I was in London this past weekend. (I was there to take an Indian cooking class, which I’ll write more about next week.) It was obviously summer in London… I heard more American accents as I wandered the streets and rode the Tube than I have in quite a while. And I had to stop myself from laughing a bit as I overheard lots of words and places being mispronounced by my fellow Americans. (Trust me, I wasn’t laughing at them, I was laughing with them… I’m absolutely certain I made the same mistakes when I first moved here.)
There’s nothing that you can do to hide an American accent. But you can sound a little less like a tourist just by learning how to pronounce a few places correctly.
- The ‘shires.’ This is the UK equivalent to an American county. It is essentially a particular region of the country. Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Yorkshire, etc. Not every area ends in “shire” like those do (like Kent and Devon), but many do. But here’s the catch. “Shire” rhymes with stir, not fire. So be sure to say Cambridge-sher, not Cambridge-shire.
- Cities and places that end in -ham. Think of places like Birmingham, Nottingham, Tottenham. Those words should rhyme with him, not ham. Actually, you don’t even pronounce the “h” part. Just Birming-im. It’s what separates Birmingham, UK from Birmingham, Alabama.
- Leicester. This city (and county: Leiscestershire) in the Midlands, tube stop in London, and famous square in London is worthy of its own lesson. You should pronounce it like Lester, not Lie-chester, Li-sester, or Lee-sister. I’ve heard it pronounced nearly a dozen different ways by Americans. Bonus points if you combine the “shire” lesson with the Leicester lesson and get Leicestershire right.
But apparently I need a lesson in both UK and American pronunciations. When I referred to our stop on the Docklands Light Rail as Heron Quay (I pronounced Quay like Kay), my husband had to point out that quay should sound like key. I wrongly assumed that was just a British thing. Nope. Quay is key in America, too.
And while I’m helping you sound less like a tourist, let me help you look less like a tourist too. It seemed like I passed by hundreds of Americans this weekend, shivering in tank tops and shorts. June in the UK is not always warm. If the sun isn’t shining, it rarely gets over 70-75 degrees here. And sometimes, like this weekend, it’s more like 55-60 degrees. Be sure to pack a warm jacket and a pair of jeans before you cross the pond!