The names of places are often pronounced by locals in ways outsiders would never think of, going by how the names are spelled. Obviously people from English-speaking countries are prone to stumble the first time they try to pronounce ‘foreign’ names—Bydgoszcz, anyone? It’s in Poland. Or there’s Skövde in Sweden, where my husband used to travel on business; it seems to be pronounced something like HERV-duh. But why do British people so often mispronounce Houston? And if they’re going to mispronounce it, why wouldn’t they go for something obvious, like HOUSE-ton, rather than settle on HOO-ston, as most people seem to have done?
I’ll come back to Houston, but first, consider the British place names that seem almost designed to trap the unwary foreigner, of which my favorite is Kirkcudbright. It’s pronounced Kirr-COO-bree. There are hosts of others. A lady I know goes regularly to Frome to see her new granddaughter; before she told me, I had no idea it’s pronounced Froom. You don’t have to be here long to learn what to do with place names ending in –ham, so when an American tourist at Waterloo Station asked me how to find a train to Farn-ham I could tell her not only where to find the right train for Farnham, but to pronounce the name as FARN-um when she got there.
People who know much more than I do have studied this, I’m sure, but it seems clear that over the centuries, while wind and weather eroded the stones of megalithic circles and of castle walls, and tumbling water smoothed rocks into cobblestones, the actions of people rolling these names around in their mouths, generation after generation, polished off the rougher syllables, leaving a collection of more streamlined (as it were) phonemes.
Most Americans probably know how to say Worcestershire because of the famous sauce, but I’ve still heard some visitors chewing on the individual syllables of Leicester, Gloucester, and Bicester. Americans tend to get Dartmouth right—DART-muth—since there’s a famous Dartmouth in New Hampshire, but then they don’t necessarily apply the same rule to Portsmouth, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and so on. And what is a visitor to make of Loughborough? The two instances of –ough get different pronunciations in the same word: LUFF-bruh.
Newcomers can never be sure which parts of ancient place names have fallen by the wayside and which are still pronounced: Glamis is Gloms, Beaulieu is BEW-lee, and Alnwick is ANN-ick, a place you may well have seen recently, since the Harry Potter films used parts of Alnwick Castle to stand in for Hogwarts. Altrincham is ALL-tring-um, and Magdalen Bridge is MAUD-lin Bridge, which shows a certain economy, as the g removed from the latter has been recycled into the middle of the former. I’m sure if I looked, I’d find the unpronounced ch of Altrincham used somewhere, probably by a thrifty Scot to add extra heft to one of those ch sounds that comes from deep in the throat.
So I do have sympathy for British people who go to the US and don’t know how to wrap their tongues around Connecticut, or those who add the final s to Illinois. Plenty of Americans get their own place names wrong: how many people outside the south are aware that Lafayette, Louisiana is supposed to come out something like LAFF-yet?
But as I said above I just don’t understand why the pronunciation HOO-ston for Houston has such a firm grip here. In my experience, the inhabitants of Houston say the name of their town almost like Euston, a familiar British place name, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Brits left off the first letter, but by and large they don’t (except for those who “drop their aitches” anyway); they excise the little Y sound that normally shelters just behind that H.
Back when Hurricane Katrina was tearing up the Gulf coast, I got awfully tired of hearing BBC correspondents tell us they were reporting from HOO-ston, and of presenters who told us how many people from the New Orleans area had taken refuge in HOO-ston. I finally wrote in to one of the news programmes that kept making the mistake, and very politely suggested that the word was HYOO-ston. Just trying to be helpful. But they ignored me, which isn’t nice here (I wouldn’t necessarily have expected a reply from a US news organization), so I wrote again. They still kept telling us about HOO-ston.
I do have a life, but email makes it easy to write to even the most exalted institutions, so I didn’t drop it, but wrote to the BBC Pronunciation Unit. People there didn’t ignore me, but said they couldn’t help. The BBC has a Pronunciation Unit, a staff of linguists and researchers, to help presenters get such things right. Pronunciation specialists look at the news every day, find words or names of people or places that might trip up the newsreaders—say, Mahmoud Achmadinejad, or Guantanamo—and print up a sheet of helpful hints. But presenters are free to ignore the printed advice, and Pronunciation Unit staffers are not allowed to tell them where they’re going wrong; the Pronunciation people explained to me that, other than the daily advice sheet, they have to wait until they’re asked. (When it began to be reported here that the US was taking prisoners to new camps at Guantanamo Bay, some BBC newsreaders said gwan-ta-NA-mo for a couple of days, until the correct pronunciation won out.)
I reached my limit one evening with an interview aired on PM, the five o’clock weekday news and comment programme on Radio 4. Now, this is from memory, but certainly the pronunciations indicated here are exactly what I heard broadcast:
Reporter: HOO-ston has really been hit hard [and so on]
Texan: HYOO-ston has seen some big storms in its day, but [etc.]
Reporter: How are people in HOO-ston coping?
Texan: People in HYOO-ston are doing everything they can [blah blah blah]
And it went on that way for some time. I may have imagined it, but I think the interviewee was emphasizing the first syllable, to try to show how the word should be said. In any case, neither the correspondent in Texas nor the presenters in England took any notice.
That was the last straw. I wrote the rudest letter I’ve ever written in my life. It started like this (yes, from memory, but I’m not likely to forget it): “How stupid do you have to be to keep saying HOO-ston when you’re talking to local people who are telling you their town is called HYOO-ston?”
And the next evening on PM, they talked about the storm damage in HYOO-ston. I don’t know that my letter had anything to do with the correction, of course, but it might have.
Now, if a natural disaster of that scale should ever hit Michigan—God forbid—watch this space. I have no idea where they got the idea, but many British people pronounce it MITCH-igan.