Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Or should it be 'Homer Selmeston'?

We're still waiting for our builder to start work on our two bathrooms. The shower cubicles, basins, taps and all manner of other sanitary accoutrements have been languishing in what used to be our dining room for weeks now. It's the waiting that gets to you. But we haven't been idle. Mrs H and I have been discovering The Joys of Wallpapering - she as chief paster, me as apprentice paperhanger. And, to be fair, the results aren't too bad, but I still have this terrible fear that I'll get up in the morning and find that every single sheet of paper has peeled off and is lying in neat folds on the floor. So far, fortunately, I've been disappointed.

Life hasn't been all work and no play. I've been out dancing with Long Man, and discovering a few beautiful little Sussex villages and their pubs along the way. We recently danced at The Cricketers' Arms in Berwick. It was already approaching dusk when we arrived there - the pub is halfway down an unlit lane - and by the end of the evening we really were dancing in the dark. I'm told that light is normally provided by a nearby phone box, but the bulb seemed to have blown. Perhaps the side's funds will run to a few miner's lamps.

Berwick. It's one of those English place-names that flummoxes overseas visitors and, in the process, provides us with a little amusement. 'Can you tell us how to get to Burr-Wick?' they ask. We chuckle, knowing that it's actually pronounced 'Berrick'. Except that in this case, the visitors are right and we're wrong. It's likely that a good percentage of the village's population are (like me) incomers to the county, and, quite naturally, fall back on the standard pronunciation when telling folk where they live. But I'll bet there are a few older inhabitants who will tell you that the correct pronunciation is, in fact, 'Burrwick'.

There's nothing more calculated to make you look like an outsider than to mispronounce a place name. So I've spent a bit of time looking at some of our towns, villages and landmarks, and noting how these are pronounced. Here's a few for you; place name followed by local pronunciation:

Alciston = Aston

Ardingly = Arding-Lie

Bodiam = Bodge-Em

Burwash = Burrish

Cuckmere = Cookmere

Heathfield = Heffle

Horsham = Hores-Ham

Selmeston = Simpson

Steyning = Stenning

Pevensey = Pemsy

Piddenhoe = Pidd'n-oo

Although we're talking about pronunciation here, not the actual spelling of the place name concerned, it got me thinking about the broader issues of place names in general. I'll give you an example. The Italians have a beautiful city that I was once fortunate enough to visit. It's full of canals and gondolas. They call it Venezia. We call it Venice. The question is, why? Venezia is its Italian name, so why don't we call it that? An orchestra putting on an opera by Giuseppe Verdi wouldn't change his name to Joe Green on the poster, now would they? Mind you, I did once work with a lady called Mrs. Longbottom who, when living in Germany, received a letter addressed to Frau Langenhinten. But that's beside the point. I can think of no good reason why we don't speak of Brugge, or Antwerpen, or Warszawa. They're no harder to pronounce than the names of some of our own towns and villages. Look at Ainderby Quernhow, Heanton Punchardon and Yockenthwaite. In the face of these, how hard can it be to say Roma?

And while we're on the subject, why do we decide to go the other way with some locations, and use the country's own spelling and pronunciation? I'm thinking here of Peking, Bombay and Calcutta, that in the media miraculously mutated into Beijing, Mumbai and Kolkata overnight without so much as a by-your-leave. Who decides? Is there a quango that determines these things? Is it 'political correctness gone mad'? Or something more sinister? Whichever, I'm going to write to the local Council, demanding that the little East Sussex village of Firle be henceforth known as 'Furrel'. If nothing else, it'll assure map makers of a bit of extra cash...

5 comments:

Derrick said...

Yes, it's a vexed question, Chris. I've often wondered the same about place names in other countries. For China and India, I think it's a matter of the authorities letting it be known that, henceforth ....

I believe "we" were responsible for 'Bombay' and 'Calcutta' and the Indians have merely reverted to the age old names. I had mistakenly presumed that Mumbai was merely the local variant of
Bombay; likewise for Kolkata. So I couldn't understand why Madras had become Chennai!

Everyday Goddess said...

oh what you english have done to the english language!

heffle? piddn'oo? seriously?

truth be known, i live in greenwich. pronounced: grenitch. but i think it's pronounced that way in your country too, so i guess we are related after all.

chris hale said...

Derrick - A vexed question indeed. But I've always been fascinated by place names. I think we'd be far poorer culturally without Cold Christmas, Sixpenny Handley and Kingston Bagpuize.

EG - It's often been said that the English and American peoples are separated by a common language. In many ways, yours is purer than ours. You use 'sick' instead of 'ill' and 'fall' instead of 'autumn' - your words are straight out of England in the seventeenth century!

Madame DeFarge said...

You shine an unyielding light on the darker recesses of our geographical gruesomeness. Don't start me on Milngavie and Greenock.

chris hale said...

MDF - Thanks! What's wrong with Milngavie...or is it 'Mulguy'?