Thursday 16 April 2009


Edward Aveyard asked
Would you happen to know how Towton (as in the Battle of Towton, the largest battle on English soil) is pronounced? I am not sure whether this would be ˈtəʊtn or ˈtaʊtn.

I didn’t know, but I knew someone who would: the BBC Pronunciation Unit (blog, 13 April).

My former student Jo Kim, now working for the Unit, replied
Martha [Figueroa-Clark] and I were reading your blog yesterday and were especially grateful for your kind (and informed!) words in our defence. You are quite right, we have been recommending the pronunciation for L'Aquila as LACK-will-uh since 1971 and with a special note to draw attention to first syllable stress. We did all we could to disseminate the information but with the resources we have and being an advisory service, we cannot enforce pronunciations, as you very well know.
As for Towton, we have an entry from 2007, which gives the pronunciation TOW-tuhn (-ow as in now). This is the pronunciation given to us by Dr Buckberry of Bradford University's Towton Mass Grave Project.

So there you have it, Edward: it’s ˈtaʊtn.
The Battle of Towton (1461), fought between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists in the Wars of the Roses, was indeed the bloodiest in English history. It is reported that over 80,000 people were killed there, which would represent about 1% of the entire English population at the time.
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This blog will now take an extended post-Easter break. Next entry: 24 May.


  1. Forster "A Pronouncing Dictionary of English Place-names" (Routledge 1981) and EPD agree it's 'tautn

  2. 24 May?! oh, Europeans and their extended holidays.

  3. @ carissa: I'm retired! I'm 70!

  4. A small correction: the estimated number of deaths is 28,000, not 80,000. The 80,000 figure is from the battle of Watling Street (of Roman times).

  5. I was amused to see that Jo had to explain that the helpful figured pronunciation "TOW-tuhn" has "-ow as in now". All goes to show why we need IPA.

  6. Enjoy your holiday!

    Having seen this I was wondering which is the more common pronunciation for the grapheme "ow" - /əʊ/ or /aʊ/. And I guess which is the commoner sound overall?

    I'm of course thinking in terms of a 'simplified spelling'. Where do we keep the "ow" - in "know" or "now".? Or neither?

  7. Sili: A quick check (which has some false positives) suggests a slight preference for MOUTH over GOAT in stressed ow. However, ow is basically just a spelling variant of ou mostly used morpheme-finally, and for ou the evidence is clear: almost seven to one in favor of MOUTH.

  8. So we'll stick with "mouth" and switch to "kou" and "nou". Should "know" be "no", "noh" or "noa"?

    Thanks for the stats.

  9. I like the way they say how to pronounce the words with the representation of common words everybody knows hoe to say. That really helps me out better that the regular phonetic writting

  10. There wasn't 80,000 people at the battle. Lancastrians outnumbered the Yorkists, 40,000 fouht for Lancaster, and about 26,000 for York.

    The great slaughter happened when Lancaster's army broke. A more realistic number would be about 50,000 to 55,000 dead.


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