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I went to England and heard people pronouncing place names weirdly.

For example,

  • Caterham was pronounced "K-ter-rum" or "K-trum" instead of "K-ter-ham"
  • Selhurst was pronounced "SEL-lust" instead of "SEL-hust"
  • Clapham Junction was pronounced "CLAP-pam JUNK-tion" instead of "CLAP-ham JUNK-tion"

It seems like that the H in these names are silent.

I have never seen this behaviour in other English words. Why does this happen? Is this a British accent thing? Is there any English words that have this kind of silent H?

  • 1
    Hospital, depending on region – mplungjan Aug 11 '17 at 20:40
  • In a similar vein, the county name "Leicestershire" drops the "ice" to be pronounced "Lestershire" (and similarly "Leicester Square" in London's theatre district is pronounce "Lester Square"). The county name Worcestershire drops the "rce" to be pronounced "Wuustershire" (also as in the sauce). There are many similar examples. – UserEpsilon Aug 11 '17 at 21:23
  • Weirdness is [very often] in the ear of the hearer. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '17 at 21:43
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    Most H's in English spelling are silent; the letter is used mostly to modify other letters - CH, TH, SH, GH, RH, etc. And even the ones representing the modern English phoneme /h/ are frequently deleted. This is the fate of /h/ phonemes the world over; notice that H is always silent in French and Spanish, for instance. /h/ phonemes change fast, and usually change to Zero. – John Lawler Aug 11 '17 at 22:35
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    Pure conjecture, but I suspect that pronunciation and spelling have more tendency to diverge with place names than with anything else. Perhaps this is because place names are often very ancient; perhaps it's because local people used them without ever knowing how they were written, while distant gentry used them without ever knowing how they were pronounced. – Michael Kay Aug 11 '17 at 23:53
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In general, word-medial /h/ tends to be lost before an unstressed vowel. Compare the pronunciations of "vehicle" and "vehicular". See https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/15716/5581 Some words are exceptions or have variable pronunciations, but the loss of /h/ has become standard in the place names you mention. It doesn't have to do with a British accent. However, non-British speakers may be more likely to use pronunciations with /h/ for these place names due to the influence of the spelling.

Actually, a similar phenomenon is the loss of "w" after a consonant and before an unstressed vowel, as in "answer" and "Greenwich".

I just found a related question on Linguistics SE with an answer by Colin Fine that says basically the same thing: https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/8398/why-is-h-of-ham-dropped-in-english-place-names

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    I never knew the w in Greenwich is silent! I've been pronouncing it wrong this whole time! – Sweeper Aug 11 '17 at 20:55
  • @Sweeper yes, it's a pet peeve of the locals: silently mocking the tourists that visit green-witch. ;-) – Stephie Aug 11 '17 at 21:22
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    @UserEpsilon Define 'correctly'. Should Anglophones revert to the French pronunciation of Paris? Was Leonard Bernstein or Elmer Bernstein more correct? – Edwin Ashworth Aug 11 '17 at 21:31
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    I think that traditionally the Greenwich in New York is GRENITCH, while the one in London is GRINIDGE. But a lot of people nowadays seem to use GRENITCH for the London one too. – Michael Kay Aug 11 '17 at 23:47
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    @MichaelKay also GRENIDGE – Henry Aug 12 '17 at 0:31
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Not all the "H"s that appear to be silent are supposed to be silent, and whilst it is a common speech habit in London, you'll hear it in Manchester too, for example "'urry up, we'll miss't bus to 'rrogate" (Hurry up or we'll miss our bus to Harrogate).

I was brought up in Lewisham, South London and my Mum would implore us not to "drop your H's" and roll her eyes in despair when we did, because she wanted us to grow up "speaking properly". Other letters are dropped rather casually, Lewisham Hospital was inevitably "Lew-shum Osp-itall".

Lewisham is the borough directly south of Greenwich that I can assure you is referred to as "Grin-idge" by those who live in the area. Anyone using "Green-wich" marks themselves out as a non-Londoner.

It is not only leading "H"s that get dropped. The "g" in the "ing" of words is commonly dropped, as are some "t"s. For example: Tooting Bec would be "Too-in Bec", Tottenham would be "Tot-nam". The "th" in North and South are routinely pronounced with a soft "f" sound. Consequently, I was born in "Saarf Landon" but rarely went "nawf ov the riv-ahh" (Thames).

But don't despair, sometimes, what you see is what you get. The City of London street known as Cheapside is pronounced just as you see it, "cheap-side", however, for years, as a child my Dad played a trick and convinced me it was pronounced "Khee-ap-siddy".

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    though I would have suspected that the t in "Tooting Bec" is rather replaced with a glottal stop instead if just being dropped, or am I guessing wrong? – Hagen von Eitzen Aug 12 '17 at 9:49

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