Let’s be honest, English pronunciation is not easy, nor are some place names we often come across when we travel through the UK, look at a map or read an article.
The reason why there are so many exceptions in pronunciation is due to the fact that the language of the British Isles has undergone a series of transformations throughout ages of History and, since the very beginning of English, different populations have contributed in shaping the language and adding new words or pronunciations to it. Many place names in the UK date back to the Celts, the Picts, the Romans and then to the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. It is therefore clear that from such cultural and linguistic diversity a similar mix of sounds was bound to spring.
Here is a list of 12 common place names in the UK that many people around the world commonly mispronounce. Each place name contains its transcription in the International Phonetic Alphabet and a short history of its origins:
Towns ending in –wich
–wich is a common suffix in place names in England and means “town”. There are in fact several cities in the UK ending with this suffix. It comes from the Old English wīc, a loanword from the Latin vicus, meaning “dwelling, village, hamlet, town”.
GREENWICH /ˈɡrɛnɪtʃ/ The famous area in South East London, where you can step on the Greenwich Meridian (0° longitude) and where the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was calculated at the Royal Observatory. The place name “Greenwich” was first documented in a Saxon charter of 918, written as Gronewic. A later spelling Grenewic dates back to 964, and also Grenawic is present in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1013. It is also written as Grenviz in the Domesday Book of 1086, and Grenewych in the Taxatio Ecclesiastica of 1291. You can really see how the name evolved during the Medieval period. The name means “green wic” i.e. “green town”.
NORWICH /ˈnɒrɪdʒ, -ɪtʃ/ a city in Norfolk, in East Anglia, England. The name comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “north-town”.
Towns ending in –cester
The suffix –cester is the Old English word ceaster, meaning “fortification” and is a borrowing from the Latin word castrum. The same Latin word is also found in another spelling: -chester, which we can find in place names such as Manchester or Chichester.
WORCESTER /ˈwʊstər/ a city in Worcestershire, England. The name of this city underwent different variations, from Old English to Norman French. It was known as Weogorna as a settlement of the Angles of Mercia in the 7th century. After the Viking period it became a centre for the Anglo-Saxon army (Weogorna ceastre, the Worcester Camp). It then became Wirccester in 1100. Interestingly, the name of the county is a common nightmare for all barbecue enthusiasts around the world: “Would you mind passing me the Worce… Worset… never mind, just pass me that sauce!”
LEICESTER /ˈlɛstər/ a city in the East Midlands of England. The name derives from the Latin Legorensis civitatis which then took an Old English spelling, Ligera ceastre, as we can read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The first part of the name is how the people living in that area called themselves: Ligore; you can find the genitive plural form of this name in Ligera ceastre. The name is linked to the river Ligor (which is now called Soar) flowing close to this people’s settlement. The name of the river is probably of Briton origin.
As we have seen, -cester means fortification, so we can assume that the name meant “fortification of the Ligera people”. Again, the name was later transformed, as we can read the spelling Ledecestre in the Domesday Book.
GLOUCESTER /ˈɡlɒstə/ a city in Gloucestershire in South West England. The name comes from the Anglo-Saxon transformation gloyw /(meaning “bright, shiny or glowy”) of the Welsh word loyw. The place name in Welsh is in fact Caerloyw, where the word caer means “castle”. It is therefore easy to assume that the name Gloucester is a mix of a Welsh word (caer) and a Latin word (-cester, from castrum) meaning “bright fort”.
If you still have doubts regarding the pronunciation of this city, read aloud this famous, old nursery rhyme from the 19th century:
Doctor Foster went to Gloucester,
In a shower of rain;
He stepped in a puddle,
Right up to his middle,
And never went there again.
(There’s a catch here: the word “puddle” in some earlier pronunciations, had to rhyme with the word “middle”. Try pronouncing it as “piddle”).
READING /ˈrɛdɪŋ/ a large historic market-town in Berkshire, South East England. The name probably comes from the Readingas, an Anglo-Saxon tribe whose name means Reada’s People in Old English.
FROME /ˈfruːm/ a town in Somerset, England. The name Frome comes from the Brittonic word *frāmā (Modern Welsh ffraw) meaning “fair, fine or brisk” and describing the flow of the river. It is one of the most famous mispronounced place names in the UK.
WARWICK /ˈwɒrɪk/ the county town of Warwickshire, England, near the river Avon. The name Warwick means “dwellings by the weir”. A weir /wɪər/ or low head dam is a barrier across the width of a river that alters the flow characteristics of water and usually results in a change in the height of the river level. You can find many weirs in several towns. The word weir probably dates back to the Middle English were, Old English wer, from the verb werian, meaning “to defend, to dam”.
DERBY /ˈdɑːrbi/ a city in Derbyshire, England. The Viking name Djúra-bý, recorded in Old English as Deoraby, means “village of the deer”. It is interesting to notice the suffix –by, of Viking origin, meaning “farmstead, village, settlement” which we can also find in other place names, such as Whitby or Selby. The name of the city comes from a lot of variations: the original Roman name Derventio became Derbentio, and then Derby, but there also seems to be a link to the river Derwent, the city river – from the same Celtic word meaning “valley thick with oaks” .
EDINBURGH /ˈɛdɪnbərə/ the capital of Scotland. “Edin”, the root of the city’s name, derives from Eidyn, the name for this region in Cumbric, the Brittonic Celtic language which was once spoken there. However, there is no knowledge regarding the meaning of the name. Eidyn had its centre in Din Eidyn, “the hillfort of Eidyn”. The fort was probably at Castle Rock, where nowadays’ Edinburgh Castle stands. The name then lost the Brittonic din and saw it replaced with burh, subsequently creating the name Edinburgh.
YNYSYBWL [ənɪsəˈbʊl] a village in the south of Wales. Ynys means ‘island’ or ‘river meadow’ in Welsh and probably refers to a meadow on the banks of the Clydach stream flowing nearby. As far as the word bŵl is concerned, some theories suggest a connection with the word “bowl or ball” a possible reference to the shape of the river-meadow or to a handball game played there.
HEREFORD /ˈhɛrɪfərd/ a town in Herefordshire, England, close to the border with Wales. There are theories stating a Welsh origin of the name and some others going for some Saxon ancestry. The Welsh origin of the name refers to the name Henffordd, meaning “old road”, referring to and old Roman settlement and road nearby. On the other hand, the word “here” in Anglo-Saxon meant “an army or formation of soldiers” and “ford” meaning “a place for crossing a river”. You can also find this word in the place name Oxford, “the place where oxen would ford the river”.
This was just a selection of some difficult place names that non native and even native speakers of English sometimes find hard to pronounce but it was also an occasion to delve into the fascinating world of topography and etymology.
It’s incredible how much you can learn of the origin of a place by removing the dust which covers its name and being able to let that past come to the surface once again.
Keep following our blog for other fascinating insights into the multicoloured world of the English language!
- Eilert Ekwall, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names.
- Cameron, Kenneth (1961). English Place Names. Oxford, UK: Taylor & Francis.
- The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names Based on the Collections of the English Place-Name Society, ed. by Victor Watts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
- Warwickshire History, Warwickshire County Council.
- Ekwall, Eilert (1960) . The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place Names (Fourth ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Room, Adrian (2006). Placenames of the World. McFarland.