You say eether and I say eyether,The catalyst for this post was the BBC’s reporting of the conflict in Syria, in particular reports of the bombardment of the city of Homs by government forces. It is of merely incidental concern that there has been no consensus on how this beleaguered city’s name should be pronounced, but it does point to a general malaise within the BBC that was not present thirty years ago, when a newsreader, faced with an unfamiliar place name, was expected to consult the corporation’s Pronunciation Unit for guidance before broadcasting.
You say neether and I say nyther,
Eether, eyether, neether, nyther,
Let’s call the whole thing off!
Ira Gershwin, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, from Shall We Dance, 1937.
Whether this unit still exists I have no idea, although it does seem like the kind of outfit whose services might be dispensed with if the BBC is required to cut its costs. Certainly, the variety of pronunciations heard on the BBC nowadays suggest that it is no longer in business, and individuals are thus left to make their own decisions.
So what is the correct pronunciation of ‘Homs’? I have no idea, although I can make an informed guess. However, it should be noted that ‘correct’ in this context does not have an objective meaning, and in using the word I am merely reflecting the way in which residents of the city might refer to it. With this in mind, I have noticed that the majority of reporters and newsreaders say ‘Homz’; very few refer to the city as ‘Homss’, which I believe to be the ‘correct’ pronunciation.
There are two pieces of evidence for this view. First, I cannot think of a single English word in which a voiced consonant is followed by an unvoiced sibilant (‘-ss-’), so it is natural for a native English speaker to voice the sibilant in any unfamiliar word (we say ‘bedz’ and ‘dogz’, for example, not bedss’ and ‘dogss’). Second, most Muslims pronounce words like ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ with the sibilant unvoiced, so I deduce that they would do the same with ‘Homs’, although a counter-argument here might be that in ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ the sibilant follows a vowel, and therefore the analogy is not valid.
There are times when I wonder whether there is a conspiracy not to agree on a specific pronunciation, because some words may be pronounced in three or four different ways. When the existence of al-Qaeda first registered with the general public, after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, President Bush pronounced ‘al-Qaeda’ to rhyme with ‘raider’. Later, a pronunciation that rhymed ‘al-Qaeda’ with ‘rider’ became popular, and hapless former British Home Secretary John Reid muddied the waters by rhyming it with ‘reader’. There has always been the odd journalist or newsreader who eschewed all three of these options and instead pronounced the two internal vowels of ‘al-Qaeda’ separately. I suspect that this is closest to how it should be pronounced, and that the other three versions are the result of the natural tendency of English speakers to seek to pronounce two adjacent vowels as a single vowel or diphthong.
That English speakers might have trouble pronouncing Arabic names is predictable, but you wouldn’t expect those same speakers to have problems with their own place names. Even Americans know that Gloucester, Leicester and Worcester are not pronounced the way they read, but there are hundreds of English villages that also retain their mediaeval spellings but have acquired a modern pronunciation. If you think that you can work out that modern pronunciation from the name, I invite you to try the following quiz, the source for which is a booklet produced by the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1936: Broadcast English II: Recommendations to Announcers Regarding the Pronunciation of Some English Place-Names.
It may seem that this exercise is already out of date, but the trend is clearly towards a simplification of pronunciation, and long names will inevitably be shortened, usually by elision of their middle syllables. For example, the village of Faldingworth in Lincolnshire was pronounced as it read in 1936, but by now it may well be most commonly rendered as ‘Falworth’, or something similar. With these caveats in mind, how do you pronounce the following place names?
1. Almondbury (a village in Yorkshire).
2. Barugh (a village in Yorkshire).
3. Brougham (a village in Cumbria).
4. Caldmore (a village in Staffordshire).
5. Cholmondeley (a village in Cheshire).
6. Cholmondeston (a village in Cheshire).
7. Congresbury (a village in Somerset).
8. Happisburgh (a village in Norfolk).
9. Hardenhuish (a village in Wiltshire).
10. Puncknowle (a village in Somerset).
11. Trowse (a village in Norfolk).
12. Wyrardisbury (a village in Buckinghamshire).
To give some indication of how difficult this is, Garboldisham in Norfolk is pronounced ‘Gaarblshəm’ (where ‘ə’ is the indeterminate, unstressed vowel heard in the second syllable of ‘often’), while Maugersbury is Gloucestershire is pronounced ‘Mawzbəry’. There are also regional variants to consider: the initial letter of Gillingham in Kent is pronounced as in ‘Jack and Jill’, while the same letter in the Gillinghams in Dorset and Norfolk is pronounced like the gills of fish; the Houghton in Hampshire is pronounced ‘Hotən’, the Houghton in Lancashire is rendered as ‘Hawtən’, and the Houghton in Norfolk is known locally as ‘Howtən’.
Local pronunciation is clearly the guiding principle of the BBC’s booklet, mainly because it is unlikely that anyone living more than 50 miles away from the place in question will have heard of it. Newcomers to a town or village are unlikely to listen carefully to what the locals call their new home, so they make up their own versions. My own home town (Penrith, in Cumbria) ought to pose no problems with regard to pronunciation, but locals pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable, and newcomers invariably place the stress on the second syllable, especially if they came originally from the south of England.
If you want to know how well you have done, the correct pronunciations are listed here (in a comment at the end of the post). When I’ve tried similar quizzes in the past, even natives of England struggled to get more than three or four correct, so this quiz is really for amusement rather than a genuine attempt to assess your knowledge.