Having trouble with place-names: the challenge of phonetics (fonetix)

I’ve been on the road, Well, in the air actually. Then plenty of road. I’ve been travelling around parts of Europe on university business and carrying out some field work and presentations as part of a recent ARC grant. You may be amazed but Google Maps doesn’t seem to work in some of the places I’ve been. So, it’s a good job my geography is pretty up to date; after all, I can name the longest river in the world (easy: Amazon); the largest bookseller in the world (too easy: Amazon), and the name of the mythical warrior women who were the archenemies of the ancient Greeks (hold on, I sense a product placement conspiracy here…].

But my secondary school geography failed me abysmally when I tried to ask directions to some of the towns en route. I mean who would have thought that Cholmondeley is pronounced ‘Chumlee’ and Featherstonehaugh is actually ‘Fanshore’. How embarrassing was it to ask directions from a local who looked at me as if I was from another part of the world, like I was from Frome (‘Froom!), or even Scone (Skoon!!) and let’s not even go to Gloucester (Glooster, Glostah or possibly even GlowSester).

For even those skilled in the vernacular of English topographics the most tricky destination has to be the fair university town of Loughborough, which I visited in late May. The name of this modest town is really quite unique, it is the only place name in the entire English world where ‘ough’ appears twice and each syllable must be pronounced differently. Terrific! So, for options you have: Luffboruff, Loobaruff, Luffboroo, and even ‘Looboroo’, which I’m told is twinned with the Australian town of Wallamaloo. (That is according to the notorious sketch by the Monty Python team, which open with the lines: ‘I hear you’re from Australia – my name’s Bruce too…]

So, I managed eventually to find – then promptly leave – Loughborough, and all its fiddly phonetic figurations and ended up in Macedonia. Now there’s another place with a complicated nomenclature. You see there are actually two regions called Macedonia. One is the vast and beautiful region of northern Greece, the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedon; the other to the north is the equally beautiful ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FYROM to its friends. Since 1991 not even the United Nations has been able to resolve ownership of the name. In the general assembly, Greece objected to seating the Republic’s representative under ‘M’ (as in Macedonia) and the Republic rejected sitting under ‘F’ (as in Former Yugoslav…]. Instead, it was seated under ‘T’ (as in ‘The Former…) right next to Thailand (pronounced not Thigh, but Tye]. Let’s hope a compromise can be found.

My pictures show yours truly with two of the remarkable historians who graced the conference in Macedonia. On the left Sir Hew Strachan (pronounced ‘Strawn’) and on the right Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith (just have a go at that yourself). Sadly, I failed to take a photograph of the inquisitive and inspiring British Ambassador who accompanied us throughout the conference and tour.  I know I’m name dropping: but I think you’ll agree it’s easier than place-name dropping. And the beauty of it is: Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic was none other than the divinely simple Kate Smith. Even I can pronounce that.

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