One of the things any Australian coming to the UK feels assured of is the ability to speak the language. You know, to communicate, be understood, that kind of thing. And after almost eight years here, despite some early faux pas (the use of words like pants and thongs come to mind), I don’t find myself thinking twice about the way I speak.
But on the train home today, I was reminded what a real minefield the ‘English’ language can be, particularly when it comes to place names.
It’s not just the longer prefixes to the shires that trip one up on this green isle – I mean how do you get ‘wooster’ from Worcester – or the fact that words tend to dribble away here as opposed to the emphasis-on-every-syllable pronunciation employed by my lot (eg. Bir-ming-ham rhymes with ‘I eat SPAM’).
It’s the presence of a letter. A letter that just sneaks in there, quiet as you like. And upsets the natural order of things.
The letter ‘W’.
It’s a dastardedly affair. The ‘W’ sound is happy to lead off, loud and proud, at the beginning of a word – Walthamstow, Windsor, Worthing are fine examples.
But the rules seem to differ when that little ‘w’ ensconces itself right in the middle of things. So Southwark is pronounced ‘Suthick’ (vs my fresh-off-the-boat South-walk all those years ago), Harwich is pronounced ‘Harrich’…
…and today, I automatically corrected my collègue français’ Flitwick – without skipping a beat – to ‘Flittick’.
My family keep telling me I sound more and more English every time I speak to them.
I think they may be right.