I was able to reply with the information that English place names that include the letters “cester” don’t actually pronounce the “ces” part, so the correct pronunciation is Wooster-sheer.
The incorporation of “cester” into a place name means that it was a place founded by the Romans when they were in Britain and has its origins in “castra”, which is Latin for a camp. It is also the origin for place names that include “chester” as in Chester and Manchester. From that word we also get Doncaster and Lancaster. Incidentally, the “lan” part of Lancaster comes from the nearby River Lune (pronounced loon), but I’m guessing the people of the city didn’t fancy being known as the people from Looncaster.*
Secondly the “shire” part is pronounced sheer when it is quite clearly spelt to rhyme with hire. But that’s the English language for you, full of anomalies such as that one. I’ll return to that a little later.
The final reason for this pronunciation being problematical, and pedants will already be penning their e-mails to tell me so, is that it is a sweeping generalisation and can’t be universally applied. What about “Cirencester”? They will ask. The “cester” in that is pronounced, otherwise it would be siren-stir and not siren-sester, like sister but spelt with an e.
But Cirencester aside, Gloucestershire is pronounced gloss–tur-sheer, Leicestershire is less-tur-sheer, Towcester is toaster and Alcester is all-stir.
Take “I before e except after c”. I think there is sufficient evidence to allow us to draw a veil over that one. In fact there are far more words that don’t obey the rule than there are words that do. The saying itself isn’t even complete. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer’s 1880 “Rules for English Spelling” gives it as “i before e, except after c, or when sounded as "a," as in neighbour and weigh.” But there is insufficient evidence to support that, either. Despite Cobham being English and never having visited America, the use of his rule in schools started in America, not Britain. But there you go, rules are meant to be broken (actually they aren’t, but that’s a whole different blog).
But there are a lot of words we don’t know how to pronounce, or which some Smart Alec decides we are pronouncing wrongly and who change it. Take the name of the warrior queen, Boadicea, for example.
However he would have heard about her in Latin, the Roman language and not the language of Britain, whose native people were Celts. It is from Tacitus that we get the spelling and pronunciation of Boadicea, not Boudicca. As the Celts didn’t have a written language at this time we have no idea how her name would have been spelt or how the Celts would have pronounced it. So, it would appear, someone has taken it upon himself (or herself) to decide how the Celts would have pronounced it, with no regard for the lack of historical fact. They may look to Welsh, Scottish or Irish pronunciations, but that would be wrong, because those nations would have rendered the name into their languages from Latin as it was the only written source available.
What is my evidence for all that? She wasn’t actually a Queen at all so would not have been known widely outside of her own lands. She was the wife, and subsequently widow, of Prasutagus who was a client King of the Romans in an obscure and quite remote part of eastern England, a small part of the county we now call Norfolk. Her rebellion was short lived, lasting only a few weeks, and while she wrought havoc during that time she died ingloriously, crushed by the Roman legions. She wouldn’t have been admired, even by her own people, after that defeat. In fact, given the reprisals visited on the natives by the Romans after the rebellion, it is more likely that her name would have been cursed than celebrated. As I said, the only reason we know about her at all is because of a Roman historian who wrote her name in Latin and it was Boadicea.
But back to words and their pronunciation. How do you pronounce “bow”?
However, in many ways English is also a simple language. Take the definite article “the” as in the chair, the table etc. That’s it. That’s all we have. It’s gender neutral and doesn’t change between the subject and object of a sentence. German has der, die, das, den and dem for the same thing and the French have le, la and les and also, frequently, l’.
In German there are 7 different versions of “you” depending on gender and familiarity with the person being addressed. The French have at least 2, tu and vous (I’m not a linguist so I am happy to be corrected on that).
The Japanese have 7 forms of “thank you” starting with the simple "arigato" and moving up though levels of formality until the speaker is lying prostrate, face down on the ground. Just joking, but it isn’t far from the truth. The Japanese language is very big on formality, as are many others. English, however, seems to be far more laid back about it all.
Much of this is because our language isn’t pure. 2,000 years ago the residents of these islands would all have spoken the Celtic language, because the Romans’ only successful invasion wasn’t until AD 42 (get ready for a big anniversary party in 24 years’ time). But they wouldn’t all have spoken in the same dialect. We know this because Welsh, one of the ancient Celtic languages, is different from Gaelic, which is spoken in both Scotland and Ireland but has differences even between them. They are all different from Manx, spoken on the Isle of Mann, Cornish and Breton.
Mixed in with our Anglo-Saxon is Norse, brought to us by the Danes and Norwegians between 1,300 to 1,000 years ago, then sprinkle in some Norman French which arrived 950 years ago to this very month. Thanks to the Plantagenet’s more French, the real thing, was brought in about 880 years ago and from that recipe the language we now call English began to emerge about 700 years ago. English wasn’t even the official language of the Royal Court until the time of Richard II, who died in 1400 (Trivia - he also introduced the fork into England as an implement of cutlery). With a bit of difficulty we would be able to understand the dying words of Watt Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, who died in 1381. As he was beheaded his last word was probably “argh”, but you get the picture.
Even after the publication of Johnson’s dictionary it still took some time for spelling to become standardised and to take on their modern forms, as can be seen in this playbill from 1797 which still uses the ʄ character in some words (pronounced as a double s, not f). American spelling didn’t start to be standardised until 1828 when Noah Webster published his “American Dictionary of the English Language”. This is the one that led to the Americans starting to leave the u out of words like colour and to put z where it had always been perfectly adequate for an s to be.
Already I’m being bullied by software that provides an annoying red wiggly line under anything that it thinks should have a z in it when I think it should be an s, or when I spell “colour” with a u (it has even done it in this blog post, though you won't see it because you are reading it outside of the text editor). How long before the weaker willed amongst us start to give in to this automated intimidation? It will almost certainly start with the BBC, who are always in the lead when it comes to capitulation. If you doubt that then just listen to any broadcast that involves any units of measurement. It’s all litres, metres and kilograms, despite our official units of measurement still being pints, yards and pounds. Now that we are leaving the EU will they revert back to imperial measurements? Of course not.
Sorry, not quite sure what came over me there.
Anyway, here’s one person who is happy to clarify how to pronounce Worcestershire and who will always spell colour with a u.
* The words “loon” and “lunatic” are derived from the French “la lune” meaning the moon, and allude to the alleged strange behaviour of some people and animals at the time of the full moon.