London, Leicester and Lincoln: Pronouncing English place names

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by Liz Walter

Place names are amongst the hardest words in English to pronounce. Even people with English as a first language are often unable to guess the pronunciation of an unfamiliar place. I have restricted myself to major English towns and cities because there simply isn’t enough space in one post to venture more widely, but do let me know if you’d like posts on the pronunciation of other major place names.

I want to start with the capital, London, because many learners of English pronounce the two ‘o’ sounds here to rhyme with the ‘o’ in ‘dog’. However, the correct pronunciation is /ˈlʌn.dən/. The first ‘o’ rhymes with the ‘u’ in ‘fun’ and the second one is almost omitted: if you simply try to pronounce ‘dn’ at the end, it will sound correct.

England’s second largest city is Birmingham. The first ‘i’ is pronounced /ɜː/(UK) /ɝː/ (US), the same as in ‘bird’. The other important thing to know here is that Brits do not pronounce the ‘h’ in ‘-ham’ (though Americans do in their city of the same name). This is also the case with other towns and cities ending in ‘-ham’, such as Nottingham, Durham, Rotherham and Cheltenham.

Three of the strangest English county names are Leicestershire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Despite appearances, they all have three syllables only. The first syllable for Leicestershire sounds the same as ‘less’, and for Gloucester ‘gloss’. Worcester is a bit harder to describe: in phonetic symbols it is /ˈwʊs/ – the same ‘u’ sound as in the common verb ‘put’. For all three, the final syllable is: /ʃər/ (UK) /ʃɚ/ (US). For the cities Leicester, Gloucester and Worcester, just remove the /ʃər/.

I’ll turn now to some cities and counties with silent letters in their names. For Lincolnshire /ˈlɪŋ.kən.ʃər/, do not pronounce the second ‘l’: if you try to say the second syllable as ‘cn’, you will sound correct. For the city of Norwich, we omit the ‘w’ sound. This is also the case with several areas of London that end in -wich, such as Dulwich, Woolwich and Greenwich. However, the Suffolk town of Ipswich does have the ‘w’ sound. The city of Salisbury has a silent ‘i’: make ‘Salis-’ rhyme with ‘balls’ and you will sound correct – I know that sounds unlikely, but believe me!

I’ll end with three other important towns with tricky names. Firstly, Slough rhymes with ‘cow’. Secondly, the first syllable of Reading is the same as the colour ‘red’, not the verb ‘read’. And finally, the second syllable of the seaside town of Torquay is the same as ‘key’.

This is a small selection of our difficult place names, but I hope you will find it useful.

45 thoughts on “London, Leicester and Lincoln: Pronouncing English place names

  1. Tatterhood

    I guess, seeing as I’m actually from/in Leicester, I’ve never actually struggled with the pronunciation. However we have a tendency to say ‘Lesta’ …

  2. Steve O'Gorman

    I can’t remember who made this joke on Twitter a few months ago, but I thought I’d share it here.

    Charles Dickens’ novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ was first serialised in two regional English newspapers. It was the Bicester Times, it was the Worcester Times.

      1. Liz Walter

        It’s a reference to the Dickens novel ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ that begins ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

      2. Peri

        I’m disappointed too. What’s the use of teaching the commoners like me how to pronounce something if you use advanced pronunciation notation without explaining what it actually means to us who don’t know that notation? For example what the last syllable is in Worcestershire. Other than that it would be entertaining and enlightening.

  3. Sivakumar S

    Yes, it’s very useful. Thank you so much. Now, I would like to know the correct pronunciation of these two cities: CAMBRIDGE and OXFORD. These two words are very commonly used by a vast majority of non-native speakers of English because of the dictionaries, study materials and universities belong to these names. It would be very useful to know the correct pronunciation of these words. Thank you.

    1. Liz Walter

      The first syllable of Cambridge sounds like the ‘came’ (as in the past form of ‘come’), then ‘bridge’ as you’d expect. For Oxford, the only thing to remember is that the final vowel is a schwa, so if you try to say ‘fd’, you will be pretty much correct.

      1. Peri

        Unfortunately it seems that correct pronunciation of Oxford, if spoken in America, labels one as either trying too hard to sound British for the snob value or as a native of “Bwahstin” or “Joyzee”.

  4. IworshiptheLord

    Thank you so much ! I thought I well pronouced “London” because it’s easy, but that wasn’t exactly good.

    Well, I would like to see the pronouciation of “Westminster”, please… Because until now, I thought have a good pronouciation, but it’s a word more difficult than London, so… 😀
    Thank you in advance !

    P.S : do you find my English correct ? I am a 14 years old French ; I am in final year of high school in literature.
    It’s at home that I am learning English (I take correspondance lessons at home).

    1. Liz Walter

      Actually, you were right the first time: correspondence lessons. Your English looks good to me. ‘Westminster’ is pronounced the way it looks – just remember that the last syllable is a schwa (it’s the same as the last syllable in ‘teacher’).

      1. IworshiptheLord

        Thank you very much for your reply !
        But why must I say “correspondence lessons” and not “correspondence’s lessons” ? I don’t understand why not use the genitive sometimes…
        Do you have a post about it, please ?

        And I don’t understand the word “schwa”… You mean we have to pronunce “cher” from “teacher” for “ster” from “Westminster” ?

  5. Arturo Leo

    In spanish we find the same misprononciation of places, cities, towns, regions, that are considered as “toponimia”, from greek “tópos” place and also greek, “ónoma”, name, its correct pronounciation should be acording to native words that these names are formed from. An example in spanish is Teotihuacán, should be pronounced as Teoti’huacan, according to valid prosodiy., so it is in Canadian places and cities, and I dare say, everywhere else. Thanks for your usefull post, it leads us to investigate.

  6. Anita

    Hi Liz, I´d like you to write a post on “vocal fry” and other new speech patterns in English. It´s sad for me to see how these annoying patterns are spreading all over the world among both native and no-native speakers. I find it so irritating that I even have to switch off the radio when I hear somebody doing it, which is quite often I´m afraid… I just can´t stand it!

      1. Liz Walter

        I think it’s more of an American thing, so I don’t get exposed to it *too* much! My own pet hate is when people (especially politicians) start sentences with ‘Look … ‘ – it sounds so arrogant!

      2. Anita

        Thank you both for your replies, Liz and IworshiptheLord! I must admit that it has become an obsession. Many people on the BBC do it: men and women, interviewers and interviewees, Americans, Australians, Brits… What really worries me is the influence American English has through the Internet and the TV series, and the fact that Brexit may contribute to isolate the richness of British English. I´ve been told that a public competitive exam for ESL teachers in Spain has recently played a listening text with vocal fry features, which I find simply intolerable. I hope my dog´s barking remains intact. Like me, he is a purist ;))

      3. IworshiptheLord

        You are welcome Anita !

        And I have to thank you, because you have learnt me a thing I didn’t know : I had never hear the word “vocal fry” ! So I have examined that on Internet.
        And guess what ?? Americans use vocal fry when they are singing to !
        I had already heard that with Adele, but I didn’t know that was on purpose !

        Nevertheless, even us, French, use it sometimes, not on purpose, when we are thinking and saying “Er… ” (in French, it’s “euh…” ; we prononce like “er” but without the “r”)… And I don’t like.
        When I am recording myself and when I hear me make vocal fry with the word “euh”, I cut this extract ! 😉 :’)

        ROFL : thanksfully, your dog agrees with you ! Don’t worried, he will never can put on airs like us humans…

  7. Anita

    Excuse me, Liz, I forgot to say the most important words: “please and thank you”, which English as a second language students often forget to mention. I would be grateful if you could give us your thought on the topic ;))

  8. Meg Crane

    I’m frivolously reminded of an Australian Geography teacher we had at my London grammar school in the 1960s. We all liked her, but she was a bit gullible about English place names, and we managed temporarily to convince her that Slough was pronounced ‘Sluff’. However, her credulity broke down when we had a go at telling her that Totnes and Widnes (both in fact pronounced as spelt) were pronounced as ‘Tones’ and ‘Wines’ …..

  9. Maryem Salama

    This is what I have been looking for a long time till I came across with a website that enabled me of pronouncing different types of proper nouns. Thank you, dear Liz it is really useful and interesting.

  10. Saryntha Drane

    Being introduced to Loughborough by a native from Nottingham, I heard the joke that Americans pronounce it “LOW-bor-owe” and – the punchline according to him – Australians pronounce it “LOO-ba-ROO”. I believe he said the local folks say “LUFF-brruh”, but it’s been such a long time since I heard him say it. Is that correct? It is one of the few times we Americans get to hear an English person pronounce an R the way we do.

  11. Pronouncing English place names may be mildly tricky. But, it is NOTHING compared to Irish place names. I once took a ferry to Dun Laoghaire for a visit in Ireland which was pretty straightforward. It was almost impossible getting a taxi back though. I kept asking drivers to take me to Dun Laoghaire as you would assume it’s pronounced. Imagine my dismay when a driver who’d obviously had the same issue before told me it’s actually pronounced ‘Done Lewree’ and not ‘Done Lough Hair’. I’ll stick to London, thanks very much!

  12. Stanislaw Bronikowski

    I am Polish.I love English. Although Landn is far away from Bermingam I can understand the difference.
    In the college teacher explained me about magic “e”. Now I found another magic letter – “h”.
    Example: Manchester —– man-chester (phonetics)
    Altrincham —– oltrink-ham – (no oltrin-cham)
    Dunham Massey —– dunam masi (no dun-ham)
    Horwich —– orich
    When you look on the map you can understand me.It is in ten mile radius!

  13. Hi,

    A possible mistake or an unnecessary subject-verb inversion, if the author doesn’t mind:
    ‘…in phonetic symbols is [sic] it /ˈwʊs/ – the same,’ where it is normally written ‘… in phonetic symbols it is ….’

    Of note, my comment has nothing to do with the topic. However, I would just like to make sure if my understanding of the sentence structure is correct.

    Nifras Thahir.

  14. William Wynne

    I think we need to also add that in words ending with -wick, there is the same rule that applies to words ending with -wich that w will be silent in place names where the w is proceded by l or r such as Berwick.

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