Houston, the BBC has a problem

The window of my study, when we lived in a place called Berwick Cottage. Berwick is a Scottish town, pronounced BARE-ick.

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.

Stonehenge--pronounced pretty much as it's spelled--sits on Salisbury Plain. That's SALLS-bree Plain.

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? 

The lighthouse at Plymouth in Devon. That's PLIH-muth. (But you knew that, because of the automobile company)


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.



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38 responses to “Houston, the BBC has a problem

  1. Ernest W. Adams

    When American news anchor Dan Rather was just a cub reporter for a Texas radio station, he used to pronounce “heroin” as hair-oin, to rhyme with “coin.” He had seen it in print but never heard it spoken (this was probably 50 years ago). A lady called up the station and gave him what-for, and he never did it again.

    When I was a kid I thought what “whodunit” was pronounced “whod unit.”

  2. Kristine Krozek

    The first time we drove through Wenatchee in Washington State, we saw the name of the town printed on signs but were unsure how to pronounce it. I went into the Post Office to buy some stamps and I asked the clerk, “How do you pronounce the name of this place?” Speaking VERY slowly and enunciating VERY clearly, she responded, “POST OFFICE.”

  3. Post office thing is hilarious!

    I’ve had that dialogue experience many times listening to Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” – she says I-rack, the person she’s talking to who reports from there or is from there or pays attention says I-rock, and it goes on that way for an hour. It’s as if it’s a point of honor with Gross not to learn how to pronounce place names from people who know better. It gets on my nerves!

  4. Some tourist-trickers from around here:
    Sequim: pronounced Squim.
    Puyallup: Pyoo-allup.
    Spokane: Spoke-ann.

  5. Candida

    I remember when Dolly Parton’s Imagination Books scheme came to the UK, she was interviewed and said something like “I’m so glad to be here in … now I have to be really careful here, they’ve told me how to say this … ROTHerum”. The Rotherham audience actually cheered her.

    I think the most brilliant American place name by far is Poughkeepsie. I have no real idea whether it’s puff or pow, or even po or pew or poff, since our language has so many possibilities to choose from, never mind whether the second bit is actually keep-see I just think it looks great.

  6. IRM_M

    Originally from the Argentine, an israeli friend of mine is inisted in saying Hooknose, when he didn’t know the answer to a question, thinking it was the correct pronunciation for Whoknows? He came from Bonusaries.

  7. Thanks for this, Mary Ellen, very amusing! I have always wondered where these crazy pronunciations come from. Somehow it seems it’s got to be more than just polishing off. I once read that English pronunciation in general used to match spelling much more closely, but that these differed quite a bit from region to region in England; and that over centuries of consolidation, the language finally settled on a spelling from one region and a pronunciation from a different region. That doesn’t really explain place names very well, though.

    As to our American counterparts: I still can’t quite bring myself to pronounce “Tucson” correctly, even though I think I finally understand how it’s supposed to be pronounced.

    Now, we can’t blame the BBC for gwan-ta-NA-mo. It could be because they actually knew enough Spanish to know what they were doing, but didn’t realize we had misspelled it. In Spanish it needs an accent on the second “a” in order to come out right, and without that mark, the spelling really would indicate gwan-ta-NA-mo in Spanish. So it’s our fault for dropping the accent!

    Speaking of Spanish — and the different “ough” sounds in LUFF-bruh — there was a classic old episode of I Love Lucy in which pregnant Lucy tries to improve Ricky’s language skills for the sake of their child. And now thanks to the magic of YouTube, here it is. The relevant part is in the second half.

    • Nice clip! Someone wrote privately and said there were as many as 20 different ways of pronouncing -ough words in English; one of the many not mentioned in my post shows up in Candida’s reply: the ‘uh’ of Puh-KIP-see.

      Not sure, though, why the American (bad) habit of leaving the accent off “Guantanamo” would necessarily influence the British use of the word; they don’t have to do it wrongly just because we do! Better for all of us to get it right. But in any case, the British aren’t constrained to use our spelling of a place in a third country. Or maybe I’m missing what you mean…?

      • Yes, I meant that if somebody who knows Spanish sees the way we spelled it — and assumes we spelled it correctly — then they’d naturally pronounce it gwan-ta-NA-mo because, well, that’s how we spelled it. As Ricky quite rightly alluded to, in Spanish the spelling tells you exactly how to say the word. If we had included the accent, they’d say it right.

        Long ago when I visited Nicaragua, somebody asked me if I supported “Vahlter moan-DAH-lay”. I really had to scratch my head for a bit before replying, “Oh, you mean this guy!” and writing down for them on a piece of paper, “Huálter Mándeil”. Once they had read that, they were able to correctly pronounce “Walter Mondale”. 🙂

    • (I hope the system puts this comment after your latest; there doesn’t seem to be a way to indicate that I’m responding to your response to my response 🙂

      I could have used a facility to spell things out like that at times. When I worked at a company with a Belgian affiliate, I was trying to pronounce the Belgian employees’ names as correctly as I could, and asked one about the pronunciation of the letters in his name which, when you put them all together, and to the embarrassment of us both, produced the four-letter word beginning with F that is used for–she said coyly, in hopes that nobody’s spam filter prevents them from seeing this post and its replies–that which my mother called “expelling gas”.

      But it was he who gave me the pronunciations of the individual letters! So we see that the whole is more than the sum of the parts, I suppose. I’ve always hoped he didn’t think I was making fun of him; he was a nice guy.

      • Malcolm

        Speaking of which, the Swedish roadsign for ‘Way In’ is Infart–and, of course, Utfart is ‘Way Out’. When I was there in 1958 I was told that when Queen Elizabeth visited Stockholm, all such signs along any route she was likely to take were covered over.

  8. Sue

    I am one of your British fans and have to confess I say HOOston and MITCHigan (how are you meant to say it?). But why aren’t we allowed to? After all, no-one tells us off for saying Paris instead of PaREE. Is it because both countries speak English? I never knew about Glamis and Alnwick. Berwick I would probably put the R at the beginning of the second syllable. Poughkeepsie I knew about from a famous film. Was it the Italian Job – something with Gene Hackman in it.

    • I don’t think there’s any question of anybody having to be “allowed” to speak a certain way; we’re all free to do as we like, making concessions, presumably, so as to be understood by other people. And yes, I think the difference between the acceptability of HOO-ston and that of Pa-REE is definitely because both the US and the UK speak English; PaREE is an Anglicanization of a name from outside our (arguably) shared language. The case of Michigan (pronounced MISH-ih-gun) then muddies the water (no pun on Lake Michigan intended) further, because it is a Native American place name that came into English by way of French!

      The bottom line for me is that I don’t understand why anyone would want to insist on a right to pronounce names wrongly once they knew that it was wrong, as you imply (and I do think there are right and wrong pronunciations; I would be pronouncing “Bicester” wrongly if I said Bissesster). A visiting choir director once said pleasantly (to a 60-woman group, not just to me, and she got a big laugh) “You have to sing something so why not sing the right notes?” If you have to say Houston–which I concede you probably don’t very often–why not say HYOO-ston?

      For my part, as soon as I learned that GOD-alming was correct, and not God-ALL-ming, I immediately began to say it properly. Or do you think it’s different because I am in the same country as is that town? Do you mean that some British people would like to say HOO-ston here and HYOO-ston if they visit the US?

      As I told my godson when he asked me what it meant for a word to be a “bad word”, there are no inrinsically bad words and you can say any words you like, you just have to be aware that how you use words is going to change how people react to you. So maybe I just have a greater need to fit in, and was rash to assume that people want to say such place names correctly if they can, rather than retain their right to say them any way they please. (And now I’m suddenly reminded of Humpty Dumpty talking to Alice!)

    • Afterthought: As for the BBC, if people there make an effort to say “Achmadinejad” properly, why would their attitude to pronunciation of “Houston” be different?

    • Third time lucky: I should have been more clear about my position that there are right and wrong ways to pronounce words and that we’re all free to speak however we like. I hope people understood this as I intended (but it would have helped if I’d spelled it out, sigh): Accepted convention gives us rights and wrongs, but we’re free to go outside the boundaries as often as we like.

      Without accepted rights and wrongs, there’d be no power in the use of so-called “bad words”, for example, but just like I told my godson, there are consequence, from people looking at you funny on up. He was about to turn 6 at the time. He considered this for a while and then said that anyone who entered his room was not to say “hullahoop”. All the adults present solemnly agreed…

  9. It’s funny about economizing on the y sound in Houston, by the way, because usually the economy is the other way around: we save, they’re profligate. We says nooz and dook, they say nyewz and jyewk.

    Maybe since we don’t actually have dukes, we should be saying jyewk. Oh dear. The Jyewk of Edinbro. I’ve been saying Edinbro for decades, but not Jyewk.

    • I could be wrong, of course, but I think jyewk comes from pronouncing dyewk without due care and attention (a catchphrase cribbed from the traffic cops’ charge here: driving without due care and attention). That is, I don’t think anyone is actually trying to put a J into the word; J is what happens when you aim for DY and miss. Duke -> Dyewk -> Jyewk; Duty -> Dyewtee -> Jyewtee; Dubious -> Dyewbious -> Jyewbious; etc.

    • Candida

      We Brits probably get it wrong BECAUSE we unconsciously echo how Americans pronounce duke etc. But it sticks in your head in funny ways. My husband, when I read him out the last post, looked at me in puzzlement and said “But it’s on that Apollo 13 recording isn’t it, doesn’t he say Hooston?” So then we had to go and listen to both the original NASA recording and the Tom Hanks film version (to see if either of them had atypically given us a funny pronunciation), and of course they both say Hyooston. But we thought we heard what we had expected to hear. Getting it persistently wrong when a native of the place is replying to you and saying it differently, though… that’s a bit weird.

  10. Malcolm

    Djewk is actually an old-fashioned upper-class pronunciation, whereby dew, due, and Jew were homonyms. British actors have got better at playing Americans over the past decade. Time was when ‘saw’ came out as ‘sor’ because ‘war’ is pronounced with the hard-r in America (‘war’ and ‘saw’ rhyme perfectly in English-English).
    How do people feel about the way direct speech is spelled? If I see, say, an American general in a British novel talking about “going on manoeuvres”, he immediately turns into an impostor for me.

    • Are ‘dew’ and ‘due’ not homonyms to you? Oh, and you might ought to declare your allegiance: I believe you learned your English at your mother’s knee in England, no? Has it been influenced by your decades in Ireland?

      Then again, I’m sure I’ll do more blog posts on accents and pronunciation, so maybe I shouldn’t ask, but should save it for later!

    • Re how direct speech is spelled — I recently read “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell”, set at the beginning of the 19th century, in which the author used archaic spellings of a few words when used in direct speech to give an archaic flavour: characters would say ‘I chuse to do this’, for example. Once I caught on, it was kind of fun, but then that book is very much in the nature of fun, rather than an attempt at Great Literature. I rather liked it (the book, the way the author imagined magic, the way the magic coexisted with Enlightment, and the archaic spellings.)

  11. Malcolm

    This website keeps posting my replies when all I do is hit TAB to make an indent. I was going on to say that the British never get the difference between, say, Californian and California as adjectives – as in ‘he is (a) Californian’ but ‘these are California oranges.’ Of course, ‘These oranges are Californian’ is okay, but Brits would use the -ian ending in all three cases. Applies to all states where the -ian ending is possible.

  12. MFC

    Re: Mahmoud Achmadinejad — Jay Leno, host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC, pronounces it “Mahmoud Ah’m-a-nut-job”.

    • I confess that, with no disrespect intended, when I first began to hear about Achmadinejad in the news, as an aid to remembering how to say his name I thought of it as “Achmed(‘s) dinnerjacket”.

      • Candida

        Oh, the comedian Dara O’Brian confessed that his way of remembering that was to start out saying “I’m a dinner jacket” and then sort of “just miss” saying it. Given the problems people have with his surname (which is not pronounced as you would say Brian but Bree-Ann) he had no problems with whether that was disrespectful. I actually had the same thought.

  13. Chris

    There are plenty of UK nationals who don’t know how to pronounce UK place names and you’re right, some people do seem to take a deliberate pleasure in continuing to do so even when the correct pronunciation is pointed out. When I started a new job in Birmingham and made the mistake of referring to the Alcester Road in a briefing, several of my new colleagues came to me afterwards and made a point of advising me (lest I make a fool of myself in future) that it was the All-cester Road. I’ve tried to argue that as the road is named after the town of Alcester, that’s how it should be pronounced, but they just think I’m weird.

  14. As an American living in Canada, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled over a French word. I’m hoping French lessons will help me.

    Still giggling about Hooston.

  15. schmunzelmonster

    Driving up the east coast of the US from Boston, MA to Falmouth, ME, as I did a few years ago, is like driving along the south coast of England as far as place names go, with quite a lot of Lincolnshire thrown in. But what is the “correct” pronunciation of “Arundel”? Residents of Arundel, West Sussex put the stress on the “A” while their opposite numbers in Maine stress the “run”.

    Many years before that, I attended a course in Havant (pron the same as “haven’t” with slightly more stress on the “Ha”) run by an American who didn’t seem to the hear what the locals were saying and called it “ha-VANT” throughout, presumably by analogy with Levant.

  16. alaimacerc

    This drives me demented(er) every time I hear it: and unfortunately, the BBC Breakfast nit has just repeatedly done it to the face of an ex-astronaut from “Hooston”.

    As to why… best I can do is to second Candida. This “hyperamericanised yod-dropping” (as I think one might call it, to haphazardly bang together some bits of terminology I’ve come across over at the posh linguistics blogs!) might be further triggered by the variation between “Hyooston” and “Yooston” pronunciations. These each seem to be used by native American speakers, and the h-dropping version does seem to be somewhat prevalent in the actual locality. This might lead people up the mental garden path of “wait, they’re not saying ‘hyooston’… therefore it must be ‘hooston’!” It seems a little thin, but it’s then reinforced by hearing other speakers (and indeed, other BBC poltroons) using this form.

    • My American husband recently told me off for pronouncing Houston this way. To make the point, he found a clip from Superman II where the Kryptonian criminals are discussing the astronauts they just murdered on the moon. “They come from there… a place called HOOston.”

      So, apparently, every time I say it that way I remind him of a creepy superpowered murderer. I guess that’s one way to bring it to someone’s attention! 🙂

  17. alaimacerc

    And as to Michigan… That one seems explicable, on the lines of what MEF says in a reply comment. While granted the digraph “ch” has about four different pronunciation in English (without even considering its role in sometime trigraph “sch”), by far its most usual value would be t∫ (“tsh”), with the others being case-by-case exceptions. So “Mitchigan” is essentially a case of spelling pronunciation, or in other words, that “Mishigan” is a exception to the “rule” that’s unknown to the speaker.

    Aside from placenames, there doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern of pronouncing “ch” as “∫” more in American English as opposed to British. The other case that springs to mind is the other way round, indeed: chassis, another word of French origin, seems to typically be “tshasy” in AmE, but is invariably “shasy” in BrE.

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