Friday, 15 June 2012

peculiar pronouncements

You say eether and I say eyether,
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.
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.

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 in a comment below. 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.


  1. The other issue is places with multiple pronunciations, e.g. Leigh.

    Depending on where you are, it could be pronounced Lee or Lie.

    1. I don’t know if you read this when it was first posted Robert, but I’ve since added a paragraph to address your point. For the example you cited, the Leighs in Dorset, Kent and Surrey are pronounced ‘Lie’, while the Leighs in Essex and Lancashire are pronounced ‘Lee’ (according to the booklet).

  2. Replies
    1. My commiserations. I suspect that you will not be alone.

  3. Two years ago I travelled through the region. The goal was to travel over land from the Netherlands to Amman in Jordan where a friend was working for a few months. I managed to do everything by train till Adana, which is somewhere in the middle of Turkey and where things got exciting. I had left Istanbul about thirty hours ago. It was two o'clock at night so I figured it was best to continue to travel to Damascus in Syria.

    I knew there were at least two logical stops for me in between Adana and Damascus. Gaziantep in Turkey and Aleppo in Syria. I got some food and water and a kind man took me in a cab to the street where all the busses departed. There I was. Three o'clock at night and nobody who really knew how to speak any language I could understand. I went around with my map, some gestures and a paper and a pencil.

    Soon it was clear that nobody was interested in my map or pencil and paper, they just said Antep and Alep. I looked on my map for Antep or Alep and couldn't find them. After one hour of searching and asking around and drinking chai I got lucky when I few locals brought me to a cabdriver who spoke English. He told me that Antep was Gaziantep and that a bus was leaving soon. Only then I realized that Alep was Aleppo.

    After Antep I got in a small bus which brought me to a small town where Syrian taxis could bring me to Alep. I had to bribe a border official for the first time in my life at the border, which I actually had been looking forward to. But in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan I noticed that many people pronounced names of cities differently depending on where I was. It's possible that people in Homs pronounce the name of their name different than people in Damascus and that there is simply more than one correct way to pronounce it.

    1. Thank you for such a detailed comment Penguin. I suspect that you are right about the vagaries of pronunciation, but I do wish that the BBC would be consistent.

  4. I thought I would have done better than this, but 2 out of 12 is bad. So I totally understand why some people would get the pronunciation wrong. Some words I was so off it was ridiculous, but hopefully if I ever come those places I will be able to say with pride. I shall take another look and lick my wounds.

    1. 2 out of 12 is probably par for the course Rum. And I did pick out ones that I thought would be hard.

  5. And I thought American English was bad...these pronunciations defy the rules of grammar. They're redonkulous!

    1. I don’t think grammar comes into it Kris. There are certainly no rules when it comes to the pronunciation of English place names, except that you can expect some of the middle letters to disappear. I take it that “redonkulous” is your own coinage, but the meaning is clear enough. Preposterous!

  6. I have endeavoured to explain these pronunciations purely in terms of spelling. International phonetic symbols would be more accurate but would be meaningless to anyone unfamiliar with these symbols. I have therefore used only one (ə), which stands for the indeterminate (unstressed) vowel heard in the second syllable of a word like ‘often’ and is otherwise known as a ‘schwa’.

     1. Almondbury…‘Aymbəry’.
     2. Barugh…‘Bark’.
     3. Brougham…‘Broom’.
     4. Caldmore…‘Caamər’ (‘calmer’).
     5. Cholmondeley…‘Chumly’.
     6. Cholmondeston…‘Chomsən’.
     7. Congresbury…‘Coomsbəry’.
     8. Happisburgh…‘Hayzbərə’.
     9. Hardenhuish…‘Harnish’ (rhymes with ‘varnish’).
    10. Puncknowle…‘Punnəl’ (rhymes with ‘tunnel’).
    11. Trowse…‘Tross’.
    12. Wyrardisbury…‘Rayzbəry’.

    How did you do?


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