James Lloyd goes on a whistle-stop tour of some of England’s place-names and laments the rise of literacy that has destroyed their historic pronunciation.
English is a terrible language. It is irrational, inconsistent and inelegant. It lacks the grammatical regularity of German, the conceptual sophistication of Latin or the syntactical simplicity of Hebrew. It is a mongrel tongue, a mangled derivative of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family, cross-bred like some abhorrent laboratory rat with Romance and then seasoned with the detritus of countless other tongues from around the world. There is no intrinsic reason why it should have become the most widely spoken language on Earth, this being a historical accident courtesy of Britain’s imperial and America’s cultural dominance.
Perhaps its chiefest – is that even a word? What is the superlative form of “chief”? Chiefest? Most chief? One would not have this problem with Latin (“praecipuissimus”) – Perhaps its chiefest/most chief offence is its ridiculous spelling, which chronicles this misbegotten language’s anarchic history. Take the words “through” and “plough”. Any sensible language would spell these “throo” and “plow” but not English (there is no such thing as U.S. English and I do wish someone would tell Microsoft that). The reason for these inconsistencies is historical. In Old English, these words were written “þurh” and “ploh” and were pronounced as such, with a glottal ending, like a Welshman clearing his throat. The glottal ending has dropped out of Modern English pronunciation but its ghost lingers in the –gh spelling.
The best examples of English conservative spelling are to be found in place-names, which often preserve a more ancient form of the name or a more ancient form of pronunciation. Foreigners are routinely foxed to discover that Lempster is spelt Leominster or that Chumley is spelt Cholmondeley. By virtue of this eccentricity, place-names can tell us something about the meaning of a name or about the accent of the locality. Unhappily, this valuable historical information is being undermined in this over-literate age by people who re-invent the pronunciation of a place-name to fit the spelling.
One might argue that they are merely correcting a long-standing error, rather like going back to pronouncing “through” as “thurchhhh”. This defence, however, does not withstand scrutiny, for people often fall into the trap of hypercorrection. This is when something that is already right as it is but looks wrong is changed to fit what people erroneously believe it was always supposed to be. The classic example is people who mispronounce “aitch” as “haitch”. It is not “haitch”. It has never been “haitch”. It is and always has been “aitch” but, since the uneducated have a habit of dropping aitches from the start of words, so the under-educated trick themselves into thinking that aitch itself is supposed to have an aitch sound at the start.
The most common example of hypercorrection in place-names is the trap laid by the suffix –ham. In Old English, this meant a settlement or meadow. It is therefore technically a separate word and should be pronounced separately from whatever precedes it. Hence, Chatham, the ham in the valley, is pronounced “chattum” and not “chath-um”.
Lamentably, the existence in Modern English spelling of the diphthongs th, sh and ph has now led to toe-curlingly illogical misinterpretations of –ham names. Sussex’s Horsham, the ham of horses, is routinely transmogrified into the meaningless “horshum”, while Kent’s Faversham, location of a notorious sixteenth-century murder and play based on the same, is disembowelled even by its own inhabitants into “fav-a-shum”, when any educated man, recognizing here a bastardized hybrid of Old English ham and the Latin word for a smith, will construe it correctly as “fav-a-zum”. These examples could be multiplied but I think the point is made.
It is this sort of haste to correct something that is not in fact wrong that has seen the citizens of Shrewsbury change their town’s name from “shroesbury”, which it has always been, to the nonsensical “shroosbury”, on the grounds that “shrew” is pronounced “shroo”. So it is but it was not in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the spelling became fixed. In that period, “ew” was the way of spelling “owe” (this usage is also preserved in “sewing” clothes).
Shrewsbury is literally “shrub-bury”, the fort on the scrubland, in Old English “scrybbesburh” (pronounced “shroobesburchhhh”). Through the ministrations of etymology, the first element evolved into “shroe”, while the medial b was first softened to an f and then dropped altogether. This evolution is well documented and it leaves no doubt about the correct and logical modern pronunciation: The town’s name is Shroesbury. It has been pronounced Shroesbury since English assumed its modern pronunciation. Shroesbury represents the name’s literal meaning.
Shroosbury, by contrast, is meaningless. It represents neither the town’s original name nor the natural shift of pronunciation. It represents nothing except the ignorance of people who think that just because they can read they must be right. It is gobbledegook. It is wrong, plain and simple and there is no excuse for saying it. The town’s name is spelt Shrewsbury and pronounced Shroesbury. That is that.
This aberration has achieved complete victory in the Weald. Take Ticehurst, an inoffensive little village in East Sussex. This derives from the Old English “ticcenhyrst”, the kyd’s clearing and, as anyone familiar with archaic English spelling or the Sussex accent knows, its correct pronunciation is “teez-hurst”. The convention of using an e to indicate the elongation of the vowel has assumed a new function since this place-name became fixed and as a result the villagers are now burdened with the nonsensical “ties-hurst”.
The Garden of England lost its regional accent and learnt to affect Received Pronunciation in the twentieth century and there are very few people now, on either side of the Medway, who can render “Kentishmen and Men of Kent will be led but won’t be druv,” in its proper Weldish twang. This also means that most of the place-names in Kent are now pronounced exactly as they are written. One would never guess, for instance, that Maidstone is actually “metstun”.
Sevenoaks has suffered abysmally from its spelling. It seems unambiguous: Seven oaks. The Kentish accent, however, drawled together syllables separated by a mere v into an elided super-syllable. Heaven, as when sung in a hymn, was always “hea’en” and seven was “se’en”. Sevenoaks, therefore, was always pronounced “sennock”, until the railway brought ignorant Londoners into the county, whose only experience of the town was as a name on a map.
Now, no one calls it Sennock and perhaps he is right not to. The town is named after seven oak trees, so that Sevenoaks sic is not meaningless nonsense, like “shroosbury” or “horshum” but arguably a more correct pronunciation, even a reversion to a more ancient pronunciation. Except that it is not. The Kentish accent has pronounced this Kentish place-name as “sennock”, in accordance with its own conventions, for as long as the town has existed.
This was certainly the case in the fifteenth century, when a foundling took his surname from the town. Sir William Sennock, as his name is always written, went on to become Lord Mayor of London and founder of Sevenoaks School, the old boys of which are called Old Sennockians. This, taken from the proper way of pronouncing the town’s and school’s name (and not, as is asserted in some publications, from the name of the founder) is now the only memorial to the old pronunciation.
Perhaps we should celebrate these changes as proof of the rise of literacy but the truth is that they are proof of the rise of a different kind of ignorance. They represent ignorance of the history of spelling, ignorance of a place-name’s origin and literal meaning, ignorance of local custom. There is nothing clever about saying “haitch”. There is nothing clever about saying “shroosbury”. There is nothing clever about being wrong.