Monday, 3 May 2010

Houghton

It is thought that the first constituency to declare its result after the polls close in the UK General Election this Thursday evening will probably be that of Houghton and Sunderland South. This poses a nice test for the radio and TV announcers.
Should they call it ˈhɔːtn̩, ˈhaʊtn̩ or ˈhəʊtn̩? THOUGHT, MOUTH or GOAT? Our pronunciation dictionaries give all three possibilities for places with this spelling.
It’s the rest of the constituency’s name that resolves the matter. The town southwest of Sunderland in Tyne & Wear is known more fully as Houghton-le-Spring. All our pronunciation dictionaries tell us that that particular Houghton is ˈhəʊtn̩. (People do however speak with a northeastern accent there — “Mackem” rather than straight Geordie — so their local GOAT vowel could be anything from [ʊɔ] to [ɵː]. I’m not an expert.)
The picture at the top shows the Seven Sisters at Houghton-le-Spring (don’t ask). Photo: GeordieMac Pics.

Places in other counties of England may differ. Graham Pointon’s BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (OUP, 1990) gives us a long list.But this list, long though it may be, doesn’t help us with places of that name in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Canada. Nor does it help with United States placenames. There, according to EPD, Houghton MI is ˈhoʊtn̩, like the one near Sunderland. But Houghton WA, according to Wikipedia, is ˈhaʊtn̩.

On the M61 motorway in Lancashire there is a directional sign pointing to “Westh’ton”. Not all road users would know that this is short for Westhoughton, which is pronounced westˈhɔːtn̩.

15 comments:

  1. I hope you were joking when you said, "I'm not an expert." If you're not an expert, who is? Stop being so modest.

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  2. I find the statement "I'm not an expert" very confidence-inspiring. In the context of the statement that people speak “Mackem” rather than straight Geordie in the constituency in question, it means that without specifically local knowledge (or perhaps even with it) JW can only reasonably be expected to propose a range of possible realizations which speakers of that dialect would presumably have for the vowel corresponding to the əʊ in the pronunciation dictionaries. And he can't even safely make the assumption that no local speakers use some exclusively local version of the name which doesn't correspond to the one in the pronunciation dictionaries at all!

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  3. @Sili: /hʌftn̩/ seems more likely than /hɔftn̩/

    "Broughton" has five pronunciations: THOUGHT in Hants, MOUTH in Cambs, GOAT on Tweed, STRUT + /f/ in Glamorgan, and GOOSE in Brant Broughton, Lincs.

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  4. Some north-eastern England placenames with "gh" have [f] (e.g. Redheugh, Ulgham). But I have no reason to doubt the dictionaries for Houghton-le-Spring: my parents are both from Sunderland and it's definitely GOAT for them. ([ɵː] sounds a bit Tyneside to me, by the way, rather than Wearside, but I am perhaps a little out of date).

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  5. Quick question: my friend and I were arguing over the tongue placement of the bunched r vs. the retroflex r. Which is which? And I'm quite enjoying your blog. Phonology is a hobby of mine. (That's why I assume I must be right in the argument haha.)

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  6. @ The Boob Nazi:
    By "phonology" you mean phonetics.

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  7. As someone who used to work for West Yorkshire Police, we were never sure how to pronounce the Houghton just over the border into South Yorkshire. I'm quite sure that the one labelled as "W. Yorks." in the book is the one near Barnsley, which used to be in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Most people in my office had used the THOUGHT vowel, but it seems as if it's the MOUTH vowel. Thanks for that!

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  8. Thanks mollymooly. I pretty much have a HOT-HUT merger.

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  9. I would take mallamb's interpretation of "I'm not an expert" (plus a touch of self-irony) to be so obvious that I'm surprised so many people didn't get the point of it.

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  10. promotional codes et al: yes, it was ironic, for goodness sake. I may be an expert about English accents in the general sense, but I'm not from the northeast of England, and would defer to the locals for the subtleties that distinguish Sunderland from Newcastle. Even more would I defer to phoneticians from that area or who have worked on the speech of that area.

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  11. Even people who live there can't agree on how to pronounce the one in Hampshire. The majority go with the GOAT vowel, some with the MOUTH vowel - neither of which rhymes with the neighbouring village of Broughton (as in BROUGHT), just a couple of miles away!

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  12. @ Rob: It's good to see that you confirm the BBC Dictionary's ordering of the pronunciations for Houghton in Hants - it was intended to put the more common one first. Most of the work on the dictionary was done nearly thirty years ago, and I think it's time someone set about updating it. Unfortunately, neither OUP nor the BBC seem interested.

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  13. It was good to hear the presenters on the main BBC television coverage last night were getting Houghton right in "Houghton and Sunderland South", which was indeed the first constituency to declare.

    Graham: I'm really glad I bought a copy of your dictionary - I find it useful and interesting.

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  14. It's a shibboleth in New York City to pronounce Houston Street with the MOUTH vowel, though Houston, Texas, has yodified GOOSE. Similar regional shibboleths are Geary Street in San Francisco with TRAP; the Massachusetts surname Gerry with /g/ (> gerrymander 'create constituency districts in strange shapes for partisan purposes'); Pierre, South Dakota with unyodified NEAR; and Chicago with THOUGHT (using PALM marks you as lower-class or an outsider).

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