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.
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.