Friday 31 December 2010

Perplexing placenames

English placenames and surnames can sometimes be frustrating for the uninitiated, as Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld discovered in the third book of the von Igelfeld trilogy, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, written by Alexander McCall Smith. Whilst working as a visiting fellow at Cambridge University, he is completely mystified when he is introduced to the Chairman of the Fellows’ Committee, Dr ‘Plank’:

“I should warn you that you will not find Dr Plank’s name in any college lists should you try to look for it,” remarked Dr Wood, “and that is not because he is not a member of the college.”

Then Plank spoke. “The reason why there’s no Plank in the lists is not because there’s no Plank – there is – but because Plank is not spelled ‘Plank’. That is why.

“You may be aware that there are various English surnames which are spelled and pronounced in quite different ways. One of the best-known examples is ‘Featherstonehaugh’, which is pronounced ‘Fanshawe’. Then there is ‘Cholmondley’, which is simply pronounced ‘Chumley’, and of course anybody called ‘Beauchamp’ is usually ‘Beecham’.

“So how do you spell ‘Plank’?” asked Mathew Gureswitch.

“Haughland,” said Plank.

Von Igelfeld could not conceal his astonishment. Haughland?’

Of course, this is preposterous. McCall Smith is simply highlighting one of the more interesting vagaries of the English language. Placenames can be just as problematic as surnames. Most people, for example, will know that Greenwich, known for its meridian, isn’t pronounced “Green Witch” but “Gren-itch”.

But what about Alnwick and Northwich? Here are some placenames in the United Kingdom which have non-intuitive pronunciations. Can you guess their pronunciations?


Answers below (approximate pronunciations):

Aldeburgh } Awl - bro
Happisburgh } Haze - burra
Hawarden } Har - den
Hereford } Herry - fud
Kingussie } Kin - youssy
Kirkcudbright } Ker – coo – bree
Leominster } Lemster
Milngavie } Mul - guy
Towcester } Toaster
Wymondham } Wind -um