How to Pronounce Place Names with ‘ham’.


How to pronounce place names with ‘ham’ in them.

A group of names that often cause pronunciation errors are those containing the ending ‘ham’. Often the error is caused by pronouncing and/or mis-pronouncing the /h/. There is a very simple rule for this:

  • If ‘ham’ is contained within the word itself, do not pronounce the /h/, EG ‘Buckingham’ – /ˈbʌkɪŋəm/ 
  • If ‘ham’ is a separate word, we must pronounce the /h/, EG ‘West Ham’ – /ˈwest ˈhæm/

The most mispronounced ‘ham’ word.

‘Tottenham’ of course. Following the rule above, we do not pronounce the /h/. More confusion occurs here, however, with the silent ‘e’ in the middle, and the second ‘t’ becoming a glottal stop /ʔ/. So ‘Tottenham’ is actually pronounced /ˈtɒʔnəm/ – it is a lot more simple than it appears.

A list of place names with ‘ham’ phonetically transcribed.

Tottenham – /ˈtɒʔnəm/
Rotherham – /ˈrɒðərəm/
Nottingham – /ˈnɒtɪŋəm/
Birmingham – /ˈbɜ:mɪŋəm/
Gillingham – /ˈdʒɪlɪŋəm/
Cheltenham – /ˈtʃelʔnəm/
Buckingham – /ˈbʌkɪŋəm/
Durham – /ˈdʌrəm/

NOTE – Names ending ‘sham’ will be pronounced /ʃəm/:

Lewisham – /lu:wɪʃəm/
Evesham – /ˈi:vʃəm/

What is a ‘Consonant Sound’?


What is a consonant sound?

It often helps to go back to basics when teaching new skills. What question could be more straightforward in teaching pronunciation than ‘What is a consonant sound?’.  Often when this question is posed in class, everyone feels they know the answer, but cannot define it.

Put simply, a consonant sound is a block of air made as it leaves the body.

In order to say a consonant sound we need three pieces of information:

  • The Place where the block of air occurs (lips, teeth, alveolar ridge, palate etc).
  • The Type of block that occurs (plosive, fricative, nasal, approximant etc).
  • The Voicing – whether we are using our voice or not (voiced/voiceless).

So, to illustrate this point, let’s consider the following sound:

  • Place: bi-labial (both lips)
  • Type: plosive (complete stop followed by release)
  • Voiceless (no use of the voice box, just air)

This would produce a /p/ sound.

Pulmonic Consonant Chart

These three pieces of information are clearly displayed on the International Phonetic Association’s consonant chart. Place is displayed along the top, type is displayed down the side, and voicing is shown by the sound appearing in the left or right side of the box. The full chart looks like this:


If you would like to hear all the sounds on the full consonant chart, visit York university’s flash player. Fortunately, English does not contain all of these consonant sounds! The English chart is below:


Notice the focus on sounds made on and near the alveolar ridge.

Diacritics can change the basic sound slightly, so whilst most languages have a type of bilabial plosive /p/ sound, the English one is slightly different as it is often aspirated, so could be written as [pʰ] to show this in phonetics.

Notice that English has the following redundant consonant letters: x, c, j, q. They do not relate to any particular sound, or represent a combination of other sounds.

Consonant charts are covered on Level 2 Pronunciation.


Silent < r > – British Pronunciation


A most British English pronunciation rule.

One of the easiest rules to learn when studying British English pronunciation is that of the silent < r  >. It really is very simple:

Only say an < r > when it appears before a vowel sound.
Never say an < r > when it appears before a consonant or at the end of a word.

So in the word ‘fork’, you don’t say the < r > because there is a consonant after it. In the name ‘Charlie’ you don’t say the < r > for the same reason. However in the word ‘grass’ we do say the < r > because there is a vowel sound after it.

Linking /r/

The rule also works to join words together. For example, consider the word ‘mother’. We normally would not say the < r > because it is at the end of the word, however, if a vowel sound begins the next word, we do pronounce it to join the words:

mother͜ and daughter

the < r > effectively moves on to the beginning of the word ‘and’.

Intrusive /r/

Sometimes, native speakers join words together with an /r/ even if there is no < r > in the spelling, some examples are:

China͜ and India          My idea͜ of a joke

This occurs when a schwa appears at the end of a word, followed by another vowel sound, although some speakers would argue that it is not correct to join in this way.

Rhoticity & Accents

The technical term for an accent that does not pronounce < r > sounds in syllable-final positions is ‘Non-Rhotic’, so a lot of British English accents are known as non-rhotic. American English is mainly rhotic – speakers say every written < r >. This is, however, a generalisation, as there are areas of Britain that are rhotic, and areas of America that are non-rhotic.

Problems for Non-native speakers.

Although nearly all students who come to Pronunciation Studio are rhotic in their own language and therefore normally rhotic in English, it is normally something that students can improve quite quickly. In fact the < r > spelling tells us a lot about which vowel sound to pronounce, so it is really our friend. On strong syllables, the < r > after a vowel sound always indicates a long vowel: /ɑ:/ for car, /ɔ:/ for four, /ɜ:/ for bird, /eə/ for where, or /ɪə/ for ‘near’. On a weak syllable it nearly always indicates /ə/ for mother.

So in the picture we can see Charlie, looking at a large fork, next to some water! (Now practise that sentence without saying a single /r/ sound).

Silent < r > is covered on all Level 1 courses and in chapter 3 of ‘The Sound of English’.

Where’s the stress in ‘afternoon’?


‘Afternoon’ is deceptively difficult to pronounce due to its stress pattern and vowel sounds.


Firstly, it uses a shifting stress pattern. That means that depending on the words after it, it could be stressed on the first syllable, or on the third:

1. ˌafterˈnoon
2. ˈafternoon

Stress pattern 1 should be used whenever ‘afternoon’ is said alone or at the end of a sentence/unit. EG “Good afternoon”, “What a lovely afternoon!”, “Shall we meet this afternoon?”

If ‘afternoon’ appears before another strong/content word, the stress shifts to the first syllable – stress pattern 2 above. EG “Let’s have afternoon tea.”, “This afternoon’s weather looks terrible.”


Secondly, the vowel sounds can cause problems. The first two vowel sounds are central /ɑ:/ then /ə/, the final sound is /u:/. The ‘r’ is silent in the middle.


So it should sound like: /ˌɑ:ftəˈnu:n/ or /ˈɑ:ftənu:n/.

Stress shift is covered on Level 1 Courses, Level 2 Pronunciation & Level 2 Intonation. Vowel grids are covered on Level 2 Pronunciation.

How to pronounce ‘Southwark’, ‘Borough’ & ‘London’.


There is a small group of places on the South Bank of the river Thames just East of the centre that cause huge pronunciation problems.

Anyone visiting the Tate Modern, Borough Market, or taking a train from London Bridge will have encountered the problem at some point.

Let’s start with the correct pronunciation of each word:

Southwark is pronounced /ˈsʌðək/ – silent /w/ and silent /r/.
Borough is pronounced /ˈbʌrə/ – silent /gh/.
London is pronounced /ˈlʌndən/.

Aside from the silent consonant sounds, what do we notice about the vowel sounds? Yes – they are identical in each word: /ʌ/ then /ə/. And here lies a key problem for a lot of students of English pronunciation. Both of these vowel sounds are neutral – the lips are relaxed, not rounded – see the vowel grid below:


There is a temptation, when an < o > appears in the spelling of a word, to pronounce a rounded vowel, but neither of these vowels is rounded.

Other words with /ʌ/ that are spelt with < o > are: none, mother, money, some, love. These words should rhyme with ‘fun’, not with ‘stop’. Also notice the homophones ‘sun’ and ‘son’ are pronounced identically as /sʌn/.

So open your jaw, keep your lips relaxed and head down for breakfast in /bʌrə/, some modern art in /sʌðək/ and head home from /lʌndən brɪdʒ/!

Ghoti & The English Spelling Reform


One experience of English pronunciation that unites native and non-native speakers alike is the difficulties converting written English into accurate speech and vice versa. Yesterday I was trying to write the word ‘conscientious’ and it kept appearing as a mis-spelling. In the end I had to Google it to find the correct spelling.

I had tried ‘consiencious’, ‘concientious’, ‘consciensious’ among others and it simply didn’t work. Other words that often stump me are:
to name a few……

There have been attempts to alter this – the English Spelling Reform had a go most notably in the 19th Century, but with little success. There was an attempt in the USA to simplify spellings too, hence some of the English/American differences (colour / color).

Why is English not phonetically written?

The simple answer to this is its history. Modern English, Germanic in origin, was formed from a mixture of languages all appearing in the British Isles and having to form new vocabularies and modernise with the developments taking place in the world. For this reason plenty of Latin, German, Dutch & French words appear – the problem is, one phonological set of rules needs to apply to them all, which is impossible!

The most famous example of English spelling gone wrong is ‘ghoti’, which the ‘English Spelling Reformists’ used as an example of the problems inherent in English spelling. The joke goes:
If you take the ‘gh’ in ‘enough’, that gives you an /f/ sound.
Then take the ‘o’ in ‘women’, which gives you an /ɪ/ sound.
Then the ‘ti’ in ‘emotion’, which gives you a /ʃ/ sound.

You end up with ‘ghoti’, which gives you the pronunciation /fɪʃ/ (normally spelt ‘fish’).

Naturally one can argue that ‘gh’ can never be /f/ at the beginning of the word, ‘o’ is very rarely pronounced /ɪ/, and ‘ti’ needs to be followed by ‘on’ to be pronounced /ʃ/. It remains, in any case, an excellent example of how bizarre English spelling is.

Another one I like to use is ‘reentered’. How do you explain the pronunciation of every different ‘e’ in that word?


Clothes Shops Trying IPA!


Pronunciation Studio teacher Zainab Tapas was surprised to find a huge sign written in IPA in one of Oxford Street’s large clothes stores. The only problem was the IPA itself! The word, as written in IPA, would produce something like “dursey”.

Pronunciation Studio are all for shops & businesses using IPA – any practice & exposure is good, but it would be even better to get it right. Anybody who wants to write in IPA can download a keyboard for their computer.

River Island clothes shop also wants a piece of the action – it is selling an ‘Instant Irish Accent Mouth Spray’ for £5.00. If only learning pronunciation were so easy!

Phonemics or Phonetics?


Different ways to transcribe sound and their advantages.

Anybody studying pronunciation will come across phonetic transcriptions of words and sounds. There are three ways of representing a word:

1. Written English: represented by < > EG < port >
2. Phonemic Transcription: represented by / / EG /pɔ:t/
3. Phonetic Transcription: represented by [ ] EG [pʰɔˑt]

Most students are familiar with phonemic transcriptions – they appear in most dictionaries and represent a very useful study tool as they provide a lot of information about the pronunciation of the word. In the example, we learn that <port> in fact contains a silent <r>, and that the vowel is long, denoted by two dots /:/.

As students reach a more advanced level, however, it is necessary to look more closely at the pronunciation of each sound. In order to pronounce the word < port > correctly, we must aspirate the /p/ sound. Aspiration is a big audible explosion of air that appears in voiceless plosive consonants in English. This is shown in the phonetic transcription with by [ʰ]. We also notice that the long vowel /ɔ:/ is reduced in length due to the following /t/ sound, we can represent this in a phonetic transcription with one dot instead of two [ˑ].

The difference is in the level of detail – a phonetic transcription contains a lot more information.

Is it useful to learn both scripts?

Most students who simply want to improve their clarity and pronunciation will benefit a lot from learning phonemic transcriptions as they learn how to pronounce each sound. It is also advisable to learn a few key areas of phonetics such as reduced vowels, aspiration, dentalisation, velarisation and unreleased consonants as they are important areas in accurate production of English.

Where are these areas covered?

The full phonemic chart is covered in all Level 1 courses.

Phonemic & Phonetic transcriptions are covered on Level 2 Pronunciation & Level 2 IPA.

So what is the difference between ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’?


The truth behind the most famous pronunciation problem in spoken English.

Many learners of English experience problems with the minimal pair of vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/. Here we will explain why:

1. It is not about length.

Many students think that the difference between ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ is the length – ‘sheep’ is longer because it has two vowels in the spelling. This is not, in fact, completely true and can lead to students making words with /i:/ unnaturally long. Vowel sounds change in length depending on the level of stress placed on them and the following sounds. If any of /p, t, k, s, z, ʃ, tʃ/ follow the vowel, it will become shorter. Since ‘sheep’ ends in a /p/ sound, the length of the vowel is actually reduced; there is not very much difference between the length of ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ for this reason.

Other pairs of /ɪ/ /i:/ words clearly show a difference in length, for example ‘lid’ and ‘lead’ as the long vowel is not reduced due to the following /d/ sound.

Consider the following: if we say the word ‘ship’ and use a very long /ɪ/ sound, does it change into an animal? Likewise when we pronounce ‘sheep’ very quickly with a shortened /i:/ does it change into a boat? The answer is no in both cases. A vowel is determined by position, not length.

2. It is about position.

When you pronounce ‘sheep’, your jaw should be nearly closed, your tongue very far forwards in the mouth and your lips spread. To pronounce ‘ship’, your tongue should be further back in the mouth, your jaw should be more open (close-mid) and your lips should be more relaxed. On a vowel grid, the two sounds are shown below:

Vowel Grid Ship Sheep

3. Mother tongue interference can cause the problem.

Many languages (including all Slavic & Latin languages) only have one vowel sound in this area of the mouth. If your language has only one, it is quite likely that you will use that vowel for both /ɪ/ and /i:/ in English, causing a pronunciation error. You can overcome this by learning the English mouth positions and mastering short, long and reduced vowel lengths.

Would you like to study this content in class?

‘Ship vs sheep’ is covered on all Level 1 courses.

Vowel grids are covered on  Level 2 Pronunciation.

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