), rather than Will-AM-et for Willamette. The town I currently live in is spoken Koe-keel, spelled Coquille and the native Indians pronounce it differently, though I can never remember that one. I know I could come up with a bunch more if I looked at a map, but that’s likely enough for now. But I can’t leave out the mispronunciation of the name of the state. Natives call it Or’gun (swallow the ‘e’ between the sill-ABles) while it’s easy to spot non-residents (mostly folks from back East) when they say Ory-gone.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I think your statement on how unless you’re local, you just don’t know is completely apt. I really believe that. When you grow up with the words, you don’t even question it.
    Until some person from Nevada comes to your place and talks about their wonderful trip to MACK-IN-KNACK Island or ILLINOISE or Siri tells you to turn left on MITTHOEFER Road, and you’re like, “Mackinawwwww” “There is no noise in Illinois” and “Mitthoffer, Siri!”
    I would say words in the UK are more confusing and easy to mix up, but your statement is 100% accurate, I don’t care who you are or where you live, and certainly not what you read, Her-Me-Own.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This is hilarious! As a non native English speaker who was raised in a predominantly British system and now working in an American environment I get to see a lot of these ‘discrepancies’. I’ve been told that my spelling is terrible and let’s not even get into accents!

    P.S. Irrelevant photo totally made this post worthwhile :)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Dearest creature in creation,
    Study English pronunciation.
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
    I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
    Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
    So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
    Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word,
    Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
    (Mind the latter, how it’s written.)
    Now I surely will not plague you
    With such words as plaque and ague.
    But be careful how you speak:
    Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
    Cloven, oven, how and low,
    Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
    Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
    Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
    Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
    Exiles, similes, and reviles;
    Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
    Solar, mica, war and far;
    One, anemone, Balmoral,
    Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
    Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
    Scene, Melpomene, mankind.
    Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
    Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
    Blood and flood are not like food,
    Nor is mould like should and would.
    Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
    Toward, to forward, to reward.
    And your pronunciation’s OK
    When you correctly say croquet,
    Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
    Friend and fiend, alive and live.
    Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
    And enamour rhyme with hammer.
    River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
    Doll and roll and some and home.
    Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
    Neither does devour with clangour.
    Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
    Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
    Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
    And then singer, ginger, linger,
    Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
    Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
    Query does not rhyme with very,
    Nor does fury sound like bury.
    Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
    Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
    Though the differences seem little,
    We say actual but victual.
    Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
    Fe0ffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
    Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
    Dull, bull, and George ate late.
    Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
    Science, conscience, scientific.
    Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
    Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
    We say hallowed, but allowed,
    People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
    Mark the differences, moreover,
    Between mover, cover, clover;
    Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
    Chalice, but police and lice;
    Camel, constable, unstable,
    Principle, disciple, label.
    Petal, panel, and canal,
    Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
    Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
    Senator, spectator, mayor.
    Tour, but our and succour, four.
    Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
    Sea, idea, Korea, area,
    Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
    Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
    Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
    Compare alien with Italian,
    Dandelion and battalion.
    Sally with ally, yea, ye,
    Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
    Say aver, but ever, fever,
    Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
    Heron, granary, canary.
    Crevice and device and aerie.
    Face, but preface, not efface.
    Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
    Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
    Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
    Ear, but earn and wear and tear
    Do not rhyme with here but ere.
    Seven is right, but so is even,
    Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
    Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
    Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.
    Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
    Is a paling stout and spikey?
    Won’t it make you lose your wits,
    Writing groats and saying grits?
    It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
    Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
    Islington and Isle of Wight,
    Housewife, verdict and indict.
    Finally, which rhymes with enough,
    Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
    Hiccough has the sound of cup.
    My advice is to give up!!!

    (Unfortunately I cannot attribute this – can’t remember where I found it…)

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hi Ellen,
    Somehow my answer to your question re M. L. Kappa’s contribution of the poem “The Chaos” doesn’t want to appear. So I’m copying it here:
    That poem, “The Chaos”, was written by Gerard Nolst Trenité, a “Dutch observer of English”, as he’s called in Wikipedia [http://tinyurl.com/j5ddb8u]. More also here: http://tinyurl.com/2a9e5hr
    In my years as a teacher of English I frequently had native speakers of English read that poem to my pupils, and even the native speakers were hard put, to say the least, with the pronunciation.
    I myself always heeded the last line of that poem, “My advice is give it up!” ;)
    Have a great day,
    Pit

    Liked by 1 person

  10. This thread has been simply delightful. I suppose not that you ever wanted to engage in any kind of CON-tro-ver-sy with the topic–or is it, rather, con-TRO-ver-sy. Ah, here’s a nuther kettle to be opened. Or was that a can of worms and a kettle of fish? Ellen, recall what I learned when taking students to Cambridge: “They’ve been doing it this way since 1066.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, sorta. Actually, they were talking French then–or at least the Norman aristocracy was. Everyone else was talking a whole ‘nother language. But anyone with a strong interest in being right, right, right will push their claim back as far as they can.

      Like

  11. If you think all that’s confusing, you should try Welsh. The Welsh reckon that their language is pronounced the way it is spelled and should be easy for English-speakers to learn because of that. Hmmm… the W is pronounced OO, the Y is pronounced ah or ee or uh depending on where it is in a word (and I still can’t get to grips with it), the U is pronounced ee or sometimes something else depending on the location of the speaker and for all I know which way the wind is blowing. DD is pronounced th as in ‘this’ but not as in ‘think’, R is rolled, RR is rolled more, LL is a sort of gutteral sloshing sound and when you put them all together it’s a bit like… well, I won’t say what it’s a bit like. So ‘pronounced the way it’s spelled’ no. Not for English-speakers, anyway!

    Thanks for the mention, and the plant in the irrelevant photo is (probably) Weigela, and no, that’s probably not how it’s pronounced!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course it’s not how it’s pronounced. It would get run out of the English language if it were.

      I don’t know any Welsh beyond taking a fair guess at the LL sound, but if there’s a least a set of rules, they’re well ahead of English. I mean, even if it depends on the letter’s location in the sentence, the speaker’s location in the land, and the wind direction, that’s still well ahead of English.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah (or Yeh) Welsh has a very well worked out spelling system which was devised in the 16th century and apart from the two sounds that y makes there are no irregularities really in spelling. The double L sound is unusual – you get a rough approximation by “thl” in English if you have never heard it.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. And how about ‘Worcestershire’? Here in the States it’s mangled all the time, both as a sauce AND as a place. BTW, do you know the ‘right’ way to pronounce ‘New Orleans’? (‘Naw-luns’) Even ‘Chicago’ has its ‘Chikawgo’ and ‘Chikahga’ contingents. Love this kind of post! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I loved this post! Here in the US, we struggle with the same issues, not just because of the odd spellings in the English language, but because we also have different areas of the country pronouncing things very differently. And we do a very good job of mangling other languages as well, which is why living on a street with a French or German name is so much fun when trying to give directions to a cab driver or pizza delivery person. Also, I loved the unrelated photo… I’ve been guilty of that myself, because all posts have to have a photo, right? And usually several of them, all annoyingly large.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind several photos per post, but when I see several videos, all jumping around at once, my eyes start to spin and I close the window. I used relevant photos for the first post or three, then gave up. And I’m having a lot more fun with them.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Pingback: Featured Bloggers 6/27/16: How to Network Your Blog | Dream Big, Dream Often

  15. Here in New Hampshire,p pronounce it however you’d like, USA, I just finished reading this post, it’s comments and replies and I am holding my stomach due to belly laughing! Oh! Oh! Love this! The random pic topped it! Thank you for making my day. One question, how do you pronounce idea? I-deaaa or i-dearrrrr??? Smirk!

    Kind regards- K of The Black Wall Blog

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Aargh, pronunciation drives me crazy as a native Brit so I really feel for English language learners. It took me until I was 21 years old to learn that ‘Berwick’ was pronounced like ‘Berrick’ and even further to my shame I was pronouncing Westminster as ‘Westminister’! Ok, the last one is more a case of lazyness and not paying attention but why does ‘borough’, ‘cough’, ‘tough’ sound different when they have the same ending?

    Liked by 1 person

    • If I could answer that question I really would question my sanity. The language is insane. And what’s worse, if we reformed it we’d end up with future generations being unable to read anything that was written pre-reform.

      Like

  17. Modern English keeps the spelling of borrowed or historical words. That is partly why spelling in English is so wide of how a word is said sometimes. Derby which gets a mention somewhere near the beginning is Danish “by” for town or settlement and “der” is either der or dyr, which is or was Danish for animal and was also pretty close to the Old English word. In modern English we have the word deer but it only relates to a specific animal. Someone must have got confused along the way. Not sure how the der mutated into a dar in terms of how it is said but the spelling in this case indicates the origin. I would write it DARBI – then you would know how it was said’

    There are numerous examples of shortened pronunciations particularly in place names aren’t there such as Cholmondeley (Chumley) Southwark (Suthuk) and many more no doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed. Many, many more. It’s interesting that the spelling of Derby, Cholmondeley, etc., stayed the same even after the pronunciation shifted. It probably says the pronunciation changed fairly late in the game, after the fluidity went out of the spelling.

      This stuff’s fascinating, isn’t it? I’m a bit of a word geek.

      Like

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