Why Nigel Can’t Spell
Asking my way around England, I’ve made myself the source of endless semi-innocent amusement. Chiswick? Might you mean Chizzick, laddie? Leominster? Oh, you mean Lemster, ha ha ha ha!
It turns out the Brits have booby-trapped their whole island with misspelled place names.
Phonics won’t do you any good--there’s no pattern at all. Aln is pronounced like Al plus an “n,” but Alne is Awn and Alnmouth is Ailmouth. Meanwhile, Altrincham is pronounced Altringam but Bellingham is Bellinjam. Poughill is Powell if you’re in Devonshire but Poffill in Cornwall.
Sometimes the mess gets to be too much even for the English, and they allow alternative spellings. You can write either Castlethorpe or Caistrup, Ludgvan or Ludjan and Wyrardisbury or Wraysbury. Thanks for the big favor.
The fact is, the Brits have been living in their island for 1,500 years, and a lot of their words have just been lying out so long they’ve spoiled. Locally, people pronounce Corringales as Skrinjels, Hung Rigg as Hewrick and Osbaston as Trospen (I’m not making any of this up).
G. M. Miller’s 1971 “BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names” steers away from many of the really weird local pronunciations, but it does give the following:
Cirencester: Sissiter, though it can also be pronounced as spelled
Heather: rhymes with “breather”
Pontefract: as spelled or Pumfret
Sawbridgeworth: as spelled or Sapsworth
Torpenhow: as spelled or Tripenna
You get the picture. Now here’s a quiz. Give accepted BBC pronunciations of the following:
1. Two possible pronunciations: Bark or Barf.
2. Barracot. Ha ha ha ha!
3. Give up? Hawf.
4. Not even close. Stewkey.
5. No, it’s Spade Adam. Good one, that!
Perry writes for The Times’ Food section.