Having to correct several non-English speakers (and quite a few Americans) as regards the pronunciation of Leicester Square (LES-ter), Gloucester Road (GLOS-ter) or Greenwich (GREN-ich) in London, I thought I’d get this post off my chest.
Queen of mispronounced locations is Davos in Switzerland that suffers from looking like a Greek resort such as Kavos. Every January BBC announcers say DAH-vos instead of the correct Dah-FOS. Not only is the German ‘v’ pronounced ‘F’ as in Father (Vater), but the accent is on the last syllable as well. The name incidentally means ‘Alp’ in Romansch.
Spanish place names suffer the most in the lips of English speakers who insist on accenting always the last but one syllable. San Sebastian (Se-bas-TIAN) is a perennial correction (everyone says Se-BA-stian) as is San Salvador (Sal-va-DOR instead of SAL-va-dor). Spain’s Mediterranean islands come next: Mallorca or Majorca is Ma-YOR-ca not Ma-JOR-ca (as in “major”). For Ibiza, Ee-BEE-Tha or Ee-BEE-sa will do, but not Ay-BEE-tha. As for Spanish-speaking America, please notice that there are two C’s in the second word in Machu Picchu which is pronounced MA-chu PIK-chu by everyone who’s been there and heard it.
When we come to Portugal and Brazil, people get confused, perhaps rightly, with the Portuguese double-R or initial R of place names. The Spanish roll it (Torremolinos, Costa Rica) but the Portuguese pronounce it like ‘H’. Rio’s Barra district, where the 2016 Olympics were held, sounds like BA-ha, not BA-ra. Now that I mention it, Rio de Janeiro itself is pronounced in Brazil Hio de Janeiro; that initial R again.
My American friends can get their own back with Arkansas (AR-kan-saw), but they should also take heed of the African country of Niger which has nothing to do with the way we say Nigel, or, God forbid, THAT word, but should be pronounced in the French way, Nee-ZHER.
Talking of France, remember that the final x is silent for French Speakers. So please pronounce correctly the French Swiss towns of Bex and, more importantly, Scex.
I’m often asked how to pronounced the Cyclades in Greece. The Greeks will understand them as Ky-KLA-des with a hard K, not a soft c. I also raise a flag about the wonderful beaches near Salonika: they are in the peninsula of Chalkidiki (Khal-kee-dee-KEE) with the accent on the last syllable (not Khal-kee-DEE-kee).
Still, I believe that New Zealand takes the top spot in confusing pronunciation. Many Kiwi towns start with Wh which is pronounced as F like Frodo (to be topical) and not Wh like whopper, so Whakatane and Whangarei are Fa-ka-TA-ne and Fah-na-REY. Blame the nineteenth-century Victorian missionaries who, faced with the Maori Whakapapa, couldn’t even say Fak-a-Papa let alone write it down.
Finally, don’t even mention place names in South Africa that involve Zulu clicks. Just say KO-sa for Xhosa and don’t bother with the voiceless lateral fricative. I certainly don’t.