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Doing some reading lately, I've been pondering the strange pronunciations of English place names — namely, that of the 'w' in the "–wich" suffix, which, as I understand it, is not enunciated. For example, listening and watching many British programmes has taught me that Norwich is pronounced NORR-ich, Warwick is pronounced WORR-ick, and many of us know that Greenwich is pronounced GREN-ich.

My question is pretty simple, I think: Are these pronunciations the historical pronunciations, and for etymological reasons (or some other reason perhaps) a superfluous 'w' was added? That seems especially likely with ancient place names; many English cities can boast of rich histories stretching back to pre-Roman times. Or, on the other hand, is this just a common corruption, promulgated by "Standard English" to elide this "-w" — perhaps there is some dialect in England that would properly pronounce it when speaking?

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Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/29279/… –  z7sg Ѫ Jun 18 '11 at 1:26

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The "-wich" in Norwich and others comes from Old English wic (pronounced like witch):

wíc [] n (-es/-), f (-e/-a) dwelling-place, lodging, habitation, house, mansion; village, town; pl entrenchments, camp, castle, fortress; street, lane; bay, creek

Sometimes the "-wic" is shortened beyond even the "-ich" sound we're so familiar with. York, for example, was originally called Eoforwic (pron. eyovorwich).

Wic in Old English is also similar to vik in Old Norse, and there is some speculation that the word Viking itself referred to the penchant of those folk to go off a-viking, i.e. sacking towns.

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A closer modern rendering of the pronunciation of Eoforwic might be Everwitch/Everwick, or for those accents where /l/ ~ /o/, perhaps Elverwitch/Elverwick. –  Jon Purdy Oct 29 '12 at 19:28

The -wich suffix comes from Old English wīc, meaning ‘trading center’ or ‘harbor’, so the w certainly wasn't 'added later'.

It's quite normal for place/family names to have 'awkward' phonemes dropped from pronunciation, or massively distorted.

I'd guess this is partly because people who live further away from the location or family seat may have different accents, and thus may find it difficult to pronounce names exactly as the 'locals' do.

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The original word's pronunciations have been explained by the two previous users, but I would just like to add, that the "w" was dropped as a result of elision, which is just a phonological omission, or a letter that has been dropped, muted, or slurred over i.e."Vegetable" is pronounced without the second 'e'. or "McKenzie" pronounced "M'Kenzie"

It also has epenthesis, which is the addition of a vowel or consonant, in this case, the 'r' instead of the 'w'. So, they took away the 'w', and just put 'r' in. This is all for ease of pronunciation, and happens all the time in English speech.

The pronunciation given in this dictionary seems to indicate that there are people who pronounce it without any elision or epenthesis:

nawr-wich

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The US norwich is pronounced nar-wich and supposedly this was the 17C pronunciation in England aswell. The inmates that went to America took the original pronunciation with them –  mgb Jun 18 '11 at 4:13
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Note that there are also place names in England which are still pronounced in full, notably Sandwich. –  chrisdowney Jun 18 '11 at 15:20

In the place name Sandwich, in the county of Kent, UK, it is generally pronounced in full (i.e. sand witch). However, in very rapid or "lazy" speech, it's pronounced like sam widge. I've even heard Norwich (norrich) pronounced as Norridge.

This elision is similar to the one in February where the first 'r' is dropped.

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