The silent “w” in some British place names

In the past couple of Word Bites posts, we have gone over some of the most difficult (more rather, misleading) British place names to pronounce, and how those names originated, and some ideas why the pronunciation changed to strongly deviate from what is written. But today, let’s explore some of the typical patterns in some of these place names, starting off with the more common silent letters.

Compare the pronunciations of Southwark, Warwick, Greenwich, and Alnwick. Spot any patterns?

Yup, the “w”, or for the case of Warwick, the second “w”, is silent. It is a rather noticeable pattern across many British place names especially across England.

However, things are not quite so straightforward. Exceptions, where the “w” is pronounced, include places like Ipswich, Sandwich, and Middlewich. While this pattern tends to be quite common, some people still advice listening to the local residents on the pronunciation, as these changes in pronunciations over time are more localised.

But why does the silent “w” occur in the places that do?

Many of these place names with silent “w” typically end with the suffix “-wick” or “-wich”. These two generally derive from the same Old English word wic, meaning a dwelling or a fortified place. Over time, sound changes occur, and letters may be altered or dropped entirely in a process called “elision”. Theories to why the “w” was especially dropped included rapid or “lazy” speech, often favouring the path that takes the least “effort” to articulate. However, this effort needed ranges from speaker to speaker, from locality to locality, resulting in a generally recognisable pattern, but with notable exceptions to the supposed “norm”.

Hypotheses about when the “w” ceased to be pronounced here focused right around the 16th century, towards the advent of Early Modern English. However, how we write English was slow to adapt or change. For typical words like “inwards”, duplicate spellings were developed to suit more towards this change, as with the word “innards”, meaning the intestines or guts. This phonological change could explain why we write “answers” but pronounce “ansers” as well.

So this pretty much sums up how the letter “w” came to be omitted in some British place names. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule per se, but it is a rather nice pronunciation pattern we might pick up when travelling around England. This has been a short one, but we will return with yet another pattern you might notice about some other British place names.

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