If English speakers who visit the UK struggle with how to pronounce many of the place-names there, spare a thought for non-English speakers who are struggling with the language as it is. Many place-names are perfectly self-explanatory: Cornwall, Essex, Leeds, Westminster, Hyde Park – all of these spoken as the spelling indicates. Don’t get too comfy with this concept, because unless you’ve grown up or lived in the UK, you are in for a rude awakening. There are so many words which look obvious, but are in fact quite tricky because they are pronounced so counter-intuitively to how they are spelled. ‘Which ones? What is the rule?’ asked a Spanish speaking friend in despair. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that you can make some broad, sweeping rules, but let me rapidly add a disclaimer – there are many, many exceptions lurking, so don’t rely on them unless I’ve indicated it’s safe to do so.
What is a ‘schwa’ or neutral vowel?
Before you run screaming, let me assure you that this is not at all complicated, and once you understand the neutral vowel (also called a schwa), many things will fall into place. A neutral vowel, represented by this symbol ə is the secret to most (but not all) of the problems with the pronunciation of UK place-names, and much of English too. It is the sound in the ‘a’ in China and ‘a‘, the ‘e’ in ‘the‘, ‘remind’, the ‘er’ in ‘water‘ (UK pronunciation), the ‘y’ in ‘syringe’ and so on. Fortunately, in many place-names, certain spellings are also pronounced with a neutral vowel, and you can almost always rely on these to be consistent. I’m going to list the most common here, along with examples – click on the names to hear the audio.
How do you say Stratford, Oxford, Bradford and so on?
Most people think of a ‘Ford’ as a make of car, but before cars were invented, a ‘ford’ was ‘a shallow place in a river’, which is usually a sensible place to build a village. When ‘-ford’ attached to a place-name, for example Stratford, Oxford, Bradford, it is always pronounced like a neutral vowel: fəd. Click on the words for audio, and rest assured that this is a rule that always applies.
Stratford – STRAT/fəd
Oxford – OX/fəd
Bradford – BRAD/fəd
How do you say Bournemouth, Dartmouth, Weymouth, and Exmouth?
You certainly do not say ‘Bourne mouth’. This is another example of the neutral vowel. ‘Mouth’ at the end of a place name refers to the river mouth – where the river meets the ocean or sea. It is always pronounced like a neutral vowel ‘mth’. click on the words to hear audio). These places are all found on rivers – the Bourne, the Dart, the Wey, and the Exe.
Bournemouth – born/məth (on the River Bourne)
Dartmouth – dart/məth (on the River Dart)
Weymouth – way/məth (on the River Wey)
Exmouth – ex/məth (on the River Exe)
How do you say Leicester, Gloucester, Worcester, Towcester and Bicester?
In the UK, all place names ending in ‘-caster’, ‘-cester’, ‘- eter’ and ‘-chester’ are derived from the Latin word ‘castra’ which means a fort or a military town. The ‘-er’ at the end of these names is always pronounced like a neutral vowel – that is simple enough. Somewhat more taxing is the difference between the way these place names are spelled and pronounced. The basic rule is that you leave the ‘-ce-’ out. Listen to these audio files: Leicester, Gloucester, Worcester, Towcester, and Bi
cester. When you know to just ignore the ‘-ce-’, the pronunciation suddenly becomes self-explanatory. While this almost always true, there is one exception I know of: Cirencester.
Leicester – leh/stə
Gloucester – gloh/stə
Worcester – woo/stə
Towcester – to/stə
Bicester – bi/stə
Cirencester – sirensester. Of course there had to an exception, but as far as I know, it’s the only one in this category.
What is a ‘shire’ and how do you say it?
In the UK a shire is a county. When you talk about a ‘shire’ in this way, you pronounce it as the spelling indicates. You also say the word like this when you are talking about the breed of horse. When ‘-shire’ is attached to the end of a word, it changes, and is pronounced like a neutral vowel. So Leicestershire, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Worcester. Some people do pronounce the ‘-shire’ to sound more like ‘shear’. Both versions are correct, although saying it as a neutral vowel seems more prevalent in Received English (Standard BBC English).
Lancashire – lahn/kə/shə
Hertfordshire – heart/fəd/shə
Worcestershire – Woostə/shə
How do you say ‘Worcestershire sauce’?
You just say ‘woo/stə’ sauce. Nobody calls it by the full name.
What is a ‘-ham’, and how do you say Buckingham, Tottenham, Nottingham and so on?
When you see ‘-ham’ at the end of a place name, it means ‘homestead’ or ‘farm’, and you do not pronounce it to sound like a pork product! Apparently the US media never got the memo, because during the last year’s Royal Wedding coverage, I heard commentator after commentator refer to ‘Bucking HAM Palace’. This is another example of a neutral vowel, and it always applies, so remember it when you say Nottingham, Tottenham, Buckingham, or any other place ending in ‘-ham’. There is a BUT coming, so brace yourselves. When you say West Ham (a London borough), you don’t use the neutral vowel. I should mention that West Ham is in the London Borough of Newham, which is pronounced with a neutral vowel!
Buckingham – bucking/əm
Nottingham – notting/əm
Tottenham – totten/əm
Newham – new/həm
West Ham is the exception – you pronounce it as written, but at least it is divided into 2 words which gives you a clue.
How do you pronounce Chiswick, Keswick, Warwick, Norwich and Greenwich?
Apparently citizens of the UK have a long-standing bias against the letter ‘w’ when it appears in place-names. They snub it by pronouncing the word as though the ‘w’ simply did not exist. Chiswick, Keswick, Warwick, Norwich, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Dunwich all demonstrate this prejudice admirably. The ‘w’ is not only ignored in relation to place names ending in ‘-wich’ and ‘-wick’.
How do you pronounce words with French spelling in the UK?
There is but one piece of advice which applies every time: If you see a place-name in the UK with what appears to be French spelling, rest assured it will not be pronounced anything like a reasonable person would expect it to, so be very wary. Perhaps bastardizing the French names this is the British revenge on the Normans for conquering them
How do you pronounce Beaulieu, Beauchamp, Belvoir, and Furneaux-Pellam in the UK?
Beaulieu – bew/lee
Beauchamp – bee/chəm
Belvoir – bee/və
Furneaux Pelham – fir/nooks pel/əm
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! As always I look forward to your comments, whether you agree or disagree with me. If you found this interesting, you may also find How to pronounce London place-names, and Historical place-names with unusual pronunciations interesting. This is a special series in honor of the forthcoming London 2012 Olympic Games. If you have any questions, ask away.