Odd pronunciations of proper names

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The names of some people and places in English are pronounced very differently from the way they are spelled. This is rather more true in Britain than in the United States, where there has historically been a practice of assimilating many immigrant names to an 'English' pronunciation. Some pronunciations, perhaps because they are linked to well-known people, are well established- for example - the 'non-spelling' pronunciation of the Irish names Sean or Siobhain as 'shawn' IPA: /ʃɔːn/ and 'shiVAWN' IPA: /ʃə ˈvɔːn/. In the Anglo-Saxon world, however, it seems that spellings based on the written letters of the words are increasingly being used.

Sometimes unusual pronunciations of proper nouns act as an in-group marker. Sometimes academic English expects the unusual pronunciation - again as an in-group marker here suggesting that the speaker belongs to the group of highly educated people. Some students at Cambridge University, for example, belong to 'Gonville and Caius College': to call this anything other than 'keys' IPA: /kiːz/ is to mark oneself as an outsider. (See also Magdalen - Magdalene College.) At times, people have even changed the spelling of an ordinary word in their name to make it more 'prestige', as for example the families with the respectable craft name of 'Smith' who affect to spell it 'Smythe', and even pronounce it 'sm-eye-th' IPA: /smaɪð/ (and similarly Coke (/coook/ IPA: /kuːk/), in the list of examples).

In order to help new students to avoid some of these pitfalls, here is a very partial list of a few pronunciations of proper nouns which are not phonetic realizations of their spellings. It gives only a few of the more notorious peculiarities in the UK. Some of them have been chosen because they seem amusing, crazy, extreme or in some other way striking, rather than necessarily being useful to readers of this Guide. Here are some warnings to users of the table.

  • Speakers, particularly those from outside the UK, should be aware that many UK speakers will in practice realise some of these words as they are spelled, particularly family names. The pronunciation may vary according to the group (social or geographical) to which the speaker belongs. (See, for example, MacDonnell.)
  • The language is changing, and many of these pronunciations are also changing. Native speakers of different generations may not use the same forms.
  • Some of these names may have more than one 'correct' pronunciation. The odd-looking surname Wriothesley (of interest in Literature and History as being the family name of Shakespeare's patron the Earl of Southampton) is pronounced in at least five ways. ('RYE-oaths-ley' IPA: /ˈraɪ əθs lɪ/, 'ROTS-ley' IPA: /ˈrɒts lɪ/}, 'RITS-ley' IPA: /ˈrɪts lɪ/, 'RIZZ-ley' IPA: /ˈrɪz lɪ/ and 'RITH-ley' IPA: /ˈrɪθ lɪ/ (Mother Tongue, p.192).
  • Third, in any local area with a marked accent, you will find that the local pronunciation, particularly of place names, is likely to diverge from the 'book' pronunciation. Near Hull, for example ('ool' IPA: /uːl/ as it is known locally, though IPA: /hʌl/ to RP speakers), there is a village called Hessle, which to most RP speakers has an unvoiced sibilant, 'hess-el' IPA: /hɛsəl/. In the local accent, the sibilant is voiced, and the 'h' dropped: 'EZZ-el IPA: /ɛzəl/.

This list is only the merest taster. You will probably not find many words whose pronunciation you are looking for. For comprehensive help, consult a good Dictionary of Pronunciation, or else a place-name Dictionary that contains pronunciations. This list contains only a very few words whose pronunciation has caused students trouble.

The items in Odd pronunciations of proper names - examples have been grouped on very subjective grounds: where I can see a connection, I have put similar words together. There are a series of Scottish family names, for example, because they are all Scottish; and because their mis-pronunciation upsets me, as I too am Scottish. Similarly, there is a group of English place-names which are spelled with an ending very like -cester, which I have grouped together. To these I have added the names of other English places which I know have caused problems to other speakers.

There is no systematic attempt to deal with the pronunciation of place-names written in Celtic languages. In maps of the Highlands of Scotland there are many names that look unpronounceable, because they are Gaelic, and the orthography of Gaelic is very unlike that of English. The same is true, in their different ways, of both Irish and Welsh. To say those names correctly, you will have to talk to someone who knows - or consult a large Dictionary of Place Names or a large Pronouncing Dictionary.