Monday, September 21, 2009

Britain's Got Talent Confusing Place Names

Do you ever find yourself cycling/walking/driving along, thinking of this and that or maybe just on autopilot, and then suddenly, for no apparent reason, chuckling over an incident or anecdote from years ago?

I did just that this morning. I have no idea why the memory popped into my head while I was cycling to work, but I suddenly thought of a story a friend told me about a train ride from Newcastle to Edinburgh. She'd started talking to an American couple who were visiting the UK for the first time, and was sharing her knowledge of the region through which they were passing. As the train came to a stop in the lovely seaside town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, the American guy asked, "so, what is there to do in Burr-wick-upon-Tweed?"

This made my friend smile, because contrary to what a foreigner would logically think, Berwick is actually pronounced Berrick. (Warwick is also pronounced Worrick, not War-wick). Being a helpful sort, she politely corrected him with "actually, the w is silent".

"OK then", he replied, "what is there to do in Burr-wick-upon-Teed?"

Now, before I get into other examples of British-town-names-that-North-Americans-pronounce-incorrectly, I'd like to pre-empt any accusations of anti-North-American sentiment by pointing out that I'm aware that this works both ways. When I first moved here, I (and every Brit of my acquaintaince who's visited or immigrated since) mispronounced Chilliwack as Chilly-wack, and Winnipeg as Winny-peg, several times. A kind and helpful Canadian eventually took the piss corrected me, and I've said both names properly (Chill-uh-wack and Winn-uh-peg) ever since.

So. Back to Britain. Leicester rhymes with Fester, and Gloucester rhymes with Foster. Glasgow rhymes with Go, not Cow, and the nearby town of Milngavie is pronounced Mull-guy, but no-one ever gets that one right the first time (and I'm not even touching Wales). Also, county names that end in -shire should sound like -shuh, not -shy-er. (York-shuh, Lester-shuh and so on). -by on the end of a name (e.g. the town of Haxby, where I grew up) signifies a -be sound, not a -buy sound (Hax-be). And -ham on the end of a name should be pronounced -um, not -ham (so it's Old-um, not Old-ham, and Birming-um, not Birming-ham). So far, so good.

It's the -burghs, -boroughs, and -broughs that really trip people up though. You see, they're all pronounced the same way. Yup, Edinburgh, Peterborough, and Middlesbrough all end with the same sound - Edin-bruh, Peter-bruh, Middles-bruh.

No, really, they do.

But the best mispronunciation story ever was told to me by a friend who went to university in the Midlands. He was once asked for directions by a car full of Aussies - and could barely stop laughing for long enough to tell them how to get to Loughborough.

Which is pronounced Luff-bruh.

Not Looga-berooga.


  1. As a NZer working for a very rich old lady in England, I was constantly corrected on "Ascot" (as in As-kit NOT As-cot). As I didn't like her much, I blithely ignored the correct pronounciation until the day I left work.

  2. I had lived in the UK long enough that I knew the correct pronunciation for most of those names. However, shortly before I left, my friend (another American) and I were traveling from Greenwich back to central London and we passed a place that was called such and such Quays. When it was announced over the loudspeaker as "Keys" we were both like ... yup, would never have guessed that!

  3. Anon, that's funny - way to annoy the old biddy!

    Ruchi, but, but, a quay (pronounced key) is an actual word, not just a place!

    Oh, wait, the Wikipedia article I linked to gives separate pronunciations for the US and UK. You guys don't seriously say "Kway", do you? HAHAHAHA! (sorry). (Also, buoy = boy, not boo-ey. I laugh every time Jeff Probst says the latter on Survior).

    Thanks for the reminder about the other examples, though - Newquay and Torquay are pronounced Tor-key and New-key. And Greenwich = Grennitch.

  4. Oh! I just remembered my favorite pronunciation ever. My British friend's pronunciation of the state "Maryland." She pronounces it, unsurprisingly, Merry Land.

    After several attempts, I finally told her to say "Merrill Lynch."

    "Merrill Lynch."

    Now say "Merrilland."

    "Ohhhh... I get it. Merrill Land."

    Close enough

  5. And don't get me started on Newfoundland... it's new-fen-LAND, not New-FOUND-land. (I did actually know that one before I moved here!)

  6. I have a hard enough time with Thames River (which we have in secondary London - Ontario - too!).

    I want to know the proper pronunciation of New Orleans. Is it New Or-LEENS or New OR-lins?

  7. Ah yes, the Tems. How's it pronounced in London, Ontario?

    I'm afraid I have no idea about New Orleans. But what I do know, is that the Canucks are gonna beat the Flames tonight! Woooooooooooooooo! (Yeah, OK, it's only pre-season, but I'm excited anyway).

  8. Haha - I think I knew most of those, including quays, and I'm obviously with you on the correct pronunciation of buoy. You could have an entire series of posts on how to pronounce places in Wales!

    The land far, far away has some town/city names that are impossible to pronounce (let alone spell) unless you're a local thanks to their origins being from the land's indigenous peoples but most non-natives can't even pronounce the (relatively simple) names of our major cities correctly!

  9. What's funny is that here in Massachusetts we've borrow a lot of British place names for our own towns (yaaay colonization), but pronounce them with *raging* Boston or South-of-Boston (even harsher) accents. My parents currently live in our version of Middlesbrough: Middleboro, sometimes spelled Middleborough, pronounced "Middle-brr-oh". I grew up in Taunton, which in "British" is pretty much phonetic but in Bostonian is a very harshly-accented"Taw-`n" (this caused problems and a very amused bartender when I tried to order a Taunton Ale in Oxford!). We do maintain some of the quirky British pronunciations, such as Glocester and Worcester (should be "WUSS-ter", is actually pronounced "WUSS-tah" with the Boston accent, and is definitely NOT "Worr-chest-er" as everyone from outside New England says it!)

    For that matter, I currently live in Hawaii. Our street names alone can break anyone who hasn't lived here for a while. You haven't lived until you've tried to get a tourist from Texas to properly get their tongue around "Keeaumoku St.", "Queen Liliuokalani Freeway", or the "Likelike Highway" ("lee-kay-lee-kay", not "like-like"!)

  10. I think New Orleans is new-OR-lins (imagine someone with a New Orleans accent talking.. "ah'm from n'AWlins). (see the wikipedia entry)

  11. I always thought the Loughborough story was apocryphal: I'd heard it of American tourists (or terrorist, if they're from certain parts of Texas).

    Danish is great for place names: their language is not only non-phonetic, the written and spoken have actually speciated. I used to live in Hvidovre ("vil-o-ro", roughly. The d is an l at the back of the throat), next to Rødovre station ("rol-o-ro"). I was told several times I had a great Danish accent. My strategy was to talk as if I was drunk.

    Oh, and in Danish 'by' means town. Hence Grimsby does in fact translate as 'Ugly Town'.

    No one spoil that by providing the correct etymology, please. I was brought up in Scunthorpe, so we need any reason possible to bring our neighbours down.

  12. The australian (and british?) correlation between the pronounciation [jail] and the spelling [gaol] had me puzzled for a while!

    And Bob: to the Danish ear there is a huge difference between that d in the back of the throat and an 'acutal' l but I certainly don't envy those trying to grasp the Danish language. A favorite story is that of an Aussie friend of mine who before moving to Copenhagen tried to learn Danish by himself. He thought he was doing really well reading from the book until he started to compare the writing with the audio exercises....

  13. PiT, must be frustrating in tourist season! Or is it usually obvious where they're talking about?

    Anon, my original York accent has some similarities to the Boston accent (Can you Pahk your cah in a cah pahk?). . And thanks for the reminder about Worcestershire sauce - that's Wuss-teh-shuh, not War-chest-er-shy-er!

    I would definitely have no idea how to pronounce any of those Hawaiian names!

    Andrew, thanks! That sounds familiar.

    Bob, you mean loogaberooga didn't happen??!! Boooooooo. My friend told me it happened to him, the liar. I shall have words next time I see him, which will probably be some time in the next 10 years... or maybe not.

    I've never heard much Danish, is it similar to Swedish at all?

    The Danish -by is the same as the British -by: every British placename that ends in -by started out as a Viking settlement. And Grimsby is pretty grim, so your etymology sounds accurate.

    Lisbeth, I don't understand that one either! And I think most people just use "jail" now anyway.

    I'm trying to learn a little Spanish at the moment, and now I'm worried about my pronunciation! I can't roll my rs, for starters.

  14. Tourist season in the land far, far away is 365 days of the year. It's usually really obvious what city or town the visitors are looking for and it's a constant source of amusement watching them struggle to pronounce it correctly.

  15. Oh, sounds like York! Although the summer is peak season. I remember working in the city centre and needing to pop out to the post office (2 streets away) on my lunchbreak... it took me 40 minutes to get there and back due to the crowds of ambling tourists filling up the narrow streets! It does mean that there's always lots going on though.

  16. Being from the southern US, we simply make up our own new and interesting pronunciations regardless of the spelling (or in some cases the current number of letters/ words). Some how we manage to blur several entire words into a 4 or 5 letter string of sounds undistinguishable by anyone who isn't from the south or know someone who can interpret,

    Having only a slight accent myself, and having lived in several areas I seem to temper my word usage and pronunciation, but if I went to another country I'm sure they'd have a field day correcting me!!

  17. P.S. I would LOVE to be British but would settle for living there for a while!

  18. Ooo, pronunciations of place names in Far Off Land are baffling too. Probably for similar reason as PiT described. EGM occassionally gets US place names wrong, and so I totally tease him for it.

  19. You guys don't seriously say "Kway", do you? HAHAHAHA!

    That's it, smug Brit-Canadian. Our countries are going to war!

  20. Bear, you may get your wish - for me, a "2 year" stint living in Canada turned me into a Canadian! And no-one here understood me at first, so don't worry about that being an impediment!

    EGF, and I bet he turns the tables when you visit Far Off Land, right?!

    Juniper, well, wars have been started over much more trivial things in the past... as a Brit I should be scared of getting into another war with the US, but as a Canadian... well, British-Canadian joint endeavours have a decent track record (proper link here, very silly song and video here).

  21. AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!! I'm not supposed to think so, but that video's hilarious!

    Ah, Cath, don't mind me. I'm just bitter because I made the mistake of reading aloud things like "The Tailor of Gloucester" when I was a wee tiny tot. 'Twas only a matter of time before people who knew all the abominable-- um, I mean, correct pronunciations overheard me. :)

  22. It's pretty harsh to laugh at an American child for not knowing the less than intuitive pronunciation of Gloucester! (I speak as one who was ridiculed for pronouncing quiche as kwitch).

    Mind you, it was very, very amusing when the annoying mature student on my undergrad course referred to something as "HYPer-bowl", rather than "hyPER-beh-lee" in a seminar.

  23. Hah!!!

    Try moving to Ore-uh-gon (pronounced more like Organ). In Portland we have Couch St. - pronounced Cooch or the Willamete river, pronounced Will-Am-et. It only goes downhill from there - especially if you run into natives who have issues with foreign infiltrators (especially CA's - Midwesterners are slightly better tolerated), in which case you're likely to get a very loud, angry lesson in proper pronunciation...

  24. "the Willamete river, pronounced Will-Am-et. It only goes downhill from there"

    I should bloody well hope so - uphill rivers really freak me out ;)

    I haven't made it as far as Oregon yet, but it's on my list for sure. Mr E Man has been a few times and raves about Cannon Beach in particular.


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