Friday 5 April 2013

from Toledo to Laredo

In view of one commenter’s indignation this week about the Ohio placename Lima, pronounced differently from the identically spelt capital of Peru (see screenshot above of the LPD entry), I thought it was time for another repeat. Here’s a blog entry from 2007.

_ _ _

Driving to Gatwick Airport a few days ago to meet an arriving passenger, I passed through the village of Burgh Heath. As on previous occasions when I have travelled that route, I wondered idly how it’s pronounced. Is the first word bɜː or ˈbʌrə?

When I got back home I looked it up in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (G. Pointon, 1990), which says it can be either. Just not bɜːɡ.

I further learnt that Burgh in Norfolk is ˈbʌrə, but Burgh in adjoining Suffolk is bɜːɡ. Things are different in the north of England: Burgh-by-Sands in Cumbria is metathesized to brʌf, which must mean that for many locals it’s more like [brʊf].

It’s worse than -ough.

Tomorrow I have to go to Birmingham. To reach my destination the map says I have to look for the road leading to Alcester. Er... what was that? I checked with my brother, who lives not too far away, and he says it’s ˈɔːlstə. Then I looked in LPD and found that I agree.

And there’s no call for Americans to feel superior to the wacky British. In the States you never know what will happen with Spanish names. I remember passing through Salida, Colorado. That’s the Spanish for ‘exit’, and it was at the mouth of a canyon, so I thought that in English it would be səˈliːdə. But the local radio station announcers, who should know, pronounced it səˈlaɪdə.

Even English-derived names can be surprising. I remember driving through Placerville, California, and discovering to my surprise that it was not ˈpleɪsɚvɪl but ˈplæsɚvɪl.


  1. /ˈplæsɚ/ is the standard AmE pronunciation of placer, a deposit of gravel (vel sim.) which contains particles of gold or other precious minerals. Placer mining is the kind you do with a pan in which you wash the gravel, letting it flow over the lip of the pan along with most of the water, leaving the heavier gold behind. Despite appearances, the word is derived from Spanish placer, which may be of Portuguese or Catalan origin.

  2. It gets much worse than Salida and Placerville in the U.S. I grew up in Texas, where we have Bexar /bɛr/, Manchaca /ˈmænʃæk/, and Refugio /rəˈfjʊrioʊ/. (Recordings of the local pronunciations of many Texas placenames can be found at Outside Texas, there's Natchitoches, Louisiana, which is pronounced /ˈnækɪtɪʃ/ (usually undergoing "flapping" to [ˈnækɪɾɪʃ]), and Mackinac Island, Michigan, pronounced /ˈmækɪnɔ/. Wikipedia has a whole List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations.

  3. The small village of Burgh Heath gave its name to the local telephone exchange, covering a significantly larger area, including where I grew up. I don't recall any of the locals calling it anything other than ˈbʌrə hiːθ, at least among themselves. The exception was in the days before Subscriber Trunk Dialling (which I can just about remember), when it was wise to ask the operator for bɜː hiːθ, as otherwise they were liable to look for it under Borough and then assure you that the exchange didn't exist.

    William Pitfield

  4. I lived in the Burgh Heath dialling code area for many years, and contrary to William my experience is that the main pronunciation was Burr Heath. Though I also recall that in general people were unsure what the correct pronunciation was.

  5. Iowa, Louisiana, is of course /ˈaɪəweɪ/.

    Martin Ball

  6. Beaufort in North Carolina is ˈboʊfɝt and Beaufort in South Carolina is ˈbjʊfɝt.

  7. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for "PEE-roo" (Peru) , Indiana, the birthplace of Cole Porter; "MAY-drid (Madrid),New Mexico, and "KARE-oh," (Cairo), Ilinois:
    Locally, (in New Brunswick, NJ), we natives go to ":BUGLE-oh (Buccleugh) Park" on a Sunday.

    1. and "KARE-oh," (Cairo), Illinois

      In my record collections there are two different songs called Cairo Blues by different singers. Both sing KAY-roh.

      One singer hailed from Mississippi but lived in Cairo, Illinois. The other was a Texas singer.

    2. I've found two more blues which mention Cairo. Again, it's KAY-roh.

      One singer has women in various large cities, and the other claims that 'wild water' washed his house down from Cairo all the way to to New Orleans. It's pretty clear that they mean Cairo Illinois.,

  8. Does any one of you know anything about a (purported) difference in pronunciation between Albany, New York, and Albany, Alabama (now part of New Decatur)? I once knew an American who claimed there was a difference of stress or some such.

    Also, how to pronounce 'Leiston' (Suffolk), I am referring to 'Leiston', not 'Suffolk' (suffeck). I for some strange reasons must every now again say 'Leiston, Suffolk', but I do not know how to pronounce this doubtlessly tricky name. Leeshun? Forvo has an entry, but not on Leiston SUFFOLK, and you never know...

    Full true name --- see Profile (Google)

    1. ˈleɪst ən.

    2. Thank you. But are you sure you're referring to Leiston, Suffolk? 'Featherstonehaugh' has no less than 5 different pronunciations, depending in which county.

      Full true name -- see Profile?

    3. Trust Daniel Jones.

    4. Albany NY is /ˈɔlbəni/, whereas Albany, Georgia is /ɔlˈbɛni/, or /ɔlˈbɪni/ to locals (because they have the pin-pen merger).

    5. As for Featherstonehaugh, keep it ˈfeð əst ən hɔː, the only version Daniel Jones mentions, and John Wells doesn't elaborate, as he usually tends to, which is a shame, and keep Cirensester (“Roman camp or town called Corinion”) ˈsɪsɪtə: ˈsaɪər ən ˌsest ə is dialectal and spelling pronunciation and ˈsɪz ɪt ər is old and also probably dialectal.

    6. Hi, thanks. Forvo features mostly something like 'Fanshawnhaw', one of the 5 John-Wellsian pronunciations. I would not even in my wildest dreams think that 'Cirensester' be 'sire-an-sester', it is obvious that it cannot be.

      Ad John Cowan. Thanks. I thought 'alBenny' was valid in Alabama too, except that Albany Alabama technically is no longer. A town that was.

    7. Don't listen to our anonymous (but apparently immune?) friend. ˈsaɪərənsɛstə is the only form which the vast majority of native speakers will recognize.

    8. Ah, very good, at least one English locality that is pronounced that way it 'should be'... Since when, though? Was it not 'sissister' for centuries before the spelling pronunciation caught on? What else? I am looking forward to 'wuh-ses-ter' (Worcester) and 'green-wich', and 'glow-ses-ter' (Gloucester). Bucking-ham Palace (Bockender Schinken, in the spirit of a German map of London discussed here several weeks ago)? Our people here (Gdańsk, PL) already say 'nor-wich' on a regular basis. Ah, and of course Ar-Kansasss and Illinoisss.

      I seriously surmised Leiston, Suffolk, was pronounced as something totally counterintuitive, perhaps 'leessun'.

    9. ˈsaɪərənsɛstə should probably have read ˈsaɪ(ə)rənsɛstə(r) to account for rhotic and other minor variants. AFAIK, Worcester is always ˈwʊstə(r), Greenwich is ˈgrɛn-, ˈgrɪn-, -ɪtʃ, -ɪdʒ. Gloucester is always ˈglɒstə(r), and Buckingham always ˈbʌkɪŋəm.

    10. 'Worcester is always ˈwʊstə(r), Greenwich is ˈgrɛn-, ˈgrɪn-, -ɪtʃ, -ɪdʒ. Gloucester is always ˈglɒstə(r), and Buckingham always ˈbʌkɪŋəm.'

      They are as you are saying they are, but they will be what I anticipate them to become. The Sissester --> Sire-an-cester evolution. In the US I lived in a 'Cheltenham Dr.' and when I gave my address saying 'chelten-əm' nobody made any spelling sense of that. I had to correct myself and say 'chelten-ham'. Kaelzen-Schinken? Anyway, in a few generations' time it will be 'wu(r)-ses-ter', I am sure. And 'Saskachoowan'.

      Full name ---- see Profile

    11. Oops, for Alabama in my posting above, read Georgia.

  9. As for this

    ... I thought it was time for another repeat...

    Can we please have a ban on repeats?! And on all those other topics no one seems to be interested in, like intonation? It seems as if the pattern is conference – Montserrat – repeat – repeat – repeat – intonation and then somewhere in between there there is a post about something we haven't talked about.

    1. There, there, J. M. R., ain't that a bit---excuse me---rude to'ards our host...? Sorry, I am Polish and have therefore possibly different feelings 'bout politeness...

    2. I am mirroring the attitude shown towards that person in the last post who got a reply in terms of And your point is? If you can speak to your visitor like that, a visitor can state boredom with topics of late.

    3. As a person who grew up in mainland Europe I can’t help feeling the same as Woijciech.

      I thought there was only one person here who can place a ban on something or someone, but if you write we I am compelled to conclude that you are Mr. Wells’s co-host, are you?

    4. Sorry, Wojciech, for misspelling your name.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Oh I think you over-reacted a bit, J.R.M., 'what is really your point, then?' is not really rude, it may not be flattering but is (I feel) not rude, I use things like that often in a friendly way with students and colleagues --- 'all that is very well, dear friend, what you have been saying, but---what morals would you like us to draw?' And besides, Mr Wells is our host here, we exist 'through him, with him and in him' at least here, elsewhere perhaps not but here, yes we do. And he is a truly great scholar, too, and an elderly gentleman, so all things taken together I'd be more considerate, even if I should feel that he is sometimes tough on certain contributions to this blog.

  10. Alcester can also be ˈɒlst ə.

  11. Regarding 'burgh's, how is Burghclere in Hampshire (a village I drive past fairly often) normally pronounced? I've heard ˈbʌrəklɪə and ˈbɜːklɪə, neither from a local.

  12. Forster quotes BBC as giving bəːklɛə (no stress indicated).

    1. My copy of LPD has ˈbəːklɛə. Its etymology (with the same element as in Highclere and Kingsclere in Hampshire, and Clare in Suffolk, containing Middle English ɛː before r), would be compatible with both ɛə and ɪə.

  13. Dear Professor Wells,
    Contributions like yours honour this Internet thing. I feel very lucky, and grateful, to be able to communicate with, and to learn from, a front-line member of the aristocracy of knowledge.
    And I particularly enjoy your posts about intonation.

    Emilio Márquez, from Córdoba, Spain.

  14. Relatives of mine used to live in the El DoRAYdo section of Altoona, Pennsylvania. Their parish was St. Rose of Lima, the first vowel of "Lima" pronounced as "eye". And from Salida, Colorado, it isn't terribly far to Buena Vista (Byoona Vista, the i as in "with").

  15. It'd interest me whether you-chaps still say 'cummidge' for 'Combwitch'.

    Also, some Americans reportedly say 'nor-witch' for 'Norwich' (norridge), is that true?

    1. It'd interest me whether you-chaps still say 'cummidge' for 'Combwitch'.

      Never heard of it. I suspect that's true of most native speakers.


    2. I found this locality name in a Polish treatise on English spelling-pronunciation relationships by a Jerzy Wełna, English Spelling and Pronunciation (1982), Warszawa: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe. The locality is believed (not by J.W.) to be located in like Sussex, or perhaps some other -sex, in any event in the S of England.

    3. For Norwich, Connecticut, the pronunciation is indeed /nɔɹwɪtʃ kənɛtɪkət/ (unless you're non-rhotic). But Greenwich, Connecticut is pronounced the same as the English Greenwich.

  16. Re 'Combwitch': I think you'll find its Combwich, and it's in one of the -set counties, rather than the -sex ones. Freudian slip?

    1. Ah, yes, Combwich, Somerset. Thank you. But am I to understand that no-one says 'kummidge' anymore, not even in Zomerzet? What do they zay instead?

      Full name --- see Profile.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

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