Author Topic: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich  (Read 5949 times)

djj

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My eyesight really isn't up to classifying these days, so I thought I might contribute in lieu by way of this short OotD, especially since there doesn't seem to be any shortage of slots at the moment. It begins in a hallowed location, with a couple of remarkable objects, but I'm afraid it then wanders off into what for me is the fascinating realm of language change, albeit with some limericks at the end to sweeten the pill :D.


There can be few astronomers, professional or amateur, who haven't come across the place-name Greenwich, either because of the observatory built there in the 17th century by order of King Charkes II, or because of the prime meridian established there in the 19th century by the then Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy.

However, I suspect that in some parts of the world, even some English-speaking parts :), there might be a certain amount of uncertainty as to how to pronounce this place-name (as when buying a train ticket to get there from central London). Would something like 'Green Witch' do? Not really, unless you want to advertise the fact that you're not local. The only rhyme I can find for it is 'spinach', but that's not necessarily of any help, being another case where spelling and pronunciation are at odds. It's perhaps best to imagine that there's a word 'grinnage' that comes 'grin', just as the word 'tonnage' comes from 'ton'. Certainly this imaginary word 'grinnage' would sound exactly like the place-name in question.

Anyway, the chap pictured below has probably got the hang of it by now, as he's standing astride the famous Greenwich meridian, so that his position is east and west of Greenwich at one and the same time.


How did Greenwich get its name? It's mentioned in a document of 964 CE with the spelling Grenewic, where grene denotes the colour we now spell 'green', and wic is an Old English word borrowed from the local Britons when the Anglo-Saxons began to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman army at the start of the 5th century.

For over three centuries these Briitons had known only Roman rule, and their culture is decribed by historians as Romano-British, but the newcomers from the continent dubbed them Wælisc, a term that has evolved into the modern English world Welsh but was originally a somewhat derogatory Germanic term for Celts in general, the term deriving from the name of a Gallic tribe known to Caesar as the Volcae.

Naturally many of the Romano-British Celts were bilingual in Old Welsh and Latin, and they apparently applied the Latin word vicus 'village' to almost any significant settlement, be it a dwelling, a farm, a work place, a trading post or even a harbour.. Clearly at some point the word vicus lost its ending, but the Latin value of its v (=w) was kept. So Greenwich, being on the river Thames near Roman Londinium (London) was probably so named for being a small trading port flanked by green fields.

Where this Old English word wic survives it is now spelt either -wich (mainly to the east of London) or (-)wick. I've bracketed the last hyphen because that form of wic is still found by itself in three places called Wick in the west of England. Far more frequently though wic was suffixed to a distinguishing word, such as 'green' in  the name Greenwich or 'gat' (Old English for 'goat') in the name Gatwick (borne now by an airport, but once, evidently, by a goat farm).

Now Gatwick is pronounced the way it looks, so the question arises, why is the w-sound of wic kept in some place-names, but lost in others?

A w-sound, unlike, say, a t-sound, involves the vocal chords, so it is said to be 'voiced'.  Also, unlike some other voiced sounds, such as the d-sound, it can be continued until the breath runs out, so it is also said to be a 'continuant'.  Other voiced continuants, besides vowels themselves, are the nasals (m and n), the liquids (l and r) and the sounds of 'soft' s (=z) and 'soft' th (as in 'this').

The rule, where the w of -wich or -wick is concerned, is that it drops after any other voiced continuant, so it is NOT heard in any of the following place-names:  Alnwick, Berwick, Beswick, Bromwich, Chiswick, Dulwich, Greenwich, Harwich, Hawick (= 'Haaick' or even 'Hoyk'), Keswick, Norwich, Smethwick, Warwick (and perhaps a few others).

Conversely, the w-sound IS heard in such place names as Aldwick, Ashwick, Droitwich, Gatwick, Hardwick, Nantwich, Rudgwick, Sandwich, Southwick (and doubtless many others).

My rule would probably need refining, given complete lists, and it's said that in Norfolk even Hardwick is pronounced 'Haddick'. However, what can you expect of a county where Happisburgh is pronounced 'Hazebro' ::)?


The place-names ending in -wich , like Greenwich, are confined essentially to those parts of England that were settled by Angles and Jutes (from what became Denmark), while those ending in -wick, like Gatwick, suggest areas settled by Saxons (from the North Sea coast of what became Germany). Indeed Sussex, the county where Gatwick is located, means 'South Saxons'.

The Angles gave their name to East Anglia, which is essentially Norfolk (the North Folk) and Suffolk (the South Folk), while the Jutes settled in Kent, and almost all the -wich place-names I have found are in those areas – east of Greater London's Westminster.

West of London we expect -wick, and the only exceptions I know of are West Bromwich and Castle Bromwich (in the Birmingham area of central England) Droitwich (a bit further north, in Worcestershire) and Nantwich (further north still, in Cheshire).

Furthermore, while the names of the more easterly places – Norwich, Harwich, Woolwich, Dulwich, Greenwich and Sandwich – are heard with a final English j-sound (as we have seen with Greenwich), the -ch in Droitwich and Nantwich is heard with a definite English ch-sound, as in 'church', and according to its Wikipedia article the same is true of West Bromwich, although one does sometimes hear the j-sound instead.

This is not to say that East Anglia is free of -wick names either. In fact I have found eight in Norfolk alone. Clearly Saxons sometimes settled among the Angles, just as Bromwich, Droitwich and Nantwich suggest Anglian settlements in the Midlands (see map above) and even further north. Indeed the intermingling of Angles and Saxons is borne out by history, sometimes violent, until eventually the terms English (= 'Anglish') and England ('Angleland') came to include Angles and Saxons alike, whereas in the Celtic languages of Great Britain and Ireland it is the words that originally meant Saxon that now apply to the English in general (e.g. the Scottish Gaelic word that English-speakers spell Sassenach, courtesy of Sir Walter Scott).

Finally, here is  a little set of limericks I've composed to illustrate, through rhyme, the loss of the w-sound in so many -wich and -wick place-names:


There was a young man from Norwich
Who was terribly fond of porridge,
But his girlfriend, from Greenwich,
Was keener on spinach
And served it with snippets of borage.


A certain young lady from Warwick
Found the castle too phantasmagoric,
So with someone called Eric
She moved up to Berwick-
On-Tweed, which is also historic.


There was a young couple from Harwich
Who, after their shot-gun marriage,
Moved down to Old Woolwich
But couldn't pay fullage*,
So lived in a railway carriage.

*charge for the fulling of woollen cloth


There was an old man from Chiswick,
Who dreaded taking physic,
But with pills for panic
From Airy# in Alnwick
His world became quite paradisic.

#Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal mentioned above, was a native of Alnwick, and would certainly have pronounced it 'Annick', as it's still pronounced today. Worth visiting, by the way, for its striking castle.

« Last Edit: April 14, 2014, 11:31:01 am by djj »

AlexandredOr

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #1 on: April 14, 2014, 09:57:17 am »
Great OotD. Very interesting and instructive. Thank you !
And glad to meet you David !

Baby star opening its eyes on the Universe.

JeanTate

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #2 on: April 14, 2014, 01:28:58 pm »
Very enjoyable OotD, djj!  ;D

Linguistic question, if I may: what regional variations in pronunciations of these places names are there (other than those which your 'cousins' from across 'the pond' display, etc)? For example, do natives of Scotland, Wales, or northern England pronounce the -wich and -wick parts differently (the consonant, not the vowel), especially for places they may never have heard of before (i.e. excluding places like Gatwick, which everyone knows)?

Rick Nowell

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #3 on: April 14, 2014, 02:27:45 pm »
'However, what can you expect of a county (Norfolk) where Happisburgh is pronounced 'Hazebro'?

I grew up in and around Norwich and can testify to the county's pronunciations. The sound 'or' generally
becomes 'ar', so Norwich is pronounced 'Nar-ridge'. Norfolk is similarly 'Nar-fok'.

For a few years I lived in a market town in the very flat Norfolk countryside called Wymondham. This is
pronounced 'Win-dum'. I vaguely recall that the derivation is from 'win mund ham', as in days of yore
there was the chance to 'win ham' at the market.

Happisburgh, ('haze-bruh'), is on a lovely stretch of sandy coastline overlooking the North Sea. It is
however disappearing because of costal erosion.

mitch

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #4 on: April 14, 2014, 02:46:21 pm »
Marvellous and really interesting OOTD, David.  8) 8)

graham d

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #5 on: April 14, 2014, 03:26:34 pm »
A superb introduction David. With time all written languages become archaic so standard received English isn't written phonetically. There's no hope of an update either. Gatwich is losing its t, even on the BBC. Hawich in Scotland is rendered by the the locals as "oich". Infact whenever they drop the t I explete Goich. In a few generations we may well mimic the Scots as well unless they vote for independence; just don't call them Scotch. A lazy tongue plays havoc with language. The Andalusian dialect drops many consonants as well, rendering it virtually incomprehensible. There are about 25 variations of the five English vowels; the latter have evolved differently too as a consequence of the Great Vowel Change that happened around the 13th century. Why did it happen? There's much debate and it's never ending- I simply put it down to incessant bloody conflict that ensues amongst English academic pedants. The USA and the English Speaking Folk inherited the aftermath of this huge change in vowel sounds, that so infuriates many European pedants today. It has its advantages. The female vagina in French is le vagin. The Germans even decline adjectives. I would rather decline two gin and tonics than one German adjective. Make a language too complicated and well! the winner ends up speaking English. I grew up near the centre of Sheffield. There was one basic dialect which nobody spoke infact, many subdialects existed that varied over as little as an acre and some claim from different sides of the street. There are several Yorkshire dialects which I used to be able to distinguish, alas no more, along with uncommon nouns known by few others as in Shizzlewich. Sam Clemmens may have got it right after all. Some schools have up to 70 ethnic groupings with pupils whose first language is not English. The best way to notice differences is to pay a visit. The English language has the ability to evolve according to its own rules, regardless of human interference. Minor birds in many Northern pubs have the ability to perfectly mimic the spoken dialect, and many a boozer who has had one too many happilyy engages them and parrots too, occasionally budgies, in lengthy coversations.
« Last Edit: April 14, 2014, 03:54:02 pm by graham d »

ElisabethB

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #6 on: April 14, 2014, 08:24:26 pm »
What a delightful stroll ! :D

djj

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #7 on: April 14, 2014, 11:11:37 pm »
Thanks everybody for your kind remarks :).

Interesting question, JT. I think radio and television have tended to standardize place-name pronunciation to a large extent, albeit with regional colouring, and the underlying rule I suggested for the abbreviation of -wick/-wich after a continuant is pretty clearly one that British and Irish speakers of English are subconsciously aware of. Nevertheless, atypical names, like Hawick (with -wick after a vowel) and Alnwick (with -wick after two continuant consonants) will invariably throw people who've never heard them pronounced before. There may also be differences of opinion, even among locals, over the-ch of -wich, as I noted with West Bromwich, well to the west of East Anglia.

However, where Northern Ireland is concerned I have noticed a curious tendency, even among BBC reporters native to that region, to promounce the ow of 'how',and 'now'  almost indistinguishably (to my ear) from the igh of 'high' and 'nigh'. So their pronunciation of Cowbridge, the name of a small town in Wales's Vale of Glamorgan, might raise some eyebrows. Or they might possibly assume that it rhymes with Trowbridge, the county town of Wiltshire, where the ow is pronounced as in 'know'. Indeed I had a pub lunch at a little place called Lowsonford the other day, and even though it's not very far from here I still managed to get the pronunciation wrong – the first syllable actually rhymes with the word 'low' :D.

LizPeter

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #8 on: April 15, 2014, 06:12:50 am »
Fantastic, really enjoyed your article.

elizabeth

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #9 on: April 16, 2014, 04:58:17 am »
 ;D Like WOW been gone for awhile but I am back! Wonderful read! Just Awesome

djj

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Re: Monday, 14th April, 2014: A (Linguistic) Stroll Around Greenwich
« Reply #10 on: April 16, 2014, 07:57:00 pm »
Thank you, LizPeter and elizabeth. Glad you enjoyed it :).