The English language is in many ways a victim of its own success. Being standardised in writing at such an early stage meant that centuries of changes in pronunciation in the Anglosphere have have gone unrepresented in modern English spelling. Centuries of pilfering and absorbing words from a myriad of languages have resulted in speakers having to navigate a labyrinth of irregularised spellings and pronunciations, making English one of the more confusing languages for foreign speakers to learn. There are so many contradictions and counterintuitive pronunciations in English that it can be argued that at this point the English alphabet isn’t even an alphabet but merely a ideographic writing system in which readers simply associate a combination of letters with an idea or concept rather than as a guide for pronunciation. For example, the infamous constructed word ‘ghoti’ can have the same pronunciation as the word ‘fish’, or, taken to an extreme, ‘ghoughpteighbteau tchoughs’ can give you ‘potato chips’.
As the homeland of the language, it is unsurprising, then, that England is also the home of English’s largest cluster of counterintiuitively-pronounced place names, some of which are so well-known that it’s easy to forget how oddly they’re spelled (e.g., Cambridge, Leicester, Greenwich). There are so many examples that there’s an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to it. This brings about a couple of questions: ‘Where is the largest cluster of oddly-pronounced place names in England?’, and ‘What’s the most counterintuitively-pronounced place name in England?’
While the second question is rather subjective based upon one’s own outlook, we can try and answer the first question. Taking the list of names from the Wikipedia article (there are many more than the ones listed, of course, but this is the list where the most counterintuitive toponyms are in a single place, so we’ll go with it), we can start by breaking the list up by county. Pretty well every English county has at least one representative on the list (sorry, Rutland), and nine of them have at least seven. Let’s explore the top nine counties on the list:
9. Dorset (7)
Beaminster (‘Beminster’), Chideock, Gillingham, Portesham, Poxwell, Puncknowle, Shaftesbury
A couple of towns on this list aren’t that much of a reach, really. It’s not especially surprising to know that Shaftesbury is pronounced like ‘Shaftsbry’, or that ‘Gillingham’ with a hard G is only counterintuitive when compared to Gillingham, Kent (pronounced with a hard G). And Portesham only qualifies if you use the archaic pronunciation of ‘Posem’. Still, the rest qualify nicely. The tiny west Dorset village of Chideock, for example, is pronounced ‘Chiddick’, and Poxwell is ‘Pokeswell’. The winner, however, is likely the even smaller village of Puncknowle, pronounced simply as ‘Punnel’.
Source: S. Curati, http://www.flickr.com/photos/meltingman/3880905157/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence.
T7. Greater London (8)
De Beauvoir Town, Greenwich, Holborn (‘Hoburn’), Isleworth, Marylebone, Plaistow, Ruislip, Southwark
London itself may have to take the prize when it comes to the sheer density of counterintuitive pronunciations (honourable mentioned to the combined Merseyside/Lancashire agglomeration). Throw in the large number of streets in the city with wacky spellings and it could probably blow away every other county on this last. Sticking solely with the aforementioned list of neighbourhood and borough names, however, we arrive at eight.
The ‘Beauvoir’ in De Beauvoir Town often becomes ‘Beaver’ in local pronunciation, while Marylebone becomes ‘Marlibun’ or ‘Marelibun’. Ruislip’s pronunciation of ‘Rye-slip’ would make sense were these the Netherlands. Much like Greenwich is famously slurred into ‘Grenich’, Southwark is slurred into ‘Sutherk’. The ‘ow’ in Plaistow is emphasised to become ‘Plahst-ow’. Isleworth is an interesting example of how English speakers are so accustomed to counterintuitive pronunciations that a word which is pronounced how it’s spelled actually throws people off (in this case, it’s the fact the the ‘s’ in Isleworth is pronounced).
Church Street, Isleworth. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_Isleworth.JPG. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.
T7. Leicestershire (8)
Belvoir, Croxton Kerrial, Groby (‘Gruby’), Heather (‘Heether’), Leicester (obviously), Loughborough, Sproxton, Ashby-de-la-Zouch (‘Ashby-dilazu’)
It’s rather fitting that Leicestershire (‘Lestershear’) is on the list. A feature here is the replacement of the ‘xt’ in Croxton Kerrial and Sproxton with ‘s’, leading to ‘Croson Kerril’ and ‘Sproson’. The winner here may be Belvoir, which also becomes ‘Beaver’, though the contraction of Loughborough down to ‘Lufbra’ is impressive.
Belvoir Castle. Source: Nancy, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Belvoir_Castle_Leicestershire.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
T4. Cornwall (10)
Fowey, Launceston (‘Launson’), Liskeard (‘Liskard’), Lostwithiel (‘Los-with-e-ul’), Ludgvan, Mousehole, Prideaux Castle (‘Priddix Castle’), St Ive, St Teath, Trewoon
There are plenty of strange pronunciations in England’s southwesternmost county, most involving the dropping of letters. Mousehole becomes ‘Mausle’, Fowey becomes ‘Foy’), and Trewoon becomes ‘Truen’. Spelled ‘Luduhan’ in the Domesday Book of 1086, Ludgvan has ended up pronounced ‘Luhjun’. The prefix ‘Saint’ (always spelled in its abbreviated form as ‘St’) produces a pair of odd pronunciations as St Ive (not to be confused with St Ives) becomes ‘Sinteev’ and St Teath, which looks as though it should be closer to ‘Sinteev’, instead becomes ‘Sinteth’.
T4. Kent (10)
Barham (‘Bear’em’), Cowden (‘cow-DEN’), Leigh (‘Lie’), Loose (‘Lose’), Lympne, Meopham (‘Mepem’), Sandwich (‘Sandwidj’), Teston, Trottiscliffe, Wrotham
Kent is full of odd spellings, such as Lympne, where the final three letters are completely superfluous, Teston (‘Teeson’), and Wrotham, which somewhow gains a ‘u’ to become ‘Rutem’. The Kentish winner, however, must certainly be Trottiscliffe, which is somehow rendered as ‘Trozli’ (there is a nearby park called Trosley Country Park).
T4. Northumberland (10)
Alnwick (‘Enik’), Bellingham, Berwick (“Berik’), Cambois (‘Camis’), Cowpen (‘Cupen’), Ovingham, Prudhoe, Ulgham, Whittingham, Yeavering (‘Yevering’)
While Northumberland has volume when it comes to this list, the spelling aren’t completely off the rails, either. Bellingham, Ovingham, and Whittingham make the list only because the ‘-gham’ suffix is pronounced ‘-jum’ (contrast with the Washington city of Bellingham). Ulgham, however, is oddly pronounced ‘Ufum’, and the Newcastle exurb of Prudhoe becomes ‘Pruhda’.
3. Norfolk (11)
Bylaugh (‘Bihluh’), Costessey, Happisburgh, Hunstanton, Little Hautbois (‘Hahbis’), Norwich (‘Norrij’), Postwick (‘Pozzik’), Stiffkey, Tacolneston, Worstead (‘Wuhsted’), Wymondham
Norfolk is renowned for its oddly-pronounced communities and is another top contender in the density category. It’s hard to know where to start, really. The Norwich suburb of Costessey has been pronounced ‘Cossy’ for centuries. Wymondham has lost the ‘mo’ to become ‘Windum’. Hunstanton and Tacolneston are ‘Hunston’ and ‘Taklston’, and the oddly hilarious name Stiffkey becomes even odder when you realise it’s pronounced ‘Styuki’ (there aren’t many toponyms with two superfluous F’s). And is if the village of Happisburgh didn’t have enough issues with the North Sea eroding away at the townsite and swallowing houses, they also have to deal with visitors who can’t figure out that the village name is pronounced ‘Hayzbruh’.
Welcome to ‘Hayzbruh’. Source: Arbus_Driver, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Happisburgh_Village_Sign_cropped.png. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
2. Devon (12)
Alverdiscott, Aveton Gifford, Barnstaple (‘Barnstabul’), Bideford (‘Bidiferd’), Bridestowe (‘Bridistow’), Cruwys Morchard (‘Cruz Morchard’), Ide (‘Eed’), Plymouth, Teignmouth, Widecombe (‘Widicum’), Woolfardisworthy (twice)
Being such a common name, it’s easily forgotten how weirdly Plymouth (‘Plimuth’) is pronounced; this style of pronunciation is also seen in Teignmouth (‘Tinmuth’). Neither of those places have anything on communities such as Aveton Gifford (‘Ahton Jifferd’), or especially two of the most egregious examples of archaic spellings to be found anywhere in the country, Alverdiscott (‘Alscot’) and the entirely unwieldy Woolfardisworthy (‘Wulzery’), which is actually the name of two separate villages in different parts of Devon.
1. Lincolnshire (15)
Aslackby, Barholm (‘Bear’em’), Brant Broughton (‘Brant Bruton’), Edenham (‘Ednum’), Folkingham, Haverholme, Holywell (‘Hahlywell’), Hough-on-the-Hill (‘Hof-on-the-Hill’), Keadby (‘Kidby’), Laughton (‘Lawton’), Leasingham (‘Lezingum’), Osbournby (‘Ahzunby’), Quadring (‘Qwaydring’), Stroxton (‘Stroson’), Threekingham (‘Threkingum’).
As England’s second-largest county by area, it’s kind of surprising that Lincolnshire only has 15 names on this list. Nevertheless, it’s still the leader among counties. While nothing is overly egregious here (at least compared to some of the other names we’ve seen), you still get Haverholme rendered as ‘Averum’ and Aslackby as ‘Azelby’. As for Folkingham? Well, it’s not quite what you may be thinking; the ‘o’ is raised to produce ‘Fockingum’.
What’s your favourite counterintuitive place name? Leave a comment below and let us know.
British Geological Survey (2009). Coastal erosion at Happisburgh. Available at http://www.bgs.ac.uk/landslides/happisburgh.html. Accessed 21 August 2013.
Economist, The (2008). English spelling: You write potato, I write ghoughpteighbteau. 14 August 2008. Available at http://www.economist.com/node/11920829. Accessed 20 August 2013.
Zimmer, B. (2008). “Ghoti” before Shaw. Language Log, 23 April 2008. Available at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=81. Accessed 20 August 2013.