Quirks of the English Language: Place Names With Weird Pronunciation

As I like to travel about quite a bit (mostly by train at the moment, but I do drive) I’m often struck by the weird and wonderful place names I see around. As part of my MA in Landscape Archaeology, I did study some place name etymology and I often find myself trying to work out origins of place names.

There is another interesting aspect to place names though, and that is how they are pronounced – in some cases, against all logical reasoning. Here is a selection of my favourites.

Carhampton Church, Sept 2012: Copyright MG Mason 2012
Carhampton Church, Sept 2012: Copyright MG Mason 2012

Carhampton, Somerset: Just a few miles to the east of the edge of Exmoor, the next village along from Minehead and Dunster, is this small village (that was probably once central to an Anglo-Saxon estate) with a lovely medieval church. You’d be forgiven for assuming that was pronounced “Car-Hamp-Tun” but it isn’t. It’s pronounced “Cramp-Tun”.

Launceston: Heading down farther to the south west, we have this Devon-Cornwall border town. Another medieval settlement, it is a famous market town, railway and castle town that draws in the tourists. Ask a local where “Lawn-Sess-Tun” is though and you may very well get lynched. Best ask them how far you are from “Lawn-stn” instead.

Mousehole: Deeper into Cornwall, you will certainly get lynched if you ask if “Mouse-Hole” is a nice day out. Release your inner Cornishman or Cornishwoman and tell the locals that “Mow-zal” is a lovely place to go on a nice, warm, summer’s day.

Frome: Coming back up country to this Wiltshire-Somerset border town. I’ve heard this pronounced “Frum” (like come) and “Froam” (like foam) but this is pronounced “Froom”.

Leominster: Heading towards the north now, and I must say that Shropshire is lovely. I go to the Ludlow (yes, it is pronounced Lud-low) Medieval Christmas Faire every year. One of the towns I pass by or through, depending on my route, is “Lem-ster”

Alnwick: Aln-wick might be a bit of a mouthful for non-English speakers or non-British speakers not used to the unusual inflections of areas outside of the Home Counties (where other things influenced English). This gorgeous medieval town in Northumberland, complete with castle which was used for some scenes of the Harry Potter films, is pronounced “Ann-ick”

Alresford: This town in Hampshire may also be a bit of a mouthful if you tried to say “Ull-rez-ferd” every time. But luckily for us, it’s pronounced “Ullz-ferd”. Another pleasant historic town, it’s home to the annual Watercress Festival, celebrating a tasty salad crop once grown extensively in the area.

Beaulieu: Being on the Hampshire coast and also a medieval settlement with some lovely monastic ruins (now a privately run tourist attraction with a stately home, motor vehicle museum too), the name was probably a bit too French after the Hundred Years War and that’s why, today, it’s pronounced “Byoo-Lee”.

Bicester: The “Cester” part of any place name is pronounced different wherever you go. Sometimes sester, sometimes kester, sometimes chester (though the latter usually has an “h” after the “c”). This town in Oxfordshire near where my brother lives, is pronounced “Bisster” (like blister but take out the L”).

Marlborough: Much closer to home for me, another attractive medieval town with historic buildings and a gorgeous marketplace. It is home to a prestigious college and near a pleasant forest always worth a day out in the good weather. Not, “Marl-buh-ruh”, but “Mull-bruh”. Most places with “borough” at the end are pronounced “bruh”, but not always. Anything with “burgh” at the end can be pronounced “burr” or even “bruh” (like Edinburgh)

***ich: I know some of these names have crossed the Atlantic with the British settlers, but if you are from “Norr-witch” Connecticut (or any of the others in the US) and you are visiting its counterpart in East Anglia, then you may be surprised to learn that the place in England is pronounced “Noh-rich” or “Noh-ridge”. In most cases, the “w” in “wich” is silent but there are a couple of exceptions. Ipswich is pronounced “Ipps-witch”.

Over to you, dear readers. Do you have any places near you with counter-intuitive pronunciations?



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