The Birmingham in the title of this post (a line from a famous song) doesn’t refer to the birthplace of heavy metal music in the UK. Instead, it’s Birmingham, Alabama, with the last syllable pronounced like the word ham (i.e. with a full quality) while the town in the UK has a reduced vowel: /bɜːmɪŋəm/.
The pronunciation of place names (aka toponyms) is hard to predict from the spelling in some cases. This small sample of places in the UK should convince the skeptics:
|Place Name||Canonical pronunciation||Likely spontaneous (wrong) pronunciation|
French place names
I’m a native speaker of French but I’m not 100% sure about the pronunciation of:
- Metz : is it /mɛs/, /mɛts/, /mɛz/ or /mɛdz/ ?
- Bruxelles : /bʁysɛl/ or /bʁyksɛl/; it seems people favour the former.
- Auxerre : /osɛʁ/ or /oksɛʁ/; again, people seem to prefer the counterintuitive pronunciation (the grapheme <x> being most often /ks/ elsewhere)
A frequent difficulty is whether the last letter should be pronounced:
|Place Name||Pronounce final letter?|
Bourg-en-Bresse is a small French town (40,000 inhabitants) not too far from where I live. Being a “neighbour”, I know how the locals pronounce the name of their town.
The most intuitive pronunciation would be /buʁɑ̃brɛs/; this is what most non-locals say. In French the word bourg is a common noun that refers to a small town. It is pronounced /buʁ/, so /buʁɑ̃brɛs/ is really what you’d naturally come up with.
But the canonical pronunciation is /buʁkɑ̃brɛs/ with a rather unexpected “linking”, probably historical, /k/. I can’t think of any other French word ending in graphic <g> that would give rise to a /k/ before a vowel. Here the /ʁ/ is enough to comply with a tendency in languages to avoid a succession of 2 vowels. And even if it was not enough, <g> would generate /g/, not /k/.
In oral speech, Bourg-en-Bresse is often shortened to Bourg. And guess what… yes, it is pronounced /buʁk/. This is really the ultimate shibboleth to recognize insiders!
To a certain extent, it sounds as if the linking consonant is preserved while it is no longer needed. Although it is a slightly different case, it somewhat reminds me of the persistent /r/ in some speakers of British English in the word idea/r/. This one is a linking (linguists call it “intrusive”) /r/ that is used in sequences like the idea /r/ of, the law /r/ of, etc. And sometimes, it ends up being produced as part of the word without a phonological need for it: “it’s a good idea/r/”.
Back to place names: if you want to get the pronunciation right, the sensible thing to do is to always look it up in a dictionary or ask the locals.