I read recently that we British are getting rather hot under the collar about the English language. If you Google the word “Americanisms” you will find red faced pedants claiming that the Americans are swamping, killing and absorbing British English. If the British are not careful, so their argument goes, this green and pleasant land will soon be the 51st State as workers tell customers to “have a nice day” while “colour” will be spelt without a “u” and “pavements” will become “sidewalks”. These two versions of English sit quite happily side by side and are perfectly understandable but have long had enough differences to inspire Oscar Wilde to claim:
We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.
If anything marks out the British linguistically, it’s our baroque way of using adverbs, especially as a form of polite sangfroid or poise – so “the worst day ever” is “things perhaps aren’t quite as wonderful as they could be”.
And there is of course pronunciation….cynics may say that the British speak it and the Americans just translate it.
Let me give you some examples and see how many you can correctly pronounce……!
1. Bolingbroke (as in Henry IV’s surname): BOLL-in-brook
2. Pepys (as in Samuel, the diarist): PEEPS
3. Cowper (as in William, the poet): COOP-er
4. Crichton (as in James, the Scottish Renaissance man known as “the Admirable Crichton,” as well as all British families named Chrichton or Chreighton, and even the American novelist, Michael): CRY-ten
5. Cockburn (as in Alicia, the eighteenth-century wit; Sir Alexander, the nineteenth-century lord chief justice of England; plain old Alexander, the expatriate journalist; plus Cockburn Harbour and Cockburn Sound): CO-burn
6. Edinburgh: ED-in-burra
7. Glasgow: GLAZ-ko or GLAZ-go
8. Marlborough: MARL-burra or MAR-burra
9. Pall Mall: PELL-MELL
10: Queensberry (as in the marquess of): QUEENS-bry (and that’s MAR-kwis)
11. Magdalen and Magdalene (the college at Oxford and the college at Cambridge): pronounced like “maudlin,” which derives from the name Magdalen
12. The county names ending in cester—drop the c and the letter preceding it: Gloucester, Worcester, Leicester: GLOSS-ter, WOOS-ter, LESSter, also, their alternative names: Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Leicestershire: GLOSS-te-sher, WOOS-te-sher, LESS-te-sher
13. The wichzs—drop the w: Norwich, Woolwich, and the tip-off, Greenwich: NOR-ich, WOOL-ich, GREN-ich
14. The wicks—ditto: Northwick, Southwick, Warwick, Smithwick: NORTH-ick, SOUTH-ick, WAR-ick, SMITH-ick
15. Southwark: SUTH-erk
16. Berkeley (as in George, the Irish philosopher; Sir William, the colonial governor of Virginia; also, the former earldom and the square), Berkshire (the county), Derby (the borough, the earldom, and the English horse race): BARK-lee, BARK-sher, DAR-by. And a tricky one: Hertford: HAR-ferd
Finally, a couple of instances in which we insist on speaking English when we should be speaking French:
17. Beauchamp (as in Guy de, Richard de, Thomas de; London’s Beauchamp Place, and Beauchamp Tower in the Tower of London): BEECH-em
18. Beaulieu (the town and the abbey): BYOO-lee
And, the ultimate in inscrutable British English: 19. Cholmondeley (a common last name): CHUM-lee