Can you pronounce these tricky Suffolk place names?
- Credit: Nick Rowlands
The English language is a tricky thing.
There’s a number of rules and exceptions when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, and placenames especially can trip up even the savviest of speakers.
Here in Suffolk, we’re home to a number of towns and villages that aren’t pronounced as how they look on paper – throwing off people both new to the county, and even those who have lived here their entire lives.
One of Suffolk’s most revered historians Charlie Haylock has spent years studying the county – including its unique dialect and origins of placenames. He is also the author of ‘In a Manner of Speaking’, a book that looks at the history of spoken English.
“Many of the so-called ‘strange’ Suffolk pronunciations of placenames and rivers go back to a more ancient time, and some of these pronunciations derive from as far back as Old English and Middle English.
“One misconception is that the Suffolk way of saying these placenames is a lazy way of pronouncing them and indeed, assumed as incorrect,” he says.
Charlie suggests that in many cases, it’s the more modern spellings that have invariably deviated from the local speech resulting in two pronunciations - one as per the Suffolk locals, and one as per assumed standard English.
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“Even more differences in pronunciation occurred during the Middle English period after the Norman Conquest. Norman scribes would record names as they thought it should be said, while the English continued to use English sounding names. For example, the Normans would write ‘Magna’ and ‘Parva’, while the English would say ‘Great’ and ‘Little’.
To add even more to the confusion, standard spelling was not introduced into the English language until the late 1700s.
“Until then, words and placenames were written down phonetically with many variations of spelling. Even more disarray would unfold during the 1600s, as the Stuarts employed Dutch cartographers, reputedly to be the best, to make accurate maps of the kingdom. They were paid by the letter and as such, added in a few letters here and there, often changing the spelling.”
With that in mind, here are just a few examples of Suffolk places that are said differently than they would be in Standard English.
“For my research, I have also consulted A.D. Mills’ book Suffolk Place-Names, Their Origins and Meanings, as it is the most comprehensive dictionary on the derivation of the names of Suffolk's towns and villages.”
This Mid-Suffolk settlement, while it looks like it should be pronounced as ‘Ath-ling-ton', is actually pronounced by some locals as ‘aling-t’n’.
“A copy of an Anglo-Saxon will dating back to around 946 shows the village recorded as ‘Elyngtone’ and later in 1219 recorded as ‘Alinggeton’. One can now see where the ancient Suffolk pronunciation of ‘aling-t'n’ comes from,” explains Charlie.
Located just a stone’s throw away from the Suffolk coast, Blythburgh looks as if it should be pronounced ‘Blyth-burg’ - but is instead said by some locals as ‘blybruh’.
“The ‘th’ sound in old Suffolk was often spoke with a very soft sound, and as a result was eventually omitted. For example, in the Suffolk dialect word ‘sy’, for a scythe.
“This also occurred in Blythburgh. So much so, that in 1235 it was recorded as ‘Bliburgh’ - hence the local pronunciation today. There is also the modern phonetic spelling of ‘Blyford’ instead of ‘Blythford’, which is just down river from Blythburgh.”
This settlement is actually pronounced as ‘boolj’, which might not be most people’s first guess.
“In 1254, this village was recorded as ‘Bulge’, with the ‘u’ most probably pronounced as ‘oo’.”
Similarly, this could explain why the Suffolk village of ‘Cowlinge’ is pronounced as ‘coolinj’. “In the Domesday Book, it is recorded as ‘Culinge’, and the present-day spelling came much later.”
In the late 12th century, this village was spelt as ‘Chelmundeston, with the ‘mund’ pronounced similar to the ‘mund’ in ‘Edmund’.
“It’s therefore easy to see how the placename ended up being pronounced as ‘Chelmerdist’n’.”
“The letter ‘a’ has various ways of being said in the English language,” explains Charlie.
Examples include words such as ‘all’, ‘swan’, ‘mat’, ‘mate’, ‘lager’ and ‘many’. But it can also be pronounced as an ‘i’ sound, such as in ‘village’, ‘spillage’, and ‘manage’.
“Likewise, the ‘a’ is said as an ‘i’ in ‘Debach’ and ‘spinach’, resulting in them being pronounced as ‘debbidge’ and ‘spinnidge’, respectively.”
Edwardstone, Drinkstone and Wyverstone
To your average English speaker, the above placenames look like they would be said with emphasis on the suffix ‘-stone’.
However, this is not the case, and they are instead pronounced as ‘Edwardst'n’, ‘Drinkst'n’ and ‘Wyverst'n’ respectively.
“These are the older pronunciations, and most probably an example of where during the 1600s, Dutch cartographers added extra letters to names to earn more money. In this instance, it was an ‘e’ on the end to make it ‘stone’. But the Suffolk locals still refer to these places by their original pronunciations.”
“This is actually pronounced as ‘Filixstowe - and for very good reason,” explains Charlie.
“It was recorded in 1254 as ‘Filchestou’, and derives from Old English, with ‘stōw’ meaning ‘a holy place’ of a man called ‘Filcia’. This was an Anglicised name of St Felix, the first Bishop of the East Angles.”
The current spelling of Felixstowe does not appear until the 16th century however.
“Therefore, once again, the Suffolk way is more historic. It is also worth noting the second letter in the Suffolk way of saying ‘Felixstowe’ sounds the same as the first letter in the words, ‘English’ and ‘England’.”
Just outside of Stowmarket, this tiny settlement is actually pronounced as ‘wunnuss’.
“In 1052, it was recorded as ‘Anhus’, and the same a little while later in the Domesday Book. In 1275 it was still recorded as one word, ‘Onhus’. It is very easy to see where the Suffolk pronunciation comes from, with the current spelling of the village coming much later.”
This village’s name falls into the small group of words and names where the letter ‘h’ is silent – think ‘Thames’, ‘thyme’,’ Thomas,’ ‘Thailand’ and ‘Theresa’.
“The village was recorded in the 13th century as ‘Tweyt’, which reflects the way it is still said in Suffolk today.”
Therefore, ‘Thwaite’ is pronounced as ‘t-weight’, rather than ‘th-weight’.