The 'W' is Silent
February 24, 2009 8:04 PM   Subscribe

The 'w' in 'Keswick' is silent. So is the 'w' in 'Southwark'. And the 'h' in 'Pakenham'. Is there a name for this and is there a rule to apply it?

Thanks to our colonial heritage there are many place names in Australia (and no doubt many other parts of the world) where names like 'Keswick' are pronounced 'Kezzick', yet more often than not I find I am bumping into people who aren't familiar with this pronunciation. For example, 'Crezzick' in Victoria is often now pronounced "CresWick". Similarly 'Fennick' Street in Hong Kong is usually pronounced 'FenWick' Street.

Anyway, whilst feeling slightly sad about the (seeming) decline of this pronunciation style(?), I was just wondering how you would actually say to someone "no, that word is an x word, the w/h is silent". Anyone know?
posted by awfurby to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks to our colonial heritage

Just as an aside, there's a Keswick in Ontario (in Canada), too, and the w is pronounced. Are you sure that the Australian pronunciation is the same as the English?
posted by Dasein at 8:10 PM on February 24, 2009

Are you sure that the Australian pronunciation is the same as the English?
Well, fairly sure, but I think you just opened a can of worms. I guess we'll someone from the UK to weigh in...
posted by awfurby at 8:11 PM on February 24, 2009

Yes, the Australian pronunciation is the same as the English - well at least it is with anyone you would want to have a conversation with.

Keswick no "w"
posted by mattoxic at 8:16 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"No, that word elides the w."

The concept is called elision.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:26 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Could you call it an "archaic pronunciation"? That doesn't give you any kind of clue as to the traditional (the descriptivist in me won't let me say "correct") pronunciation, but at least it communicates rather well that it is not normal.

Also, to this American, saying that "the w in Southwark is silent" is just the tip of the pronunciation iceberg, but we won't get into that...
posted by Rock Steady at 8:27 PM on February 24, 2009

And, by the way, elision (and its opposite, epenthesis) occur all the time. Neither one is in decline. Language changes. That's its nature.

People do seem to like getting their panties in a twist about language change, though. Apparently, panty-twisting is fun.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:30 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

OK, well elision is certainly one answer, but I feel there might be something else. I'm only interested here in a group of words - they all end in "wick", "wark" or "ham", and are all proper nouns (there may be some other variations - I just can't think what they might be at the moment).
posted by awfurby at 8:33 PM on February 24, 2009




UK English is full of 'em.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:45 PM on February 24, 2009

Sorry to get all linguistics wonky on you, but it's just boring ol' historical sound change (originally, those sounds were pronounced, but like many English words, the pronunciation of the word changed after the spelling was fixed). Much like the changes that made the English proper names Featherstonehaugh and Cholomondeley, whose pronunciations have shifted to the much easier to pronouce Fanshaw and Chumley (as JimN2TAW noted).

These words aren't different or special in a particular way—however, you've probably identified a shift that happened at a particular time, which is why all those words appear to have changed in the same way. (Linguists more professional than I may have even given that shift a name, as they have done with umlaut and the fabulously named "Great Vowel Shift.")

If you have the time and inclination, you could read up on sound change in English, and you might be able to find out about when this change occurred. Historical linguistics can be awfully fun.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:50 PM on February 24, 2009

  • By "boring ol' historical sound change" I mean "it's utterly fascinating and the reason I majored in Linguistics"
  • The elision of /w/ and the elision of /h/ were probably separate changes, since they're different kinds of sounds.
  • Umlaut is a type of shift (it can happen in any language at any time) whereas the Great Vowel Shift is a specific sound change that occurred at a specific time.
  • This is by far the most I've used my linguistics B.A. since I graduated.

posted by ocherdraco at 8:59 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Cholomondeley" blows my mind.
posted by awfurby at 9:31 PM on February 24, 2009

As a kid, I learned from reading Gerald Durrell books that "Cholmondeley St. John" is pronounced Chumley Sinjin. Blew my mind and I hope my memory has not totally failed me.
posted by rtha at 9:46 PM on February 24, 2009

It might blow your mind a teensy bit less, awfurby, since I accidentally threw in an extra O behind the first L.

To make up for that error, some random facts:

Gilbert and Sullivan have a character named Richard Cholmondeley in The Yeomen of the Guard who is in charge of the Tower of London, including the Beauchamp Tower—another product of sound change, as it's pronounced "Beecham."

This is made all the better by the fact that there was actually a British railway engineer named Beauchamp Tower. I do so hope that he named his children Lanthorn, Bowyer, or Devereaux.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:47 PM on February 24, 2009

so i knew about the dropped Ws.

knew that one.

whoa! fanshaw??

so how's that one pronounced?
posted by violetk at 9:59 PM on February 24, 2009

I dunno about anyone else, but I'm used to referring to it as "pronunciation drift". And no, there are no hard and fast rules about it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:09 PM on February 24, 2009


There's a Gilbert and Sullivan character with that name, too: Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd.
ROB.           	I once was as meek as a new-born lamb,
                    		I'm now Sir Murgatroyd—ha! ha!
                         			With greater precision
                         			(Without the elision),
                    		Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd—ha! ha!

posted by ocherdraco at 10:11 PM on February 24, 2009

(Those lyrics indicate, by the way, that Ruthven Murgatroyd pronouced his name exactly as it's spelled.)
posted by ocherdraco at 10:12 PM on February 24, 2009

British place names are especially susceptible, mainly because of the many phases of settlement that bestow names at particular times (-wick is Old Norse vik "bay", for instance) that then stick around, even though the language changes.

There's a Wikipedia entry on 'spelling pronunciation', which is the phenomenon you're describing, in which the spelling detaches from the pronunciation (a kind of heterography) but speakers try to derive the pronunciation from the spelling.

Sometimes that process sticks: I like one of their examples, which is the aitch in 'Anthony' that has asserted itself after centuries of silence. Remember that widespread literacy (as well as regular spelling) is a relatively recent phenomenon, and that the pronunciation of proper nouns, in particular, would have been passed on orally rather than through written forms.

Near where I am now, there's a "Leicester" which is pronounced "Lester" by the old-timers (because its founder was named "Leicester", pronounced "Lester") and "Ly-sester" by a younger generation of residents. If everyone who calls it "Lester" dies off -- or more likely, if the "Ly-sester" namers get "Lester" namers to adopt their form -- then the pronunciation changes, like so many American place-names in the past. No hard feelings.
posted by holgate at 10:13 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Some more American "spelling pronunciation" place name phenomena (this time, from non-English origins):

Cairo, Illinois (KAY-ro)
Versailles, Kentucky (ver-SAILS)
Lafayette, Georgia (luh-FAY-et)
Arab, Alabama (AY-rab)

(That these are mostly Southern examples really only indicates that I grew up in the South, and not necessarily that this phenomenon is more common there.)
posted by ocherdraco at 10:24 PM on February 24, 2009

There's also the Arkansas River, which is pronounced "arr-kann-sus".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:32 PM on February 24, 2009

As an aside, I can remember hearing that, when she appears in the UK, Dionne Warwick implores people to pronounce her last name in the US manner (i.e with the second 'w' pronounced) and not like the pronunciation of the name of the English town.
posted by ob at 11:01 PM on February 24, 2009

Also, for a couple of non-w examples how about Caius College, and Magdelene College (both Cambridge). Keys and Mawdlin.
posted by ob at 11:05 PM on February 24, 2009

Caius College

Gonville and Caius is not an example of elision. The college was refounded by John Keys, who gave it a latinate version of his own name.
posted by grouse at 11:26 PM on February 24, 2009


The pronunciation of Leicester as "Lie-sester" was part of a famous British comedy sketch where Americans couldn't come to terms with the pronunciation of English towns, the rules of football (elided to sound like "soc-ker") or the majesty that is Gary Linecker.

When you live near Mytholmroyd, you learn how screwed up pronunciations of place names can get.
posted by seanyboy at 12:52 AM on February 25, 2009

Yorkshire's full of interesting placename pronunciations - as mentioned above, blame placenames frozen in linguistic amber by the printing press, made more exotic by the impact of the Danelaw. The shift in pronunciation you describe is exactly what happened once upon a time.

There's no hard and fast rule I've encountered for "h" or "w" or "by" (bee) being pronounced or not. My inlaws lived in a pit village called South Hiendley, pronounced "sow-eenlee-eh". (sow to rhyme with cow). They now live in the next village over, called Ryhill, pronounced Rye-Hill. One H is dropped, one isn't, and the places with the Hs in the name are a mile or so apart.

Really, the correct way to pronounce a placename is what the majority of the people who live there decide to call it.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:03 AM on February 25, 2009

"-wick is Old Norse vik 'bay', for instance"

Only sometimes. Other -wick, -wyke, -wich names -- probably most of them -- are from Old English wīc, ultimately from Latin vicus, and referred to an agricultural settlement.
posted by litlnemo at 1:15 AM on February 25, 2009

"the correct way to pronounce a placename is what the majority of the people who live there decide to call it."

In some places, even the locals can't agree
posted by doiheartwentyone at 5:23 AM on February 25, 2009

And in New England we've inherited much of the same less-than-obvious pronunciation -- if you pronounce Worcester or Peabody or Leominster wrong, you will be corrected. And possibly laughed at. (Not by me.)
posted by theredpen at 7:37 AM on February 25, 2009

the aitch in 'Anthony' that has asserted itself after centuries of silence.

Just to be clear, there was no h originally (it was probably added by association with Greek anthos 'flower'), so the modern pronunciation is an innovation, not a restoration.
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on February 25, 2009

Does this one count: Worcester = wooster
posted by Grither at 9:23 AM on February 25, 2009

It wouldn't surprise me if in at least some cases, the "foreign" pronunciation of an English place name is the original one, and it's the original that's changed.

ISTR that for a number of words, the standard US English pronunciation is closer to the original Elizabethan pronunciations than modern UK English is.

No doubt languagehat can expound on the topic at length if we let him :)
posted by pharm at 11:03 AM on February 25, 2009

Does this one count: Worcester = wooster

It's "woostah". (At least in Massachusetts.)

I always liked the fact that Norfolk County is south of Suffolk County in Massachusetts.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:31 AM on February 25, 2009

re ocherdraco....

There's a Versailles here in the Pittsburgh area (with a better-known neighbor, North Versailles), which is also pronounced "Ver-SALES". It was interesting when the local bus agency outsourced their talking-bus announcements to a New York company and all the buses started telling people they were going to "North Ver-SIGH"....

Watching people try to figure out how to pronounce Milan, Michigan, is fun, too.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 8:33 PM on February 25, 2009

Don't leave us in suspense.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:20 PM on February 25, 2009

I'm very late coming to this conversation but...

When I first moved to Los Angeles, my mother and step-dad came to visit me. I gave them instructions from the airport to my new apartment. "Take the 5 to Los Feliz Blvd..." I pronounced it, as everyone does here, Las FEEL-iz. An hour after their plane touched down, I get a call. "I think we've gone too far. We've driven past downtown. Are you past downtown?" "No, Mom. Did you miss Los Feliz Blvd?" "Well, it never came up. There was a Los Feliz [pronounced by someone who knows how to speak Spanish, this sounds like Los Fe-LEEZE], but not Las FEEL-iz."

Please excuse my poor 'pronunciation spelling.'
posted by incessant at 2:11 PM on March 3, 2009

A friend of mine, once upon a time, was in the deep south at some conference or another. One of the locals told her that she'd be able to find some bar or another on Joe Wacken Street. They looked for it for about an hour before they finally saw a sign for Joaquin Street. Her Californian brain read Joaquin and processed it as Waukeen, but for the locals, it read Joe Wacken.
posted by Grrlscout at 2:20 PM on March 3, 2009

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