Saturday, 8 November 2008

English as she is pronounced

Hello. I'm from west London; pronounced Lundun. I live fairly close to a place called Uxbridge, pronounced Uxbridge, and not far from another place called Ruislip,

This country of mine has a fascinating array of place-names. Here's just a few you can find in any road atlas: Cold Christmas, Sixpenny Handley, Lower Slaughter, Freezywater, Kingston Bagpuize. Depending on the area, the name may be Saxon in origin (Hastings, Reading, Middlesorough), Viking (Whitby, Derby, Lowestoft), or even much older. Penzance and Penwith, to name just a couple of places in Cornwall, are almost certainly Celtic.

Often there isn't a problem pronouncing place-names, although (I'm sorry to say) we do have a bit of a titter when we hear Americans say Birming-Ham or Lie-Cester Square. Sometimes, however, there can be a deal of difference between how the place would appear to be pronounced, should Her Majesty attempt to do so, and the local pronunciation. Take first a couple of castles; Cholmondley and Belvoir. Are they pronounced as they appear? Not a bit of it. Say Chumley and Beaver and you're pretty close. Let's go one step down from castle to stately home, and to the seat of the Earl Spencer - Althorp. Easy, you might say. But no; the buggers insist upon pronouncing it Althrop for no readily apparent reason. Now we go sideways to Oxbridge; first to Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) in Cambridge, and then Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) in Oxford. Is this a conspiracy by the upper classes to mock us common folk, so they can laugh at us when we mispronounce their places of abode, just a surely as they would when we say Featherstonehaugh instead of Fanshaw?

No, it's not a conspiracy by the posh folk. Plenty of ordinary people are just as ready to flummox us with their place-names. Groby in Leicestershire is Grooby, Alnwick in Northumberland becomes Annick, and Fowey in Conwall is Foy. But the good people of East Anglia seem to have the most fun at our expense. From the top, there is Aldeburgh (Olbur), Costessey (Cozzy), Happisburgh (Haizbro), Hautbois (Hobbies), Stifkey (Stewkey), Tivetshall (Titsorl), Wymondham (Windum). The list is almost endless. The Friends of Norfolk Dialect have produced a full list, in case you are interested.

I don't think there's a deliberate attempt to make us ordinary mortals feel foolish because we say Bunwell instead of Bun'll. And it does have its practical uses. On at least one occasion in the recent past a murderer was captured because he used a local pronunciation when asking a passer-by for directions. But in these days of increasingly 'standardised' English, and the incursion into young people's language of the street slang of the drug dealer or gang member, the retention of 'old' language fosters a sense of belonging. A feeling that, despite the ever greater encroachment of the outside world, the community can still, through its use of language, proclaim its separateness and retain its sense of identity. Long may it continue, I say!

Oh, by the way. Ruislip. It's Ryeslip. I think.


Stevyn Colgan said...

I remember seeing acomedy sketch called 'How to speak like a Royal' many years ago. The examples I remember were:

Commoner = Yes. Royal = Ears.
Commoner = No. Royal = Near.
Commoner = Ground. Royal = Grind.

And so on. Mind you, we're not the only ones are we? How can 'Arkansas' end in 'saw'? And why do Americans use a silent 'H' on a straightforward word like 'Herb'?

Language and pronuciation. Very confusing.

chris hale said...

Yes, this 'erb business confuses the 'eck out of me, too!

Janet said...

Chris and Stevyn,

The "Arkansas" story gets a bit more confusing when you go to Kansas. There's a town there called "Arkansas City" - and it's prounounced "ar-KANSAS" City. Strange.

During my high school years, my family lived in Southern Illinois...and moved there from Oklahoma. That part of Illinois is often called "Little Eqypt" because of the shape of the bottom of the state (with rivers on either side). So imagine our surprise when we first heard that one of the communities at the southern tip - Cairo - was locally pronounced "KAY-ro"!

My personal pet peeve is hearing people in the UK refer to the 4th largest city in the US as "HOO-ston". In Texas, it's "HUGH-ston". If you're referring to the section of Manhattan south of the West and East Villages, though, it's pronounced "HOUSE-ton".

And why we Americans don't prounounce the H in "herb" but DO in "Houston" baffles me, too. John 'oots with laughter every time I ask what 'erb he has used in a recipe!

chris hale said...

Hi Janet.

It would seem that place-name pronunciation is just as quirky across the pond. I'd love to hear more when you have time!

I note that there are differences between UK and US English in the pronunciation of personal names; we say Bernard, you say Bernard; we say Robin Hood, you say Robin Hood.

It's these little differences that both delight and confuse. I love 'em.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Oh, and you have been memed.