How to pronounce English place names

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placenames

A couple of weeks ago, my students requested a lesson on pronouncing place names in London and England because they were always having difficulty making themselves understood at train and coach stations. I didn’t find many resources on the Internet designed for language students, only more technical guides that often went into too much detail and didn’t provide any useful rules.

So I did some research, and found the following, which includes some really useful rules that can make the pronunciation of English place names guessable upon first encounter. I created a worksheet that you can copy and use in class or provide the URL to students for self-study. It may also be useful for teachers outside the UK who need to use materials that refer to English place names.

I’ve focused here on English place names, because many Scottish, Welsh and Irish place names draw on the other beautiful languages of the UK for their pronunciation (Welsh, Gaelic, Irish etc.), rather than Old English, and therefore don’t tend to follow the same rules. If anyone would like to share a pronunciation guide for these countries, please let me know and I’ll link to it gladly.

The link is provided below, but first here are a few useful rules:

  1. The vast majority of English place names are pronounced with the word stress on the first syllable (e.g. Yorkshire, Buckingham, Brighton, Plymouth, Oxford, Greenwich)
  2. The last syllable in place names is almost always unstressed, and includes one of two reduced vowel sounds /ǝ/ or /ɪ/ (see previous examples).
  3. Any silent consonants in such words tend to come at the start of, or just before the final syllable (e.g. the ‘h’ in Birmingham, or the ‘w’ in Chiswick and Norwich).

The main exception to this first syllable stress rule is place names made up of two or more words. Luckily, these also have clear rules for pronunciation:

  1. Place names including ‘St.’ (short for ‘Saint’, pronounced /seɪnt/) usually have the stress on the 1st syllable of the next word (e.g. St. Pancras, St. Paul’s, St. Albans)
  2. Place names with 3 or more hyphenated words, when pronounced in full, usually have the stress on the last word (e.g. Weston-Super-Mare, Southend-on-Sea, Stratford-upon-Avon).
  3. Place names of 2 words that are not hyphenated usually have the stress on the 1st syllable of the second word (e.g. Milton Keynes, West Bromwich).

Here’s the downloadable free worksheet for use in class or self-study. If you’re not sure about a word, just go to YouTube and type ‘How do you pronounce ___’, and a useful guide will usually appear. Enjoy!

Free worksheet – How to pronounce English place names

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