Confusing place names


We’re used, in the British Isles, to place names that have more than one pronunciation – Shrewsbury (/ˈʃrəʊzbÉ™ri/~/ˈʃruːzbÉ™ri/) is probably the best known, although those with long memories will recall that there was a veiled threat to my position over the pronunciation of Althorp 17 years ago (/ˈɔːltrÉ™p/ – as used by the Spencer family, or /ˈɔːlθɔːrp/ – as imposed by the anti-Spencer journalists of the news organizations). We are also quite used to place names whose pronunciation appears to bear little relation to the spelling – Happisburgh (/ˈheɪzbrÉ™/), Wymondham (/ˈwɪndÉ™m/), Kirkcudbright (/kÉ™rˈkuːbri/), and very occasionally there are place names with alternative spellings whose pronunciation remains the same. In fact the only one of those that I can quickly bring to mind is only a few miles from where I’m writing this – St Ippolyts~Ippollitts – or any combination of single and double -p- , -l- , or -t-. The pronunciation is always /ˈɪpÉ™lɪts/, despite the original Latin form of the name being Hippolytus, and therefore ‘correctly’ stressed on the second syllable: /ɪˈpÉ’lɪts/.

Now we have the more contentious question of a foreign place name that has three European spellings, and three pronunciations: Arbil~Erbil~Irbil. Should we be standardizing on one spelling and pronunciation, or leaving it to the whim of the individual reporter to decide from dispatch to dispatch which it will be? So far this last fortnight, the only one I haven’t heard is Arbil ?/ɑːˈbiːl/?.

I realize that compared to events on the ground, the pronunciation of this place name is very small potatoes, but the use of multiple forms of a name can confuse the audience when clarity is already in short supply.


  1. One to add to the collection of variant-spellings-but-invariant-albeit-eccentric-pronunciation is Stivichall or Styvechale in Coventry, which either way is /ˈstaɪtʃəl/. Top that!

  2. Martin – I agree that that is certainly better than my example!

  3. ‘Ippolyts’ is certainly far more pronounceable than the other total gibberish made up of strange characters that appears on this page !

    Such is no help to anyone.
    One of the reasons I like Nuttall’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (~1926) where pronunciations are actually legible.

  4. Mike – I completely agree with you. This is not what I wrote in August 2014, and I have written to my server owner to try to get to the bottom of why my posts lose their transcriptions.

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