Q: You’ve written previously that the British habit of contracting the next to last syllable in words like “secretary” and “territory” is fairly recent. What about the contracted British pronunciation of place names like “Worcester,” “Gloucester,” and “Leicester”? I’m a curious Yank who wonders when and how this occurred.
A: As you say, we’ve written on our blog and in our books about the development of those speech characteristics we now associate with the modern British accent.
We’ve had several posts about the subject and we discuss it in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths. The New York Times website includes a large excerpt from the chapter in Origins about differences between American and British English.
Many characteristics of modern British speech—like the syllable-dropping in “secretary”—developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
But that’s not the case with the clipped pronunciation of “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester.” That abbreviated way of pronouncing place names ending in “-cester” is quite a bit older—old enough to show up in Shakeseare and to accompany the English-speaking Colonists to the New World.
As you know, the names of those English cities are much easier to say than to write. They sound like WOOS-ter (with the “oo” of “wood”), GLOSS-ter, and LESS-ter.
The standard pronunciations (and the only ones given in the Oxford English Dictionary) call for pronouncing the final “-cester” as “ster.”
The names of the corresponding counties—“Worcestershire,” “Leicestershire,” and “Gloucestershire”—are pronounced the same way, except that each has another syllable (“sher”) at the end.
The British aren’t the only ones who say the names that way. Massachusetts also has cities named Worcester, Leicester, and Gloucester, pronounced as if they were spelled “Wooster,” “Lester,” and “Gloster.”
The OED doesn’t give etymologies for these place names. But there are clues in the dictionary’s entry for “chester,” a long-defunct noun that originally meant a Roman encampment in ancient Britain.
This word, spelled ceaster in Old English writings, comes from the Latin castra (camp), and is “often applied to places in Britain which had been originally Roman encampments,” the OED says.
“This is one of the best ascertained of the Latin words adopted by the Angles and Saxons during the conquest of Britain,” the dictionary adds.
The oldest citation for the use of the word in writing is from the mid-800s. But it existed even earlier, before English was written. As Oxford notes, it’s been reconstructed as cæstra in the prehistoric Old English of the 400s to 500s.
The word still exists today in place names ending in “-cester,” “-caster,” and “-chester.” Those ending in “-caster” and “-chester” are pronounced as written, as in “Lancaster” and “Winchester.”
Why is “-cester” given a clipped pronunciation in place names? The OED says only that “the history of the form written -cester, of which only -ster is pronounced (in Worcester, Bicester, etc.), is obscure.”
It’s difficult to trace the pronunciations of place names, since we have only written records to go by, and many old pronouncing dictionaries don’t include place names.
Two that do, however, might lead us to believe that the “-ster” pronunciation developed in the early 18th century.
Thomas Dyche, in A Guide to the English Tongue (1709), gives three-syllable pronunciations for the three cities, which he renders as “Wor-ce-ster,” “Lei-ce-ster,” and “Glou-ce-ster.”
Half a century later, William Johnston’s A Pronouncing and Spelling Dictionary (1764), in a table devoted to “Words With Quiescent Consonants,” says the “c” is not pronounced in “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester.” (This makes them two-syllable words.)
So it would seem at first glance that the “-ster” pronunciation established itself sometime between 1709 and 1764, assuming these lexicographers were in touch with local usage.
However, as a reader of the blog points out, the names “Worcester,” “Leicester,” and “Gloucester” appear dozens of times in the works of Shakespeare, and “scansion almost always requires two-syllable pronunciations of these words.” (Scansion is analysis of verse to show its meter.)
Here are some two-syllable examples from Shakespeare: “At worcester must his body be interr’d” (King John); “He is, my lord, and safe in leicester town” (Richard III); “As ’tis said, the bastard son of gloucester” (King Lear).
Well, that takes us back to square one. It won’t even help us to analyze the spellings of these words in Old English. The historical spellings of place names are hard to pin down with any certainty.
As Randolph Quirk and Sherman M. Kuhn pointed out in a 1955 article in the journal Language, Old English scribes tended to respell place names freely.
As an example, they wrote, “Four spellings of Worcester occur in two copies of a single document.” The spellings were Wigra Ceastre, Weogerna ceastre, Wegerna ceaster and Wigerna cestre.
“Obviously,” Quirk and Kuhn commented, “somebody altered something, and probably not all of the spellings cited represent local usage.”
Check out our books about the English language