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How to Say: Plaistow

10:44 UK time, Wednesday, 18 April 2007

A weekly guide to the words and names in the news from Martha Figueroa-Clark of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

The Pronunciation Unit receives a weekly digest of audience comments relating to pronunciations in BBC broadcasts. This week, the pronunciation of the place name Plaistow attracted much attention, as did the words "lieutenant" and "sixth", both of which feature in the weekly digest from time to time.

Getting the pronunciation of British place names right at first glance can be tricky as they sometimes have more than one possible pronunciation (e.g. Shrewsbury which can be pronounced SHROHZ-buh-ri or SHROOZ-buh-ri locally) and place names that share the same spelling but are in different parts of the country do not necessarily share the same pronunciation. Plaistow is a good example of this. It can be pronounced PLAY-stow (-ay as in day; -ow as in now), PLAA-stow (-aa as in father) or PLASS-tow (-a as in hat). The place in Derbyshire is PLAY-stow; in London it can be pronounced PLAA-stow or PLASS-tow; in Kent it is PLAA-stow or PLAY-stow, while Plaistow in West Sussex is pronounced PLASS-tow.

Besides place names and people's names, we are often consulted about the pronunciation of English words. Would you pronounce "controversy" as KON-truh-vur-si or kuhn-TROV-uhr-si? "Kilometre" as KIL-uh-mee-tuhr or kil-OM-uh-tuhr? There is a great deal of variation in the pronunciation of English words among native speakers of English but, contrary to popular belief, the Pronunciation Unit is an advisory service and it is not part of our role to enforce the use of a particular pronunciation of an English word. With the help of resources such as specialist pronouncing dictionaries, it is possible to advise our users on which pronunciations are more common or preferred in particular contexts or by specific authorities, or are considered non-standard or simply incorrect.

In the case of the word "lieutenant", the British English pronunciation differs significantly from the American English pronunciation: whereas it is pronounced loo-TEN-uhnt or lyoo-TEN-uhnt (-oo as in boot) in American English, it is pronounced lef-TEN-uhnt or, sometimes, luhf-TEN-uhnt (-uh as in the) in British English. In advising on the pronunciation of this particular word, the speaker's own variety of English would be an important factor in helping to determine which pronunciation recommendation would be appropriate.

Finally, the word "sixth" has more than one possible pronunciation in English. It is usually pronounced SIKSTH in British English (pronounced as the word 'six', with 'th' as in 'thin' attached at the end), but can also be pronounced SIKST-TH. The pronunciation SIKTH (where the 's' is silent) often results in casual speech but is considered incorrect.

(For a guide to our phonetic pronunciations, click here.)

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