This is for everyone who has plans to travel to London! Even if you are English-speaking, you may be forgiven for not know how to pronounce many of the place-names, because there is often very little to connect the way a name is written with the way it is phonetically pronounced. There are no rules to follow, except perhaps to be on alert that even the simplest names may sound diabolically unlike anything a reasonable person would expect. To ensure accuracy I have procured a genuine Londoner, born within the sound of the Bow Bells (which, I’m told is the test of a true Cockney). Many thanks to Joe MacNaughton for lending her voice and knowledge to this post!
How do you say Marylebone?
Don’t be fooled by the way it is sometimes spelled ‘Mary-le-bone’. And don’t be side-tracked by the history of the name – it was originally named after a church called St. Mary’s by the Bourne. There’s no ‘Mary’ when you pronounce ‘Marylebone‘ – you say ‘mar/li/bone’ or ‘mar/li/bun’
The district of Marylebone stretches from Regent’s Park to Oxford Street. Travellers to London may find themselves using the Marylebone Railway Station and Underground complex. Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street is in Marylebone, and Madame Tussaud’s and the Planetarium are right in Marylebone Road. In short, there are plenty of reasons for tourists to learn how to say this one properly.
How do you pronounce Madame Tussauds?
I can’t speak for Madame Tussauds in New York, but in London, despite the ‘Madame’, you do not say ‘Tussaud’s’ as you do in French. Why would you? The English don’t even pronounce their own words as they are spelled! In French you say ‘tew/soh’. To be perverse, the English say ‘Madame Tussaud’s like ‘Madam two swords’.
How do you pronounce Leicester Square?
I honestly thought this was so obvious that it wasn’t worth adding, but after questioning a couple of my ‘The Queen’s English is not my First Language’ friends, I realized this is not the case.
If you go to London, you will almost certainly go past Leicester Square which is in the heart of the West End. Many film premiers are held at cinemas on Leicester Square, and there is also a set of bronze casts of the hands of famous actors to fawn over. Leicester Square has its own tube station. As an aside, let me mention that Leicester is also the name of a well-known English cheese, and a city in the East Midlands in the county of Leicestershire. You say ‘Lestə’.
How do you say ‘Holborn’?
I realise that this one looks like a no-brainer, but again the British have applied their own unique pronunciation, and ‘Holborn‘ is pronounced ‘Ho/bən’. If you are going to visit the British Museum, Holburn is one of the closest tube stations. Dickens fans will be interested to know that he lived in Holborn, and some of the places in his novels are located there. You can also visit the Charles Dickens museum in Doughty Street.
How do you say ‘Chiswick’?
Chiswick is an upmarket area in West London. It is best known for its boulevard style High Road, café culture, shopping, pubs, and magnificent homes, including Chiswick House which is open to the public. It is pronounced ‘chi/zick’. If you see any place-name ending in ‘-wick’, ignore the ‘w’ – the British are prejudiced against this letter for some reason, not even known to themselves!
How to you pronounce ‘The Mall’?
Scores of American visitors breathe a sigh of relief when they see this one – everyone knows how to say ‘mall’, don’t they? No! The Mall which is that fine stretch of red road which leads up to Buckingham Palace rhymes with ‘pal’. It was deliberately colored red to give the effect of a red carpet leading up to Buckingham Palace. It looks pink to me, but anyway…
How do you say ‘Buckingham Palace?
Just had to add this one in – after last year’s Royal Nuptials, I was struck by how many American TV commentators said ‘Bucking HAM’ – this is incorrect: The ‘ham’ is a neutral vowel. Don’t say it in the way that implies that Her Majesty’s residence and charcuterie have anything in common. It’s ‘buckingəm’.
How do you say ‘Southwark’?
Southwark is a gem of an area – home to many interesting museums such as the ‘100 Black Men’ museum, and the ‘Bramah museum of Tea and Coffee’, as well as the somewhat more gruesome attraction of the London Dungeon. It is as well to remember that it is pronounced ‘suthək’, and not as written, or you may find yourself thrown into the dungeon for mal-pronunciation.
Here are a few more London place-names to watch out for:
Cadogan Square – is pronounced kah/DUG/gan
Tottenham, most well known for Totteham Hotspur football club, is pronounced tottən/əm (no HAM, we’re British!)
Hainault – it looks French, but it’s pronounced hay/nolt
Plaistow – plah/stow
Greenwich, most famous for GMT, or ‘Greenwich Mean Time is pronounced grennitch (no ‘w’ – we’re British)
Theydon Bois – thay/dən boyce. If you are in the UK, and the name looks French, rest assured it is not pronounced ANYTHING like you would expect. My theory is that this is the British way of exacting revenge on the Normans for 1066 and all that. See my article on UK place-names below for some more of these oddities.
Ruislip – rye/slip
Thames is pronounced tems. Don’t even think of saying it as it is written, or you will provoke gasps of horror, followed by eye-rolling, and even snickering from the British.
Do you have any others you aren’t sure about? Or are any of these contentious? I look forward to your comments! Here are more articles on pronunciation mine-traps in the UK: