Dispatches from England: How to Sound (A Little) Less Like a Tourist When Visiting the UK

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!

 

Comments

  1. avatarVivienne Wendy Jones says

    A very minor correction. The county of Cambridge is just that…Cambridge. The town and the county are both described as such. Apart from that loved the article. How about the Indian food in the UK ? Awesome isn’t it ?

  2. avatarBill Cockshott says

    Packing for the UK is the hardest… I pack the same for March as I do for July, with a pair or two of shorts thrown in!

  3. avatar says

    “Shire” is pronounced “sheer” and the “ham” at the end of words is pronounced “um”
    like “Birmingum” “Nottingum” “Tottenum”, and it’s “Lester” & “Lestersheer”!! At least, before I get in trouble, that’s how we pronounced them in Kent!!

  4. avatarYvonne Walker says

    I would pronounce the places ending in -ham as ‘um’ rather than ‘im’.
    So it is ‘Birmingum’ to this ‘Warwickshur’ native.

    • avatarMichelle says

      I agree with Yvonne and Fiona.
      Never heard ‘im’ for the examples given.

      (Wilt- shur native)

    • avatarPirate Queen says

      Agree! I’m an American in Ohio and my family name is Needham. We always pronounced it Need’m but you can bet all our childhood friends made Need-a-ham jokes. BTW Ohio has a city named Wooster. It’s pronounced Wuhster and I think it’s named for Worcester (Wuhster) Mass. and ultimately Worcester, UK, but those not in the know call it WOOOOster!

  5. avatarMinerva says

    The ‘shire’ at the end of the County name can be either ‘sheer’ or ‘sher’….it depends on local accents.

    Have to agree though with the poster above…..please don’t advise folks to pronounce Nottingham, ‘Nottingim’ (as an example).
    Although those that are perhaps ‘better spoken’ will still pronounce the ‘ham’ in preference to an ‘um’, but it is generally quietly spoken, rather than ‘announced’.

    • avatar says

      I agree – it’s sheer or sher depending on local accents. However, one thing the article doesn’t mention is that when the word shire is used on its own, for example to refer to the shire counties – the counties that end in shire, such as Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, etc – then the word shire is pronounced to rhyme with choir/mire/sire/liar/etc. It’s only at the end of a county name that shire gets ‘squashed’ into sheer/sher.

  6. avatar says

    The reference to words like “book” being pronounced like “boo” reminds me of Ringo in the Beatles movie A Hard Days Night.

  7. avatarLawrence says

    Sometimes the “ham” is pronounced as “ham.” The hamlet of Waterham in Kent is pronounced Water-ham, not waterum. Then there is Ham near Sandwich (also in Kent) pronounced–ham. And yes, the famous signpost between Sandwich that displays both places, (Ham, Sandwich) does really exist. Now try this village on for size; how do you pronounce Trottiscliffe? (Also in Kent.)

    • avatarBelle Palmiter says

      I’m from Kent and that’s a proper evil one to pick!! If you don’t know the Trottiscliffe pronunciation, it can’t be guessed in a million years!
      Woodnesborough is another! As is Wrotham.

      Barham as always get Americans. I never know where BARR-HAAM is, but I do know where BAHr’m is!!

  8. avatarSecintheUK says

    I’m a little confused who wrote the article – I initially thought it was a Jonathan post but then a “husband” is mentioned …???

  9. avatarJane F says

    I used to work in a Travel Information Centre in London and heard all these and many more! Others include Gloucester, being pronounced Glue Chester, Glo Sester, Glowchester etc. The correct pronunciation is Gloster! Also there are two towns called Gillingham in the UK. One is pronounced Jillingham and is in Kent, the other is pronounced with a hard ‘g’ and is in Dorset. And a particularly topical one, which irritates most British people immensely, is that the famous tennis tournament in SW19 London is pronounced Wimbledon and NOT Wimbleton!!

  10. avataramy says

    Love this article. I lived in Nottingham (Nottingum) for 2 years and I’m from Alabama. I was the same distance from Birmingham, UK as I was Birmingham, AL. And I always made sure I pronounced them correctly for each city. I found myself nodding on almost all examples you gave :)

  11. avatarKimberly says

    I am also from Alabama and live nearby to Birmingham, AL. I will be moving to Northants and am already used to the accent there……my fiancee and I always tease each other about how to say Birmingham. :)

  12. avatarJade L. says

    This was a lovely article, but reading all the comments has left me quite confused. Prononciation is different based on accents. “Shire” mostly is what I don’t understand. Are there two correct ways of saying it regardless of who says it?

    • avatarBelle Palmiter says

      Yes pretty much yes. On it’s own it rhymes with ‘fire’
      As a County it can either be ‘Sheer’ ‘Shur’ or even ‘Sher’ depending on the English accent saying it. Or even how much lazy you are feeling at the time!
      My Kentish accent would say Hampshire as Hampsheer but a proper Hampshire accent tends to be Hampshur or even ‘ampshur. But when I’m feeling lazy I tend to say Hampsher.

      Considering though it can be a bit difficult to translate between English pronunciation and American pronunciation. So, which ever you pick it will always be slightly odd to British ears. Just remember that with a -shire county , the shire bit is incorrect pronounced as rhyming with fire.

      Hamp-shyer = wrong
      Hampsheer = ok
      Hampshur = ok
      Hampsher = ok

  13. avatarGeorge says

    What about the Town of Hexamshire. I think as it’s no county it should be pronounced like “Fire”,

  14. avatarPhilip says

    In London for the past 10 years and, yes, the American tourists in the Summer stand out like a sore thumb. It’s not only clothing, but voices. Living in the Big Smoke, you learn to keep your voice down when in public (unless you’ve been drinking). American voices are loud and strong.

    I never realized our cultural propensity to talk to anyone, about anything, at any time, until I became “London-ized.” In general, Americans are a loud bunch. As tourists, they stand out in London for their voices alone.

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