Edinburgh Castle - nice to look at, difficult to pronounce

Edinburgh Castle

How do you pronounce British place names?

Pronunciation is a big problem in English. All the rules have exceptions, and sometimes it seems as though there aren’t any rules at all! Place names are particularly difficult, and even very well-known places like Edinburgh are frequently mispronounced. It isn’t -berg at the end, it's -bra, like the second syllable of weather, water and colour, or the first syllable of across or alarm – this vowel sound is known as a schwa, and you use it a lot in place names.

 One pronunciation rule concerns -mouth at the end of names like Portsmouth, Dartmouth and Exmouth. The suffix -mouth refers to the mouth of a river, and because the UK has a lot of coastal towns, there are a lot of “mouths”. You shouldn't pronounce it like the body part; the vowel is our friend the schwa.

 You’ll need the schwa for place names that end in -ford, too. A ford is a shallow place in a river where you can cross. Examples are Oxford, Dartford and Stratford. You don’t pronounce the ending like the name of the car; it's a schwa.

 The -burgh in Edinburgh means a fortress. The ending -borough also refers to a fortress. You’ll find it in place names like Peterborough and Scarborough. You pronounce both syllables of -borough as schwas.

 Another common ending is –ham, as in Nottingham, Buckingham, Tottenham and Durham. The –ham part means farm or homestead. It isn’t pronounced like the meat you put in your sandwiches, it's the schwa plus the letter m. In the case of Durham, the first syllable is pronounced da (the schwa again) not der as in her.

 Names like Greenwich, Norwich and Warwick can be a problem, too. A -wick or a –wich is a place or a settlement. The rule here is that the w is silent. You pronounce the –wick or -wich as ick or ich.

 Place names that come from French are a special case. The pronunciation has practically nothing to do with the original French. Here are some examples:

Beaulieu:  pronounced byou-lee

Beauchamp:  bee-cham (last syllable is a schwa)

Belvoir: bee-ver (a schwa at the end).

 There are several websites that help with pronunciations. www.pronouncenames.com  has the written pronunciation in normal letters, not phonetic symbols; some names also have a recording of the pronunciation. https://forvo.com  which claims to have “all the words in the world” is also useful, with audio pronunciations.