Wednesday, 6 January 2010


This morning Sky News TV has despatched an intrepid reporter to Marlborough in Wiltshire to report live on the snowy weather conditions there. Since early morning he has been interviewing a string of locals about the disruption the snow is causing. Without exception they have pronounced the name of their town as ˈmɔːlb(ə)rə. Despite this, the reporter has persisted in using the spelling pronunciation ˈmɑːlb(ə)rə, and he uses it every few minutes.
Perhaps he is a smoker, or ex-smoker, and is influenced by the American brand of cigarette, Marlboro, which does usually seem to be pronounced with ɑː.

Mind you, just why the usual BrE pronunciation of Marlborough — town, duke, college, street or house in London — has ɔː rather than ɑː is a question to which I don’t know the answer. Etymologically it was the hill or mound either named after a man called *Mǣrla or because gentian grew there, OE meargealla.

* * *

A correspondent who shall remain nameless has sent me a number of emails in recent weeks asking various fairly elementary questions. I have been patiently answering him, but yesterday I finally ventured to suggest that instead of sending me emails he should buy LPD, since the information he is looking for can easily be found there or in other published works. Indignantly he replies today that he has the CD version of the dictionary, and asking if the printed book contains something that the CD doesn’t. The answer is no: but a more important point is that the CD is not sold independently of the printed book. That means that if he has the CD but not the book then his CD must be a pirated copy. By using a pirated copy he is indirectly depriving me, the author, of income. I shall not waste any more time answering his emails.


  1. Good for you! Be indignant right back.

    You say…
    > Mind you, just why the usual BrE pronunciation of Marlborough — town, duke, college, street or house in London — has ɔː rather than ɑː is a question to which I don’t know the answer. Etymologically it was the hill or mound either named after a man called *Mǣrla or because gentian grew there, OE meargealla.

    Or even conceivably because of the clayey earth?

    That is mɑːl of course, which wouldn’t help with the ɔː, unless labials both before and after combine to have the effect of qu, w, wh before arl in other words. But to me it's more of a mystery why, especially in non-rhotic, the /l/ alone doesn’t do it, as in Halfords and falcon, which you dealt with some time ago, and Malvern, which cropped up on a recent thread. I don’t see how it could have been that the sequence of derhotacization and velarization should have been different here from most words with arl.

  2. The other interesting point about Marlborough, be it cigarettes or the town, is that it seems to receive the /əʊ/ at the end in some accents. Doubtless the rhotic r allows for this whereby there is vowel sound in the letter, but it seems to happen with everything from Edinburgh (I hate to mention Edinborough) to the designated areas of London.

  3. But there's fawken as well as fawlken. Isn't falken even just a spelling pronunciation? ("Just", because it would be even less of an argument concerning the phonetic development.)

  4. @John Wells:

    Count me as one UK-educated near-RP speaker who had always assumed until today that "Marlborough" had the START vowel. Although I only ever used it when playing Monopoly.


    I think that the rounding effect of /l/ after /a/ preceded R-dropping, and was blocked by an intervening /r/. All other "-[C]arl" words I can think of -- Carl, gnarl, snarl -- have START, not NORTH/THOUGHT.

  5. The French had a bit of difficulty with the name Marlborough. It turns up in a nursery rhyme/song in the 19th century. The song is entitled "Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre". It is often said to refer to the 1st Duke of Marlborough, though apparently the name has been around in French and other languages, such as Walloon. Just for fun, here is a bit of the Walloon version of the song:

    Malbrouk èva-st al guere
    Des crompîres, des navês, des rècines,
    Malbrouk èva à l' guêre
    Ni sét ddja can rvinrè (treus côps)

    Rvinrè kécfiye a Påke,
    Des crompîres, des navês, des rècines,
    Rvinrè kécfiye a Påke,
    Ûbin à l' Tinité (treus côps)

    Malbrouck is also the name of a species of monkey.

  6. >>though apparently the name has been around in French and other languages, such as Walloon

    add "since long before then"

  7. I can't google up any references to falcon on this blog, but for the record I pronounce it /fɔ(l)kən/ and always have, as in the name of William Faulkner (recte Falkner, apparently, but changed accidentally by his first publisher — in any case, a variant of Falconer, an occupational surname).

    As for Marlboro, I make that /mɑrəlbəro/.

  8. vp, that is what I said.

    I do realize that I have a terrible prolixity problem, but crave some reassurance that it is nevertheless possible to see that meaning in what I said!

    I meant of course that it didn't seem likely that Marlborough could have had the reverse ordering of the processes we both hypothesize for all the STARTs that are not affected by the /l/.

    And my suggestion that having labials both before and after the 'arl' might have the same effect as qu, w, wh before arl in other words, where they do give ɔːl, is a pretty long shot.

    A last desperate throw might be the suggestion that if the proposed etymologies for Marlborough were wrong, and the r is not in fact etymological, it might only have been introduced into the spelling by some scribe with the all-too-confusing penchant for false etymology. I am not up to investigating that possibility, but some of you might be.

  9. Do rhotic speakers in Wiltshire pronounce the r in Marlborough? If not then mallamb's last suggestion might seem more plausible...

  10. Might the first /r/ have been lost, earlier than the general loss of rhoticity, because of the second /r/, in the same way that it sometimes was in 'partridge' and 'cartridge' (even in rhotic accents)? I.e. Marlborough > Marlbrough > Malbrough?

  11. JHJ,
    Fraid the persistence of JW's reporter in his spelling pronunciation doesn’t augur well for your test. (It's almost tantamount to an attempt to shanghai the locals into it.) If these rhotics said mɑːɹl or whatever we would suspect more of the same, and if they said mɔːɹl or whatever we would suspect hypersophistication!

    Now that is a really interesting suggestion, and again I would think researchable for anyone up to it.

  12. @John Cowan:

    The pronunciation /fɔ(l)kən/ for "falcon" sounds affected and pretentious to me coming from a fellow American (no offense). But in reality it could be an age difference, because you're much older than I am or a regional difference, because you seem to be from New York and I'm not.

    I agree with your pronunciation of "Marlboro", though, although I have a difficult time pronouncing the "l" in that environment.

  13. So that makes two of you who have /mɑrəlbəro/ for the modern spelling pronunciation because you apparently have difficulties with that sequence of segments, to the extent of inserting an epenthetic ə and promoting the r-colouring of ɑ to a full segment. I don't intend to imply the sequence of those phenomena by that wording – I guess it's not determinable.

    Doesn’t that have interesting implications for Warren's idea that the first /r/ may have been lost earlier than the general loss of rhoticity? Most of the people who mislaid it would not have known any spelling to pronounce, and taken a line of much less resistance!

  14. Jack Windsor Lewis7 January 2010 16:05

    For the benefit of non-US readers, Warren's first comment was referring to the Gen American usage in which some of these high-rhoticity speakers have a variant of 'cartridge' and 'partridge' which by a process known as 'dissimilation' drops the first of the two r's of the spelling. A similar thing occurs in Gen British when some people say words like 'protract' using only its second r-sound. See a little more at my Blog 242 on

  15. "That means that if he has the CD but not the book then his CD must be a pirated copy."

    Not necessarily. Maybe someone bought the book and the CD, and then gave the CD (the original) to your nameless correspondent. That wouldn't be piracy in any way.

  16. Early loss of r is by no means limited to dissimilation, and much of it happened before the settlement of America. One of the oldest instances is OE bærs > bass (the fish). In some American forms, there has been a semantic or expressive separation: passel 'large quantity' < parcel, bust < burst, cuss < curse, and of course the famous ass < arse. Parsnip < ME pasnepe is apparently a hypercorrection of this change.

  17. what a coincidence, this week I'm teaching my students the four weather seasons and I will use this video to show them the snowy weather conditions during winter!

  18. Honestly I would have made that same mistake, I would have gone with the Marlboro pronunciation. Based on the spelling I believe a lot of people would have done that as well.