Thursday 17 December 2009

Besses and Irlams

In his recent blog about apostrophes Jack Windsor Lewis mentioned as containing apostrophes
a very small number of, mainly Scottish, placenames including Besses o’ th’ Barn, … Irlam o’ the Heights, …
— of which just these two are not Scottish. They are both places in England, specifically in Greater Manchester.
I was wondering how they are actually pronounced.

The first place, Besses o’ th’ Barn, lies between Manchester and Bury. It has a station on the Metrolink line and gives its name to a brass band, Besses o’ th’ Barn Band.
In traditional Lancashire dialect, the definite article takes the preconsonantal form /t/, usually realized as [ʔ], as in in t’ road (in the road) ɪnʔ roːd. So the expected pronunciation of the placename would be ˈbɛsɪz əʔ ˈbaːn.
My nephew grew up just the other side of Bury and will have passed through Besses o’ th’ Barn station many times on his way to and from Manchester, so I rang him to ask how people pronounce it. His reply was that actually everyone just calls it Besses. That’s what Wikipedia says, too.

The second place is slightly problematic. It is a district in Salford (for me ˈsɔːlfəd, locally ˈsɒlfəd), Greater Manchester. Jack gives it as Irlam o’ the Heights. However the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (2nd ed., ed. G. Pointon, OUP 1990) shows it as ending in Height rather than Heights.Before a vowel sound the Lancashire article takes the form /ð/. The local dialect normally drops all /h/s, making the article in this name prevocalic, so as far as the definite article goes it is pronounced just as one would expect.
But perhaps both Jack and the BBC dictionary are wrong. On-line sources show the name used by the local authority as Irlams o’ th’ Height, with -s attached to the first element rather than the last and the article written as th’. This on-line map agrees. And I notice that the local Methodists have a church called Height (not Heights) Methodist Church.
I expect the place is called ˈɜːləmz ə ˈðaɪt or just ˈɜːləmz. Perhaps someone can tell us.


  1. Peter Kaye had a bit about "th'ambulance" ('θambjələns) a couple of years ago. Don't know if pre-vocalic /θ/ rather than /ð/ for "the" is specifically Bolton; it was pretty funny, anyway.

    (Hope that mixture of symbols works OK, I haven't quite figured out this keyboard IPA lark yet!)

  2. A couple of years ago? You mean, in Middle English times?

  3. No, Lipman, not in Middle English: these forms of the article still flourish in the north of England.
    I'm trying to remember whether when I was a boy and our milk was delivered by horse-and-cart the animal doing the pulling was called Peggy ðɔːs or Peggy θɔːs. It may indeed have been the latter, it which case we'd expect Irlams ə ˈθaɪt.

  4. I believe there is a Talk o' th' Hill in Staffordhire. Apparently it's normally just "Talke".

  5. There's also Hall i' th' Wood, a railway station near Bolton, which Wikipedia says is pronounced /ˈæl ɪð wʊd/, and I've seen a few others around, including a "Top o' th' Town" in Heptonstall, Yorkshire.

  6. Hullo John
    I'm sure Irlams o' th' Height is right. That's how my Bartholomew's Gazetteer o' th' British Isles gives it. Harry Campbell's quite right about Talk o' th' Hill alias Talke with the curious final 'e'. Glad to've sparked off something so intresting.

  7. has far more o' places in England than Scotland. All the a' places are Scottish; Hall i' th' Wood is in Lancs.

  8. It's now quite rare for the younger generation to use /ð/ for the definite article, but /?/ is still very common across north-central England.

  9. I live in Manchester just outside Salford and I hear the locals pronouncing /sælfəd/ with the TRAP vowel, even if in TV it is with the THOUGHT vowel.

  10. David Marjanović29 December 2009 at 23:46

    I keep being surprised that such regional features are respected in English place names. No native German speaker would keep the local /ʃp/ in Innsbruck and Augsburg when speaking Standard German, or pronounce the vowel in Wien as /ɛɐ̯/ instead of /iː/.

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