Rules, Britannia

An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom

Toni Summers Hargis

Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One

Regions and Their Differences

First things first—the Brits actually don’t call themselves Brits. I do here for convenience but would never do it in the UK. People in the UK tend to say they’re English, Irish, Scottish/Scots, or Welsh. (“Scotch” refers to the drink.) Passports, however, state the nationality of all people living in the UK and Northern Ireland as “British.” Try asking someone if they’re British, and most “Brits” will correct you and say, “Actually, I’m English, Welsh,” and so on. It’s basically the same as lumping Americans and Canadians together.
According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than Oregon; however, you’ll find an alarming number of regional differences even within a fifty-mile radius. Like many Brits, I can tell if a person is from my hometown, or from a town ten miles away, by the accent and use of different words and phrases. In the Northeast of England, “bonnie” means pretty, while further south, in Yorkshire, it can mean “fat”; as you can see, there’s a lot of opportunity to really put your foot in your mouth. “Cannie” describes a really nice person in the Northeast, but in Scotland refers to someone who is street-smart, careful with money, or even sly.

As in the United States, there is a north/south divide in England, although not so much in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It’s the opposite to the States in that Northerners are the ones who are supposed to be less sophisticated and one step removed from cavemen. A closer look at the UK however, reveals a much more complex fabric.

The north/south question is very subjective and partly driven by snobbery. The southern joke is that the north begins at Watford, a mere thirty miles north of London. As someone from the far north east of England, I am bunched together with people from Manchester and Birmingham as “northerners” and yet I have nothing in common with them other than not being from London. In fact, Birmingham is far closer to London than it is to Newcastle. To me, Birmingham is not in the north of England, being geographically situated less than halfway up.

If you travel around the UK for any length of time, you will soon appreciate the differences from one region to another, both in culture and accent.

Sometimes the accents are so different that people from opposite ends of the country (a mere one thousand or so miles) can barely understand each other. People from Glasgow and Cornwall might as well be speaking in different languages. There’s not a lot I can do to help you here, except warn you that you will be faced with seemingly unintelligible conversation from time to time. Unfortunately, asking the speaker to slow down rarely makes him or her more intelligible.

Bear in mind also that most Brits are only used to hearing the generic American accent of TV shows. You may think you don’t have an accent, but the look on people’s faces when you talk to them will soon set you straight. If you know you have a heavy accent, save yourself hours of repetition and slow down! Having said that, be prepared to repeat yourself when addressing someone for the first time. They’re usually concentrating more on the fact that you have a strange accent than on the words you’re using. On some occasions you’ll even see the mouth drop open a few inches.

Unlike Americans, the Brits don’t really pay a lot of attention to their ancestry, since most of them have lived in the same country for many generations. If you say you’re Italian or Irish, but are speaking with an undeniable American accent, there’ll be a look or two of skepticism from any Brits around. If you have a strong southern accent, but say you’re from New York, expect some confusion or disbelief. That’s because if you ask a Brit where she’s from, you’ll likely be told her birthplace rather than where she lives now.

Often, the regions, cities, and their inhabitants have nicknames, which are used regularly in the UK:

• Birmingham—the people are called “Brummies” and the accent is “Brummy.” Birmingham is sometimes referred to as “Brum.” The area around Birmingham is also known as the Black Country.

• The Black Country—comprises the areas north and west of Birmingham, but not Birmingham itself.

• Blighty—nickname for England, from the Hindu bilayati meaning “foreign.”

• Border country—refers to the counties of England and Scotland on either side of the border, or the border between Wales and England.

• The Broads, or Norfolk Broads—a stretch of very flat land in the county of Norfolk, near the seaside town of Great Yarmouth, on the east coast.

• Bristol—the residents are Bristolians and their accent is Bristolian. However, because of the accent, Bristol sometimes sounds like “Brizzle.” (People from the West Country in general are often referred to as “carrot crunchers.”)

• Channel Isles—off the French coast of Normandy, in the English Channel; they comprise Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney, Sark, Herm, and a handful of smaller islands.

• Fen country—refers to Lincolnshire and parts of Cambridgeshire; here the land is extremely flat and boggy.

• Glasgow (by the way, it’s pronounced “Glazzgo,” not “Glass Cow”)—the people are Glaswegians (“Glazweejans”), and their accent is unintelligible. (Just kidding!)

• Home Counties—refers to the counties surrounding London, whence many people commute into the City.

• The Isle of Man—both the people and the accent are called Manx; there is also a Manx cat that has no tail.

• The Lakes—the Lake District, on the northwest border of England and Scotland.

• Liverpool—people living there are either Liverpudlians or Scousers. Their accent is called “Scouse” (soft “s”). The region is Merseyside (pronounce the first “s” like a “z”).

• London (which is a city, not a town)—the residents are generally known as Londoners, although you can call yourself a Cockney if you were born within the sound of Bow Bells. St. Mary-le-Bow Church (or Bow Church) is situated in Cheapside. London is sometimes referred to as “The Smoke.”

• Manchester—there you’ll find Mancunians (hard “c”); their accent is Mancunian.

• The Midlands—southerners think the Midlands start just north of London, but this is really the area around Birmingham, Coventry, and Leicester.

• Newcastle-upon-Tyne—The people are called Geordies (“Jordies”) and they have a Geordie accent. The region is Tyneside.

• The Northeast—The northeast of England: the cities of Newcastle, Durham, Sunderland, York, and surrounding areas.

• The Peak District—an area in the middle of England, between Sheffield and Manchester; a favorite of walkers and nature lovers.

• The Pennines—the area of England around the Pennine Mountains, in the mid-Northeast.

• The Potteries—a group of small towns in Staffordshire making up Stoke-on-Trent.

• The provinces—anywhere outside London.

• The Shetlands and the Orkneys—small groups of remote islands off the northern tip of Scotland.

• Snowdonia—the mountain region in the west of Wales.

• The Western Isles—remote islands off the west coast of Scotland.

Remember that, just as your knowledge of British geography might not be very detailed, the Brits won’t know where many places are in the USA, other than the big cities. In particular, regional names or nicknames will be totally foreign to them. These include Cajun, Canuck, Cheesehead, Creole, Hoozier, Polack, redneck, wet back, and any references to Native Americans or the Mason-Dixon line. Also, since there are not as many Spanish speakers living in the UK, assume that most Brits won’t know even a few words in Spanish—French, German, or Latin, perhaps, but not Spanish!

Name Pronunciation

Many place names in the United Kingdom have extremely peculiar spellings, and even the Brits don’t know how to pronounce them all. However, there are a few key places that you might want to pronounce correctly, or at least recognize the correct pronunciation when you hear it. If you are traveling in Wales, Scotland, and parts of the Southwest, the place names may be in Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish, and any attempt at pronunciation will be painful to you and the locals. It’s best to do what every other visitor does—ask or point!

Most Welsh places beginning with “double ell” are impossible to attempt unassisted. Best bet is to have a few lessons from a friendly, Welsh-speaking native—in the pub if possible. It’s a fantastic language to listen to and your attempts will provide hours of mirth to you and your coach. I lived in Wales as a small child, and I’m just glad the place was called Criccieth.

You might thank me for these pointers:

• “Folk”—Any place name with “-folk” on the end is pronounced as in the four-letter expletive rather than “foke.” I kid you not! Therefore places like Norfolk and Suffolk are in fact pronounced “Norfuk” and “Suffuk.”

• “Ford”—Names of places with “ford” in them are truncated. You don’t pronounce this word as you would the car maker, but squash it together and simply pronounce the “f” and the “d.” Examples of such places include Hertford (pronounced “Hartfd”), Dartford, and Hereford. However, if you come across a place beginning with “Ford,” you pronounce the word as in the car maker—e.g., Fordham, except the “h” would be silent (see below). Got it?

• “Ham”—Brits more or less ignore the “-ham” found at the end of many place names. Birmingham is pronounced “Birming’m.” Nottingham becomes “Notting’m.” Other examples include Fulham in London (Full’m), Durham (Dur’m), and Dagenham (Dagen’m).

• “Mouth”—Anything ending with “-mouth” is pronounced “muth.” E.g., Plymouth is “Plimuth” (not rhyming with “fly”), Weymouth is “Waymuth,” and Portsmouth is “Portsmuth.” Since the “mouth” part of the name refers to the mouth of a river, you’ll usually find these places on the coast somewhere. An exception I can think of (and there are surely more) is Tynemouth, which is pronounced as you’d expect.

• “Shire”—Any county (and they are all counties) that ends with “-shire” is not pronounced that way. For example, most people pronounce “Leicestershire” as “Lestershu” or “Lestersha”; Yorkshire is pronounced “Yorkshu” or “Yorksha.” (Basically, what I’m trying to do here is to cut short the sound of the “shire” part.) Confusingly, sometimes the “shire” is pronounced more like “sheer.”

• “Wich”—Unfortunately, place names ending in “-wich” can either have the “w” pronounced—or not. I can help you out with a few of them, but others will no doubt trip you up. Greenwich, in London, is pronounced “Grenidge,” while the Aldwych is the “Aldwidge.” Sandwich, in Kent, is pronounced like the one you eat.

• “Wick”—Most names ending in “-wick” have a silent “w.” Berwick and Alnwick, both near the English/Scottish border, are pronounced “Berrick” and “Annick.” Warwick is “Warrick,” and Chiswick in London is “Chizzick.”

• Berkshire is pronounced “Barkshu” or “Barksha.” Its real name is Royal Berkshire, but people usually drop the royal bit. You’ll also hear it simply referred to as Berks (pronounced “Barks”) from time to time.

• Derby and Derbyshire—Pronounced “Darby” and “Darbyshu” or “Darbysha.”

• Edinburgh—The “G” in this word is silent. People say “Edinbura” or “Edinbru”; either would be understood. What you tend not to hear is “Edinburrow.”

• Glasgow—Pronounced “Glazz Go” as opposed to “Glass Cow.” I hate to be picky about this, but it drives the natives crazy.

• Gloucester and Gloucestershire—pronounced “Gloster” and “Glostershu/Glostersha.” Definitely not “Glowsestershire.”

• Hampshire—This, you’ll be pleased to learn, is pronounced as you’d expect; don’t forget to truncate the “shire,” though. Some people will say they live in Hants instead of Hampshire. Don’t ask me where the “n” comes from. Similarly, Northamptonshire is often called North Hants.

• Hertford and Hertfordshire—Both are pronounced as in “heart.” Don’t forget not to say “ford” but “fd.” If you can pronounce Herfordshire correctly, you’ve been paying attention. It would be pronounced “Hartfdsha”! Again, you might hear someone saying they live in Herts (pronounced “Hearts”), and this would also be Hertfordshire.

• Leicester—Both the city and the square in London are pronounced “Lester.” Similarly, Bicester is pronounced “Bisster.”

• Loughborough is pronounced “Luffbura.”

• Shrewsbury is pronounced “Shroosbury” or “Shrowsbree,” depending on where you come from.

• Slough is pronounced “Slow,” rhyming with “cow.”

• The river that runs through London is the Thames. The “h” is ignored and the “a” sounds like “e.” Pronounce it “Tems.” (Really!)

You’ll also need to know that Scots are often called “Joch” or “Jock,” the Welsh “Taffy,” and the Irish “Paddy.” There seems to be no common name given to the English, although the term “Joe Bloggs” or “Joe Soap” is the English equivalent of John Doe.

And finally, I’m not saying this to alarm you, but the Brits use different names for the same things depending on where they live. As an American, you may know what a scallion is. In the UK it is called a spring onion and many southerners have never even heard the alternative word “scallion.” If you are going to be staying in a specific region for any length of time, do yourself a favor and buy a local destination guide when you get there. Also look up the place on the Internet, as there are usually Web sites for and by locals, which will give you a flavor of the region, as well as a more local vocabulary.

Resources—The Knowhere Guide’s Web site, a user’s guide to Britain, often written by the inhabitants. Calls itself “not your typical tourist guide.”

Copyright © 2006 by Toni Summers Hargis