Amanda Vickery, Professor of Early Modern History at Queen Mary, University of London, from this month, recently presented a TV series on domestic life in Georgian England – At Home with the Georgians. Professor Vickery is a Lancastrian, and her accent is as might be expected from such a background. She had one very idiosyncratic pronunciation: entrepreneur as /ˌɒntrepəˈnɜː/, but the main reason for writing this post was her pronunciation of the eminent member of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton, whose family name she pronounced /ˈbʊltən/. This immediately reminded me of Patricia Routledge (
another Lancastrian from Birkenhead, just across the Mersey in historical Cheshire), whose pretentious character Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced /bʊˈkeɪ/) in the BBC TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances, was always talking about her Royal /ˈdʊltən/ with the handpainted periwinkles.
Both Boulton and Doulton are generally pronounced with /əʊ/ as are most words containing the orthographic sequence -oul-. A week or so after Professor Vickery’s programme, a series called Edwardian Farm, in which two archaeologists and a historian recreate life on an Edwardian farm through a whole year, dealt with chicken rearing. I was surprised to hear one of the archaeologists, Alex Langlands, call them /ˈpuːltri/.
There is clearly a problem with the -oul- spelling. Several other cases come to mind: David Coulthard, the Formula 1 racing driver, and now BBC motor racing commentator, calls himself /ˈkəʊlθɑːd/ (only with a Scottish accent, so [oː] rather than [əʊ]). I know this because when he was first engaged as a driver, one of my colleagues in the BBC Pronunciation Unit spoke to him by telephone. At the time, journalists were wanting to say /ˈkuːltɑːd/, but he insisted it was ‘first syllable as in coal, and the -th- as in thin‘. Everyone in the Radio Newsroom laughed at this, and said he was lucky he was being mentioned at all! but eventually the pronunciation has settled as /ˈkuːlθɑːd/, and I suspect that it is now too late to change it, despite his clearly expressed wishes. Coulsdon, in London, swung back and forth in the course of the 20th century between /ˈkuːlzdən/ and /ˈkəʊlzdən/. Glenn Gould is always /guːld/, and yet I knew a family of the same name who were always /gəʊld/.
As I pointed out above, most words with -oul- are pronounced /əʊ/ – boulder, shoulder, mould, smoulder, soul, and many fewer with /uː/ – ghoul is the only example which comes to mind immediately, others, such as boules and moules (as in moules marinière) being obvious borrowings from French.