Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 6 September 2008

Dot Wordsworth continues her look at BBC booklets on pronunciation published in the 1930s

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The Earl of Cottenham’s surname is Pepys. He doesn’t pronounce it peeps, like the diarist, but peppiss, stressed on the first syllable. It’s almost impossible to know how to pronounce English family names. The former deputy editor of this magazine, Andrew Gimson, pronounces his with a soft g. Jeffrey Bernard stressed the second syllable of his. James Michie, the late Jaspistos, rhymed with sticky. Christopher Fildes’s name rhymes with wilds.

The BBC booklets on pronunciation published in the 1930s, about which I have been writing this month, had reached number seven by 1939, ‘Recommendations to Announcers Regarding the Pronunciation of some British Family Names and Titles’, still edited by Arthur Lloyd James. ‘There is probably nobody in these islands,’ he wrote, ‘who can pronounce “correctly” — whatever that may mean — all our family names.’

So Featherstonehaugh, may be fanshaw, but others call themselves fee-sun-hay, or fear-ston-haw, or simply feather-ston-haw. A monosyllable may be triply tricky: is your Ker car, care or cur? Of the Menzies, Lloyd James notes they are men-zies in Australia. But what are they in the newsagent’s?

I was caught out on Alma-Tadema, that good-bad painter, who was pronounced alma-taddema, with the stress on his second barrel being on the tad. But Lloyd James says baggot for Bagehot, though I’m pretty sure the famous Bagehot said badge-ot. Did the Victorian journalist W.T. Stead rhyme with head or heed (Lloyd James admits either)? All the Bathursts seem to use a short a, and some (not the Earl) aspirate an h in the middle. The Blomfields pronounce their first syllable in four different ways, to rhyme with bomb, bum, book or boom.

It is annoying, after knowing one family called Jacques rhyming with rakes, to find another lot rhyming with racks. The Lamonts stress their first syllable, but not, I think, in Norman’s case. How can two brothers acquiesce in different pronunciations? Charles Powell uses po-el, like Anthony Powell, and Jonathan Powell favours the Enoch Powell version (Lloyd James allows for either).

You might think Bythesea transparent, but it is pronounced bithsee. You might expect Chute to be shoot, but it is chewt. Chandos is shan-doss, yet in some cases chan-dos. The Earl of Wemyss (pronounced weems) says his surname Charteris as three syllables; others pronounce it as charters (which is how Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, says his name). None of the pronunciations noted here is infallible. No doubt some readers have their own pet versions.