Thursday, 26 April 2007

Place Names

"Say that again, Mary!"


"What you just said. Go on -- say it."

"What do you mean?"

"Go on -- where does the ferry leave from again?"

"The name of the port?" I said, being deliberately obtuse. I knew what he was after, the bastard.

"Just say it!"


"Come on!"

"Very well. Hair-itch."

"Ha! 'Harr-idge' -- that's how it's pronounced! Not 'Hair-itch.'"

"Well, at least I didn't say 'Har-witch' this time!"

My husband grinned in smug satisfaction. He never tired of getting me to say 'Harwich.' Two weeks earlier, he'd had to correct me when I mispronounced 'Marylebone.' This looks for all the world as though it ought to be Mary-le-bone, but no. 'Marlabone' -- that's how it's pronounced. 'Leicestershire,' which to my Yank eyes looks as though it ought to be pronounced 'Lay-cest-er-shyer,'is in fact pronounced 'Lestershirr.' For the first few months I was in the U.K., I dreaded every place name I came across. My husband thought it was wildly funny.

Styvechal, Gloucestershire, Edinburgh, Pontypridd -- I floundered miserably and consequently provided him with hours of merriment.

Then we went to America.

"I think we want the next exit," my husband said one afternoon, on the way to my cousin's house in the Bay Area. 'Ju-nih-per-oh Sair-ah."

I sat up straighter and licked my lips. "Excuse me?"

He looked furtively at the map. "Joo-nih-per-oh --"

"Ha! 'Woo-NIH-per-oh!'" I cried. "The J is pronounced like a W 'cause it's Spanish!"

He was silent for a few moments. "Very well. Woonypairo."

"Oh, that's brilliant! Woonypairo!"

He stared sullenly straight ahead. "How do you say it, then?"

"Woo-NIH-per-oh" I said again. He tried gamely, but failed spectacularly. I laughed my head off.

I had a wonderful time in America with my husband. We travelled all over the country and encountered place names which were a breeze for me, but really gave him pause: Yosemite, La Jolla, San Clemente, Michigan, Albuquerque, Pensacola, Poughkeepsie -- it just got better and better. But all good things have to come to an end, and finally our American holiday was over and we were back in the U.K., in Scotland, this time -- a first for both of us.

"Sorry? Where did you want to go again?" the petrol attendant smiled.

"Um...Kirk-cud-brite," ventured my husband.


"No, it's Kirk -- here," I said, flustered, handing the man the map and pointing.

He looked at the map and smiled broadly. "Ach, aye. 'Cuh-coo-bree,' that's how it's pronounced. It's one of the harder ones, ken."

My husband and I stared at each other, then looked back up at the petrol attendant. "Cuh-coo-bree? is that really how it's pronounced?"

He grinned and nodded. "Aye, a lot of people have trouble with that one," he said happily.

"Cuh-coo bree. Jeez. Well, okay, thank you."

In another five years or so we're thinking of moving to China.


Brian said...

My favourite place name in Australia has ever been Eunonyhareenya -- which consisted when I last saw it of a tin shed just outside Wagga Wagga -- but it has been run close by Lake Caddabarrawirricanna -- which rolls nicely off the tongue.

Some towns , simple in spelling but confusing to new radio announcers because of the syllable emphases -- were those near my home town -- Wollombi , Kurri Kurri and Pokolbin.

And then up near Dondingalong were places with Dunghatti tribal names like Belomboppinni.

One of the fun things in travelling is seeing the startled looks on the faces of the natives when one mispronounces . My son lives near the town of Wauchope NSW -- named after a Scots place and a puzzler in pronunciation .


Mary Witzl said...

Australian place names are right up there with the best. Most Americans feel pretty smug about Mississippi and Winnippisaukee, but even those can't hold a candle to Caddabarrawirricanna.

I always love hearing British people mispronounce 'Michigan.' I know that it is silly, but after working with British speakers of English who tittered every time I butchered one of their place names (which was depressingly often), I really enjoyed hearing them pronounce the 'CH' sound in 'Michigan' instead of pronouncing it properly as 'SH' as we Yanks do. 'But it's not spelled that way!' they always protest, and that cracks me up, given Marylebone, Harwich and Leicestershire. Peter still mispronounces Michigan from time to time, but I suspect that he does it just to make me laugh. I'm still liable to mispronounce plenty of place names here, but quite unintentionally.

Sir Nigel said...

Just thought I'd return the compliment and say hello. And also see if this comments thing works. You've got some interesting pieces on here.

What about Slaithwaite in Yorkshire? - You pronounce it 'Slawitt' - unless you want to sound like some sort of soft poncey Southerner.

Sir Nigel

Mary Witzl said...

Hello, Sir Nigel, and welcome to this blog. If only you were on Google, we could swap blogs and you would be part of this network and able to blog hop...but then you could probably say the same thing about us being on your blog network too. You should have seen how frustrated I was when I couldn't leave a comment on your blog without registering. These things might come easy to some, but for me, posting a comment on a foreign blog might as well be climbing Annapurna. When I get time, I will go back to your interesting blog (it looks better than mine, too, damn it) and give it another go.

Mary Witzl said...

And as for Slaithwaite, it's a good thing I've never had to try and pronounce it because I'd definitely have sounded like -- well, you know.

Back in the States, the whole north-south divide thing is the other way around, with the southerners feeling proud of their down-to-earth un-poncey humanity. It's a little confusing here sometimes...

Kanani said...

Hey, you've got a shout out on my blog.

Yes, pronunciations.... try going through the south.

To this day, I falter when I say "Mobile."

Mary Witzl said...

I seem to remember that Peter butchered Mobile, too, when we visited Alabama. But he was British, and nobody minded at all. They were charmed by his accent -- so much so, that I kept my mouth shut and just let him do all the talking. I sound like a Yankee (though my mother's family are all from the south), so even though Peter couldn't pronounce place names, he was a great favorite down in Dixie.

Thank you for mentioning my blog in your blog, by the way -- I am honored!

Kim Ayres said...

Ah yes, I remember well when I moved to Kirkcudbrightshire.

But even when you think you've got the rules sussed, they change from area to area. Up in central Scotland, I lived at the foot of the Ochils - a set of hills. I thought it would be "Och" (like Loch) "-ills", but no, it turns out you rhyme them with yokels (but without the Y) or locals.

I'm convinced it's all about locals being able to easily identify the foreigner. You might not be able to recognise everyone who lives in your local region, but you can easily identify anyone who mispronounces local names and landmarks.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you for telling me about Ochills, Kim! Now that I know how to pronouce it I'll sound just like a native if I ever go for a visit there (smiling face). Too bad I've ruined my chances for being accepted in Kirkcudbright...

Kim Ayres said...

Here's one to play with when you've too much time on your hands

I spent a large part of my childhood in Wales, so actually learned how to pronounce the place. It can be a bit of a party piece after a few glasses of wine...

Mary Witzl said...

My husband and I spent a year in Wales (Cardiff and the Rhondda Valley), and we've seen that town, Kim. What a headache it must be for the people who have to write out their addresses, though I suspect that they just use the full name to torment (and amuse)the tourists.

Our eldest was born in Wales and for a short time, we thought that she was going to be born in a place called Tonypandy. Then we moved and lost the chance, but what a great name Tonypandy would have been to have on a birth certificate.

Kanani said...

I wrote a story where a woman is named Eurydice, and it's pronounced in a low country way, "Yur eh dees."

I read the story at UCLA, and this woman goes, "Oh! Ha Ha! It's Yur-eh-di-see."

And she makes a BIG FLAP about the damned thing. Each class she has to REMARK about it. I mean, we should all listen to her. She's a big english teacher at a posh girl's school that charges 25k a year for movie star children. So yes, she knows everything, right?

So I come back with a scene and it tells how everyone knows the senator is an outsider because he botches Eurydice's name, and everyone shouts at him "Yur-eh-dees!"
I finished reading it, looked at her and said, "Long live regionalism."

Now ironically, this same lady never EVER figured out how to pronounce my own name, and each week she manages to botch it, when everyone else knows how. I think it was passive aggressive on her part.

Mary Witzl said...

I always tell myself that whenever someone is anxious to show me up for being ignorant, they only manage to make themselves look like a horse's ass. I'm sure the people who listened to your story and that woman's response to it came away thinking how petty she looked. Even supposing you had inadvertantly mispronounced Eurydice, which is worse -- mispronouncing a name or taking someone to task for it publically? You won hands down on that one as far as I'm concerned!

Years ago, I went with a group of fellow Japanese learners to a place called 'Kiyomizu-ya.' 'Kiyomizu' can also be pronounced 'Shimizu' -- and I remarked in a self- deprecating way that I had once made the mistake of pronouncing it that way. One of the men in the group made a big deal about it, laughing and saying 'Boy, how dumb was that!' over and over. It seemed such a spiteful thing to do -- to poke fun at someone who had just admitted to making a perfectly understandable error in the first place, and I couldn't figure it out. Later on I discovered that he was interested in a particular boy who liked me...

Eryl Shields said...

I used to temp and spent a weekend at Glenaeagels manning the entrance to a rather lavish antiques fair there. One of the security chaps was from Wales and he was staying in digs in Muthill, a village just up the road. He offended everyone in the local pub by pronouncing it mutt-hill as I would have. They actually pronounce it Mooth-ill. There are so many places around here that sound nothing like they are written, I sometimes think that maps of Scotland should come with an explanatory CD.

Mary Witzl said...

That is a good idea, Eryl, and I'll bet it would be marketable!

It is funny to think that people could be offended by something as trivial as the mispronunciation of a name. But at my father's funeral some years back, all of us flinched when the minister, a new arrival from the Midwest, butchered 'Amigos del Jardin' by pronouncing the J the English way. It just sounded awful...

Midsummer night's knitter said...

HAve a go at Kilconquhar...

Mary Witzl said...

What th--? Kilconquhar? One thing is for sure: it's not going to be pronounced Kill-con-cue-har, is it?

Okay, I'm game. Here goes: Kilconner? Is that even close?

Sue Millard said...

Yup - nice post - reminds me of some friends from Michigan who went looking through the Borders of Scotland for a town called Hay Wick, until someone kindly told them it was pronounced "Hoik".

They in turn educated me not to try to sound French when pronouncing Versailles (somewhere in KY) or Italian for Milan ... and always to pronounce the SH in Michigan.

My husband's long ago given up using anything remotely "furrin" in the name line, but copes effortlessly with the local dialect forms of town names like Torpenhow (TrapEnnah), Ravenstonedale (RISSendul)and Aspatria (Speetrie).

Mary Witzl said...

I know about Hawick being pronounced Hoik, but just try saying the Haugh of Urr! It sounds like someone with a congested chest trying desperately to clear it.

Those others are going on my list of guess-how-this-is-pronounced? place names, which I save up to befuddle American visitors just for the fun of it.

Tell your Michigan friends that my husband still pronounces their state as Mitch-IH-gun, eliciting my smiles.

Phil said...

H Mary,

It een happens to natives. I was at the mercy of a difficult taxi driver on my first visit to Bolton. Still not quite got all the lingo.

Enjoyed this. I'll have to pop in more often.

Phil (GW)

Mary Witzl said...

Hi, Phil -- Good to see you!

Better yet, start your own blog and then I can come and comment on it! I clicked on 'Phil' and was sad to see that there was no one there.

Carolie said...

I laugh, but not only was I astonished to discover after several months living in Dublin that "Dun Leary" and "Dún Laoghaire" were the same place...but (I'm embarrassed to admit this) I only recently realized that "La-Hoy-Yah" and "La Jolla" were the same place.

And yes, I was born in California.

Carolie said...

Oh, one more...I was working for my father, and a customer was dictating his address to me. "Rolfton," he said.

"R-O-L-F..." I tried.

"No, no, no! It's R-U-T-H-E-R-F-O-R-D-T-O-N. Rolfton!"

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie, you've admitted it, so I will confess it: I was in my teens when I first realized that La Jolla was how La Hoe-yah was spelled. We lived in the Inland Empire, and even though I knew about all sorts of other Spanish place names, that one happened to elude me. Oh, the shame on discovering my ignorance, and now you've made me feel so much better about it all! And now I've got to ask: where in California were you born?