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Why is the Scottish capital Edinburgh pronounced as Edinbruh?

It is not clear to me why the letter "u" is silent, so that the "b" is followed directly by the "r". Then a soft "u" is inserted. Next the "gh" is treated as silent. Strange choices. On the other hand, if this pronunciation is deemed appropriate, why was this spelling chosen and never adjusted?

Even the BBC follows the Scottish convention for the pronunciation of Edinburgh. This makes me wonder how cities in mainland Europe ending in "burg" (meaning fortress or castle) are pronounced in England and Scotland. For example Hamburg (Germany), Middelburg, Voorburg and Doesburg (Netherlands) and Göteborg (Sweden).

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    It's variously pronounced with 4 or 3 syllables (or even 2) - see Wikipedia for the standard pronunciation in Scots and English. You could look at the pronunciation of Scots "burgh" and place-names like Middlesbrough and Fraserburgh. Spelling isn't a good guide to pronunciation.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 12, 2022 at 7:18
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    Edinburgh is pronounced in the same way in Scotland as in other parts of the United Kingdom, as are the names of foreign cities. Of course there may be regional differences in accents and the way that certain letters such as "r" are pronounced, but that is true for words in general. The poster may not be aware of the political and geographical nature of the UK, and the common radio and television culture over the past 90 years. There are interesting stress differences in the pronunciation of certain placenames, but that's another story.
    – David
    Sep 12, 2022 at 11:29
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    @MichaelHarvey ‘Ed-in-bo-ro’ sounds like every American rendering I’ve ever heard of the name. As a Scot who has lived in Edinburgh, I pronounce it more like ‘Ed’n-burr-uh’
    – Spagirl
    Oct 22, 2022 at 21:50
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    This will require most of a day’s free work, so good luck and godspeed to whoever attempts this: anyone who believes this question can be suitably answered in our format will need to synthesize information contained within the OED entries for burg and burgh and borough, and the letter ‹g› and the ‹gh› digraph, as well as Wikipedia page on the Etymology of Edinburgh.
    – tchrist
    Oct 23, 2022 at 17:06
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    This question should be closed; it's based on the silly but common fallacy that English spelling produces sounds (even in non-English words like Edinburgh), and that every letter in the spelling must be pronounced. English spelling doesn't even represent English pronunciation, let alone Scots. And discussing it silently on the internet is even sillier. Oct 25, 2022 at 23:18

3 Answers 3

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Why is the Scottish capital Edinburgh pronounced as Edinbruh?

Three points:

  1. Old English was not a single language spoken throughout Britain. It had several versions depending on the influence of the invader.

  2. The word "burg" indicated a castle and was brought to the British Isles by those invaders from Norway to Northern Germany, all of whom had their own word, from a common origin, whose spelling and pronunciation was distinct but related.

  3. Spelling was not formally standardised until the 18th century (and still is not complete).

The following spellings, up to and including Middle English, are from the OED. They should be pronounced in the accent of the time and region.

Forms: Old English burg, burug, Old English–Middle English burh, Middle English burch, bure(g)h, ( burehg), beriȝ, Middle English buruh, Middle English burrh ( Orm.), burwe, buri, Middle English burȝ, buruȝ, borh, borȝ, boruȝ, boru, Middle English burw, burȝe, borȝ(e, bourȝ, borou, borwȝ, borwgh, borw(e, borgh(e, Middle English burghe, Middle English–1500s (also Scottish 1600s–1800s) burgh, borogh, Middle English–1600s borowe, Middle English burwgh, borowgh, burwhe, borugh(e, burwe, bourg, Middle English–1500s bourgh, Middle English–1600s burrow(e, 1500s borrowe, ( bourg), burow, 1500s–1600s boroughe, 1500s–1700s burrough, (1600s burrowghe, 1700s borrough), 1500s– borough. dative singular Old English byrig, burge, Middle English birie, berie, Middle English biri, burie, buri.

You will note the irregularity of the "g" in "burg" - it varied immensely from the "x" in loch (/lɒx/), through modern j, hard 'g', soft 'g' a 'w' sound, a pure aspirant 'h', to completely silent.

The result of all of this was that, as few people could write - and those who could were taught in a similar manner - in the area of a place, the spelling would be the early phonetic pronunciation in that dialect/language.

It is thus to be assumed that the locals of Edinburgh, were among those who pronounced "burgh" as "br'".

The etymology is discussed at Wikipedia's entry for Edinburgh; (This is expanded upon at Etymology of Edinburgh)

"Edin", the root of the city's name, derives from Eidyn, the name for this region in Cumbric, the Brittonic Celtic language formerly spoken there. The name's meaning is unknown. The district of Eidyn is centred on the stronghold of Din Eidyn, the dun or hillfort of Eidyn. This stronghold is believed to have been located at Castle Rock, now the site of Edinburgh Castle. Eidyn was conquered by the Angles of Bernicia in the 7th century and later occupied by the Scots in the 10th century. As the language shifted to Northumbrian Old English, which evolved into Scots, the Brittonic din in Din Eidyn was replaced by burh, producing Edinburgh.

with the "gh" having the same value as in "through" but inserted to reproduce the earlier "burg" form.

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Edinburgh's standard pronunciation is derived from that of Scottish English speakers. The history of the English language, orthography, and Scottish English phonology are very interesting but it's really outside the scope of this website.

However, regarding usage, is worth discussing why we pronounce it that way. Sometimes we fully Anglicize words from other languages, like Gothenburg instead of Göteborg in your example. Other times there is more variation, such as Hamburg, which could be pronounced 'HAM-burg' or 'HOM-burg', although 'HOM-boorg' would be even closer. But with Edinburgh, it might seem wrong to "Anglicize" something that is technically already English, so perhaps we make a bit more effort to pronounce it in the Scottish way. Another example would be Melbourne, which many pronounce 'MEL-burn' as a hybrid of the Australian way. And American place names often contain French words that are pronounced in a way derived from a historical combination of American English and Louisiana French.

The main point here is that there isn't always a good reason for things like spelling and pronunciation; language is ever-evolving, and what becomes "standard" or "non-standard" is often arbitrary.

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    "The history of the English language, orthography, and Scottish English phonology" are all very much in scope here.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 16, 2022 at 9:37
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It depends who is pronouncing it. Some people may pronounce it to rhyme with "-borough", as we do with another Scots town, Helensburgh.
In other cases, it may be uttered to sound like the Spanish word "hembra" (silent H). And I wouldn't worry about the "gh" component, which notoriously has several context-dependent pronunciations: https://dictionaryblog.cambridge.org/2018/09/19/ghosts-coughs-and-daughters-how-to-pronounce-gh-in-english/

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  • The question is errant, and asks "why". There several reasons, too many for me to list here. However, some of the asker's premises are mistaken. For example, the "u" in Edinburgh is not "silent", but becomes a schwa when not stressed.
    – acme_54
    May 8, 2023 at 18:16

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