How you say it

“Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word. It means they learned it by reading.” (Tweet by @NatGeoEducation, 4 April 2016)

It’s a classic problem: learning new words only through reading. Does it matter? Sometimes, yes. I tell my palaeography students to read their transcriptions aloud. They will get used to the rhythm of a writer’s ‘speech’, which will help with interpretation of the rougher passages of handwriting. So knowing how a word was pronounced in that time and place could be very useful, not for any academic reason, but simply to read the document.

HALS 65617 side 1

Placenames can be both help or hindrance when it comes to this reading technique.   Think of my local University town, Loughborough; the first gh (which all English students can tell you represents the middle English letter yogh) is pronounced ‘ff’ while the last is of course silent. Elsewhere this glyph, employed as a polyvalent abbreviation symbol, metamorphosed into the letter Z. It survives in our viz. viz (1)A neighbouring village became world famous through the tales of its mediaeval fools, was adopted as a fictional name for New York by Washington Irving over 200 years ago, and thence broadcast to a cinema-near-you as the home of Batman. It is of course Gotham, but my neighbours say something like ‘goat am’ while the rest of the world agrees to differ.


I set my palaeography students a teaser. Joan Nede, an itinerant Elizabethan burglar gave evidence against the rest of her gang in a Shrewsbury Borough Quarter Sessions deposition in 1578. The Tudor Secretary handwriting was not easy, and I tried to IMG_1500make the work fun by asking the students to map the route the gang took around the Midlands. It finished up at Brymmejambe but even the ‘token Brummie’ in the class failed to recognise Birmingham here.


Uttoxeter in Staffordshire has a similar colloquial pronunciation which has never dented its spelling. To be honest, until I worked in Stoke-on-Trent, I was disinclined to believe that anyone anywhere really called it ‘Utchetter’. But why has the spelling of nearby Borewardeslyme adapted to pronunciation as Burslem, while Uttoxeter has not? Perhaps that’s a question for Pronunciation expert (and Potteries expat) Graham Pointon in his blog Linguism.

There is a handful of stately homes with variant aristocratic and plebeian pronunciations. How do you say Harewood, Althorp, and Holker? I’m not going to tell you, but it’s as good as a Masonic handshake to those in the know.


I crave authenticity in all things, and find perplexing the rival pronunciations of the genteel Nottinghamshire town of Southwell. Apologies for not using the right symbols, but most people heading for the Racecourse or the Minster say “Suthell” until you get within about five miles of the town and then you hear many locals say “South Well” as it is spelled.  What puzzles me is why.  Some people say that the “Suthell” pronunciation only began when the Minster was elevated to Cathedral status and the town was therefore invaded by southern ecclesiastics who aligned the name with Southwark.  I wonder myself whether it is a classic “say as you spell it” pattern with newly-lettered twentieth-century inhabitants changing it in much the same way as “offen” or “orffen” became “often”.  Some Nottinghamshire people say they never heard the “South Well” pronunciation until very recently.  But on the other hand I have never noticed any historic spelling of the place name other than Southwell (whereas Cropwell was medievally oftopsells-shrew-woodcut-1658 adjten Crophull which better reflects local pronunciation and etymology). Graham Pointon suggests that something similar has happened to the local pronunciation of Shrewsbury: you know you have almost reached the town gates when you hear that it apparently belongs to a tiny rodent.

The Latin Chronicle of Bourne in the Library of the College of Arms (one of my more recent transcriptions and translations) contains two different roots of this Lincolnshire placename: the passages using the archaic spelling Brun or Brunna were composed earlier than those reflecting the modern spelling and pronunciation in Burn.

The surname Brumby made famous in Australia by the eponymous horses and by Victorian Premier John Brumby now corresponds exactly in spelling to the north Lincolnshire suburban village of Brumby (appropriately enough as this is where the family migrated from), but in the 15th century the surname in the Scotton Court Rolls was Burneby or Bruneby, preserving earlier middle English pronunciations of the village name and demonstrating early migration.

Several pleas in the courts of the Prince of Wales for Manley Wapentake (Lincolnshire Archives reference KR/1/416, 1400-1401) involve men from Brumby, but they all have different surnames which seem to be fixed by this date. The same roll includes Views of Frankpledge for the township of Brumby but, as you might expect no one called Brumby lived there. Likewise in roll KR/1/411, recording the Sokemoot of Kirton for the same year, there were no Brumbys in Brumby (which is here consistently “Brumby”). I found the ancestors of the Australian Brumby family in a long series of manorial court rolls of Scotton (another village about 10 miles from Brumby), Lincolnshire Archives reference ASW/2/23/26-36. Roll 26 for example: Scotton view of frankpledge & Michaelmas court held there on Monday before the feast of St Katherine the virgin & martyr in the fifth year of the reign of King Edward the fourth [18 November 1465].

To this court comes John Burneby and takes from the lord one messuage and two bovates of land with appurtenances late in tenure of Thomas Lilbek to hold them from the feast of St Martin the bishop next to come until the end of ten years next to come, rendering for them annually to the lord and his heirs at the usual terms rent and other services, and he did fealty and was admitted tenant

Presentments by the villati of Scotton:

The heir of Thomas Burneby was amerced two pennies for failing to attend the court

Margaret Burneby has not repaired a certain sewer lying next to Andrewlande there as she ought – the jury is to decide – Ordered that it be repaired before the feast of St Andrew the Apostle under pain of fourpence

According to Kenneth Cameron (author of Place names of Lincolnshire, published by the  English Place Name Society), the spelling Bruneby is 14th century and earlier, and the variant Burnaby lingered on into the 15th, so it may well be that the Brumby family had left at an earlier date and retained an archaic pronunciation. But they were not too far away for their name to come back into alignment with the village before its spelling and pronunciation became fixed in the 17th century.

Belvoir (the romantic neo-gothic castle and the refreshing elderflower fizz) is a relatively modern spelling (pronounced like the semi-aquatic mammal), reviving its Norman French roots (the Castle was, we are told by all the guidebooks, given by William the Conqueror to his brave standard bearer throughout the Battle of Hastings in 1066).   The early modern English rendering was commonly Beauver or Beyver, better reflecting pronunciation but also perhaps confusing gender by using masculine beau rather than feminine belle; the 12th century Latin form was neither masculine nor feminine but (in agreement with castellum) neuter – pulchrum in visu – ‘beautiful in respect of the view’.

Belvoir Castle and peacock


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