Programa 105: Hoy Keynote con Patrick

En el programa de hoy, Patrick nos habla de las pronunciaciones no «esperadas» sobre todo de lugares que no «deberían» pronunciarse como lo hacen. Un misterio para nosotros. El episodio aquí, y la transcripción aquí debajo:

Hi everyone. Welcome to Keynote Response 3. 

Following on from Javi’s lead in Programme 84, last year, regarding the pronunciation of the River Thames and the town of Reading, I’m going to seize the opportunity to introduce a quickie here on how to pronounce some common UK place names. 

Obviously, this ranks quite low on my list of priorities for Keynote Speeches, but now that the subject has cropped up, spontaneously, we might as well make the most of it. 

And it is, in fact, directly related to the idiosyncrasies of English pronunciation. By the way, going off-topic for a moment, Salvi suggested that that particular programme, number 84, should be titled When Javi and Salvi Suffered. But I don’t think it was that bad, was it?

But anyway, first, one of my quick disclaimers. Although Salvi rightly pointed out that the teacher is always right, it goes without saying that I reserve the right to be wrong. That said, I have no problem at all in rectifying gracefully or even apologising, if necessary, for any bloopers or gremlins that happen to sneak into the Keynote Speeches. 

So the other day, I commented in passing, and only because Salvi and Javi had already started talking about New York, that the Yankees don’t pronounce that second t in words like twenty

But as things are rarely black or white, and despite my disclaimer at the beginning of every new Keynote Speech that the content is based on Standard British English, I should have pointed out, or I could have pointed out that, in many varieties of English, especially in and around London, it’s also quite common to hear substandard or non-standard pronunciations like bottle /bo?əl/ or water /wo=?ə/, common words in which people don’t pronounce the t but make a sort of pause in the throat, called a glottal stop. It occurs in words like Bri*ish or Ba*man or mou*ain. It is in fact a consonant sound frequent in many other languages, such as Arabic, and I’ll talk more about it in a future Keynote Speech. As you know, I’m not a linguist, but to my untrained ear it actually sounds quite similar to the sound heard in some dialects of Andalusia or in the Canary Islands instead of the s.

OK, so I’m sure I’ve also commented on some occasion the fact that although many or even most people say something doesn’t make it correct or acceptable. Of course, it’s possible that with the evolution of a language one particular aspect we now consider substandard becomes the standard form. But that’s a topic for another day. By way of example, I love the anecdote of how one language expert in 1685 considered the pronunciation of the initial s in the word sugar to be barbarous. I’m sure Spaniards learning English would probably agree, but not much you can do about it, is there?

Another matter I wish to include in this disclaimer, and which I’ll refer to again in other Keynote Speeches, is the relative reliability of etymology. Several of the suffixes I’ll mention today are of doubtful origin and in many cases, or in some cases, even contradictory. But that’s so often the case in any field of study. As you know, for every six experts who agree on something, there’ll be half a dozen other experts that agree on exactly the opposite. So, the point is, don’t believe everything you hear or read about the origin of words. Especially on internet, of course. 

Back on topic: Salvi commented how we often leave out different sounds, but what really distinguishes English in this aspect is that we often also leave out whole syllables. So we say Wednesday, chocolate, vegetable or average. We’ll be doing a lot of specific pronunciation work in future Keynote Speeches in which we’ll practise different, specific cases of this. And, of course, the key point of the linking we spoke about is not only that we leave out certain sounds but more specifically how we link similar sounds, which in effect means we leave out one of them, as in the example I gave you back then ni-shoes, not nice-shoes. We can say, but it sounds very artificial.

And so, back to the subject of place names. Javi gave a perfect example of how British place names can often be difficult with the pronunciation of the town called Reading (/reding/), which of course is spelt the same way as /ri=ding/, the gerund and the present participle of the verb read. He also commented on the name of the river that runs through Reading and on through into London, the Thames. 

And, as he rightly pointed out, notice that typical /z/ sound for the final s in the spelling. Again, we’ll talk about that in a future Keynote Speech. And notice also the pronunciation of the letter a like in the words many, any and says /z/. The other aspect of interest here is the pronunciation of the th. Again, we’ll be doing a specific keynote Speech on the th, but today I’ll just mention this specific aspect. In British English, there are a few words and names in which the th is simply pronounced /t/. So we have Thomas or Anthony and thyme, t-h-y-m-e, that is tomillo, and which for us is a homophone of time. Some Yankees actually pronounce the th in both Anthony and thyme and curiously, in the States and in Canada there are also rivers called the Thames River, which they pronounce /theimz/. Notice that the one in London, my London, in the UK, is called the River Thames while the other two on the other side of the Atlantic are called the Thames River. Oh, and in the area around Oxford, the Thames is actually called The Isis, a reference to its original Latin name, Tamesis.

Right, so UK place names are notoriously tricky, as any Spanish fan of English football knows from the names of clubs like /midelsbrə/ (spelt Middlesborough) or /lestə/ Leicester or the club and district of /totnəm/ (spelt Tottenham), which other visitors to London know because of important shopping street and Tube station, Tottenham Court Road. Again, it’s two syllables.

Javi’s mention of Reading gives us the common suffix -i-n-g for UK place names. Barking, Dorking, Wapping, Tooting, Ealing. I could make the obvious joke about how this refers to the place right now in the present continuous, but experts disagree as to the meaning of this suffix when it comes to place names, and it may differ depending on the actual place, but it seems to mean either people, in other words, the original tribe that lived there, ora meadow or simply place.

Salvi mentioned the Queen’s residence, which we pronounce Bukingəm Paləs. That suffix -h-a-m, which we heard just now pronounced /əm/ in Tottenham and now in Buckingham is also common in other areas of London, such as Clapham and Streatham, as well as other cities in the UK, like Nottingham, Birmingham, Durham or Cheltenham. By the way, that suffix -h-a-m comes from the word hamlet, which means a small village, really just a small group of houses, usually without a church. It probably originally meant the group of homes around a farm and is possibly etymologically related to the word home. And for those of you who associate it with Shakespeare’s play, well, that’s just a funny coincidence. The name Hamlet and its variation Hamnet, are both of German origin, and were relatively common names in his time. In fact, he named his son, who had died four years before Shakespeare wrote the play, Hamnet, after one of his best friends.

The suffix -ton (/tən/) comes from the word town. Examples include Kingston and Sutton, both of which are very common place names in the UK. And from there we can go to Southampton and Northampton or simply Hampton, which means, yes, you guessed it: a hamlet near a town

In and around London, we find several place names that may cause confusion because the spelling on the map doesn’t correspond to the pronunciation. Hey! This is English… what did you expect? Typical examples include Leicester Square and, famously, /ˈmærələbən/ (spelt Marylebone) but which many foreigners, including Americans, pronounce /mary-lee-bone/. Another classic source of frustration or confusion for tourists is /grəovnə/, that’s G-r-o-s-v-e-n-o-r Square. And then there’s the classic /grenitch/ (spelt Greenwich), which, like some other place names you’ll typically see on the London buses, for example, Chiswick, leaves out that w you’ll find in the spelling. As is the case of Southwark and Woolwich. And the city of Norwich. Exceptions include Aldwych, Ipswich and Sandwich, we do pronounce that w is pronounced. By the way, the suffix –wich, whether we pronounce the w or not, is also common throughout the country and means a fortified place.

While on the subject of fortified places, there’s also the very common suffix -chester, -cester or -caster, which of course comes from the Latin castro and is evidence of the almost 400-year Roman occupation of Britain. Well, I should say occupation of England and parts of Wales, because they never actually managed to occupy Scotland or Ireland. Curiously, however, only one or two of the original Roman place names in Britain contained the word castro

Of interest to us here is the pronunciation of that final syllable of chester or cester, the schwa /ə/. I’ll be dealing with the schwa in greater depth very soon in a future Keynote Speech I’ve got lined up. So, places include Manchester, Lancaster, Leicester and Chester, etc.

Another geopolitical term is borough /burə/, which is also the name of a famous food market in London, near Southwark Cathedral, but you’ll most often see the word on street signs that say, for instance, London Borough of Lambeth or Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. But, of course, it’s pronounced differently in the first example I gave of Middlesborough, where it rhymes nicely with Scotland’s /edinbrə/ (spelt E-d-i-n-b-u-r-g-h), even though the spelling is different. So, once again, welcome to the curious world of how to pronounce some English, or British, place names!

Two other common suffixes for place names are –mouth, for the mouth of a river. But, of course, we pronounce it /məth/, as in Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Plymouth, etc. And with places like Swindon, Croydon and Wimbledon, we find the suffix –don, which means hill (well, everywhere except in the name London). And, once again, this suffix has that weak final syllable, /ə/. So it’s Londən, not London and Wimbledən, not /wimbeldon/.

And, of course, both Oxford and Cambridge have their famous colleges /maudlin/, speltM-a-g-d-a-l-e-n in the case of the one at Oxford and with a final -e in the case of the one at Cambridge. Both are named after Mary Magdalene. And with these two university cities we find two more common suffixes for place names in the UK: –ford and –bridge. Notice that the word ford, means a shallow place in a river or stream where it’s possible to cross without using a boat, and which gives the name to the place becomes /fəd/ as a suffix. So we have Oxford, Stratford, Bedford, Guildford, Watford, etc. Bridge, as a suffix is self-explanatory. As is the suffix –pool in Liverpool or Blackpool. 

And then there’s the great suffix –sex, which means Saxon and remains in those regions and kingdoms that were named for the Saxons. So Wessex was the kingdom of the West Saxons; Essex for the Saxons in the east; Sussex for the South Saxons and Middlesex for the ones in the middle, corresponding more or less to the area around London. There’s no Norsex, of course, not because people didn’t have sex up in the North, but because to the north of these kingdoms the territories were ruled by the Angles and Britons, not the Saxons.

And then there’s the suffix -b-y (in Rugby, Derby, Whitby, Grimsby, etc., coming from the Viking word meaning village.

And finally, we move to Canterbury, in which the suffix -b-u-r-y becomes one syllable, /bri/. This means a fort or fortified wall and is etymologically related to the suffix -b-u-r-g, and to that /brə/ of Edinburgh that I mentioned earlier. And of course, it’s also related to Javi’s city of Burgos, in Spain.

There are, of course, other common suffixes used in English place names, but I reckon that with these we have enough for an introduction and I hope I’ve answered some of the doubts Salvi & Javi expressed the other day and that some of our listeners out there may also have.

By the way, I’m still waiting for Javi and Salvi to hand in the homework I set them some time back with that neat expression I used: “You’ll just have to make do with my thanks”. Homework which they seem to have conveniently forgotten.

That’s it! As usual, I hope you found this useful and interesting. Thank you for listening!

Bye for now!


Bach, J. S. ‘Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 in F’, BWV 1046. Claudio Abbado, Orchestra Mozart, 2007 (Deutsche Grammophon)

Higham, N. J.; Martin J. Ryan. Place-names, Language and the Anglo-Saxon Landscape. Boydell Press, 2011 ( En Google Libros)

Liberman, Anatoly. ‘The oddest English spellings, part 18: Why sure and sugar?’, 2011 ( Oxford University Press)

Real Academia Española. ‘Manzana’: Diccionario de la lengua española (Edición del Tricentenario, actualización 2020) ( Real Academia Española)

Un micrófono con una flecha hacia un archivo de word indica una transcripción de un trabajo oral a su equivalencia escrita.