Are you one of those people who says ‘pronunciation doesn’t matter’? Mind, I’m not talking about accent here – accent is the way people from your home-town talk. Pronunciation is the difference between pronouncing ‘cough’ like ‘koff’ or ‘cow’ – and the latter is an easy pronunciation mistake to make if you are foreigner learning English, and your only other reference is ‘bough’. Most people don’t know the difference between accent and pronunciation. While accent may distinguish you geographically and socially, it has nothing to do with pronunciation.The pronunciation of a word – how it sounds – makes a great deal of difference to how you think of it, and there can be no clearer example in popular culture than Gotham.
How do YOU say ‘Gotham’?
The pronunciation of ‘Gotham’ may seem quite obvious to fans of Batman, who know the fictitious Gotham City as his hometown. Gotham has long been a nick-name for New York City – how that came to be is very interesting. Washington Irving was a writer who is best known today for his short stories “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” (you may remember them as movies). Irving also wrote a satirical periodical called Salmagundi which he used as a vehicle to lampoon New York culture and politics, and he used the name ‘Gotham’ to refer to the city.
When he referred to New York City as ‘Gotham’, Irving wasn’t being nice – he was intentionally being insulting. Today ‘Gotham’ sounds dark, brooding and mysterious, but back in the day he carefully picked the name of a town in the UK which had a historical reputation for being inhabited by stupid and insane people. In fact, the townsfolk of Gotham had deliberately cultivated that image because it kept unwelcome intrusion out in a time when people thought of insanity as a communicable disease. Of course, to everyone else, they were simply barking mad, and to be avoided at all costs, which is where Irving was going with New York.
This original Gotham is pronounced like ‘goat/əm’ which is in line with the origin of the word which is ‘goat ham’. A ‘ham’ is a homestead, so the name Gotham basically means ‘Goat Home’. In the USA, the Gotham of Salmagundi was pronounced as written, and this gave it a completely different tone. Can you see Batman making a home in Goat Ham City? Can ‘Goat Ham City’ really have the same mythical allure as ‘Gotham City’? If you think the pronunciation does not change how you view this word, then perhaps you belong in the old Gotham (Incidentally, Gotham is in Nottinghamshire, see below.)
Can you say ‘Snottingham’?
This is not a trick question! The only reason Nottingham is not still called Snottingham is because apparently the Norman conquerors found it difficult to say an ‘s’ followed by an ‘n’, and so the ‘s’ was dropped. I checked the French dictionary to see how many French words started with ‘sn’ and found only 6 – of which four are related and are variations of the same word, notably ‘snob’ (snober, snobinard, snobisme), which tells me that this story has a ring of truth to it. This is a pronunciation which did not come easily to the Norman tongue, and so in true conquering manner, they changed it to something more convenient.
“Snotta” was a Saxon first name, and ‘inga’ means ‘belonging to’ in Saxon. As I mentioned earlier, ‘ham’ is a homestead, and so we can be fairly secure in translating Snottingham to mean ‘Snotta’s homestead’. Incidentally, this is also the origin of the name ‘Notting Hill’. Now I want you to pause for a moment and consider whether Robin Hood pursued by the Sheriff of Snottingham sounds the same? How about Julia Roberts starring in ‘Snotting Hill’? (Fair enough, that one might actually work…) Do you still think how a word sounds, its pronunciation, makes no difference to how it is perceived?