I say Derby, you say Darby …

iroquoisIroquois was the first American-bred thoroughbred racehorse to win the Epsom Derby

It’s Derby Day in the U.S. and all the hats were out in Kentucky. The Brits will dust off their own fascinators for their big day in June when the country’s fastest colts and fillies run the one-mile four-furlong ten-yard race on the Epsom Downs in the world’s original and most famous Derby. But what’s the biggest difference between the Derby Stakes and the Kentucky Derby — apart from the names of the speedy nags running for the roses on either side of the Atlantic? That will be in the way the names of the famous races themselves are pronounced: as in DERBY here in the States and DARBY over in Blighty. Why do the Brits do that?

Derby isn’t alone in this regard: the “-er”s in clerk and sergeant are also pronounced “-ar” (CLARK, SAR-gent), as they are in the proper names Hertford*, Berkeley* and Kerr. (See some classic examples spoken in the videos below.) The word varsity derives from university, so presumably at some time it was pronounced uni-VAR-sity. There’s no proper explanation for this phenomenon, although of course British-English is so notorious for its rogue spellings and pronunciations that it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that we say anything eccentrically. It has been suggested that it was common practice a few centuries back — especially in the working and illiterate classes — to voice “er” syllables as “ar”, and it’s likely that these few words are simply remnants of that practice.

As Secret Agent M offered on a Yahoo! Answers forum several years ago, citing as his source C. Wells’s Accents of English: “One feature of uneducated speech in England around the 1800s was a tendency to pronounce the “er” sound of words like “clerk” as the “ar” sound of “clark”. The phenomenon was sufficiently widespread that the English novelist Henry Fielding used pronunciations like “sarvis” for “service”, “sartain” for “certain”, and “parson” for “person” in the speech of characters meant to seem vulgar or unintelligent. Due to the overwhelming influence of such people in England (that is, the uneducated), these previously unacceptable pronunciations eventually became standard for some words, like Derby, Berkeley, and clerk.”

A contributor called Ian supported this theory on the Antimoon forum when he offered the following information: “According to 19th century British grammarian Alfred Ayres, the traditional pronunciation of ‘e’ before ‘r’, followed by another consonant, is /a:/ as in ‘dark’. Thus, words like ‘merchant’, ‘service’, and ‘servant’ were pronounced as if written as ‘marchant’ (compare with Anglo-French ‘marchaunt’), ‘sarvice’, and ‘sarvant’. Modern RP English pronunciations of ‘clerk’, ‘derby’, ‘Berkeley’, and ‘sergeant’ (also in AmE) still retain this pronuncation rule. Stephen Booth in his book on Shakespeare’s sonnets states that Renaissance writers and printers used ‘ar’ and ‘er’ interchangeably, and early editions of the Oxford English Dictionary had words like ‘partain’, ‘pert’, ‘pertake’, and ‘pertener’ listed as variants of ‘pertain’, ‘part’, ‘partake’, and ‘partner’.”

So there we have it. We’ll give the last word on this subject to Damian in Edinburgh — also on the Antimoon forum — whose observations about differences between the Brits and the Yanks in the way they pronounce their place names are precious. As he says himself: bless!

“PS: Is Derby (Darby) a nice place to visit? Apparently the residents of this English city of Derby get all wound up when Americans say “we really like Durrrby but we liked Lie-sesterrrr bedderrrr” (meaning Leicester”). We so love them – bless! Let’s hope they keep coming over…….it’s fun to hear them over-stressing the “ham” bit in places like Nottingham, Birmingham and Gillingham, not to metion the way they pronounce my home city as Edinburrow…..I wonder what sort of dog’s dinner we make over Albuquerque or Mississauga? :-)”

* To hear how the Brits pronounce Hertford and Berkeley respectively, listen to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady talking about hurricanes hardly happening in Hertford, Hereford and Hampshire, and to Vera Lynn singing about the nightingale singing in Berkeley Square …

Thanks to Damian — of New York, not Edinburgh — for the hat-tip.

5 thoughts on “I say Derby, you say Darby …

  1. Tom

    Really I believe it’s the spelling that’s wrong in this case, Derby only recently in history (within the last 150 years or so) has had a change in spelling from ‘Darby’ or ‘Darbye’ so obviously anybody living locally or mentioning it with previous knowledge of the city would pronounce it as “Darby”.

  2. Dave E

    Besides Derby being formerly spelt Darby or Darbye, the River Derwent running through Derby was, in the 1600’s recorded on ‘Speeds’ map as Darwent. The River Derwent in Yorkshire was also pronounced Darwent years ago. The ‘Darwent’/’Derwent’ river name and others, has been passed down from pre Roman/Celtic times.
    To the north of Derby , adjacent to the River Derwent, are the villages of Darley, Duffield (Darfield?) Darley Dale and Darley Bridge (the village bridge crossing the Derwent).
    The correlation between the River Derwent (Darwent) and place-names is obvious.
    The horse race known as ‘The Derby’ is derived from, I understand, the title of ‘The Earl of Derby,’ the first Earl being originally and obviously from around Derby and also the son of Henry de Ferrers. The title was removed after a rebellion against the King at the time and the Duffield estates taken back by ‘The Crown’. But the title was reinstated later along with another estate, near the village? of Liverpool at a place called ‘West Derby’ – so named to distinguish from Derby to the east.
    see -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duffield_Castle,_Derbyshire
    All this happened after 1066 (Battle of Hastings) and led to the introduction of the ‘French’ Latin language to the (German) Saxons . The mixing of the languages over many years gave us ‘English’ with its well known pronunciation difficulties or oddities, including the pronunciation of Derby, Hertford and many other names and words..

  3. Emma

    Well being British I have always pronounced Derby the way you see it but I am forever corrected to Darby!

    I have read the above passage of text and I have read every word as it should be. I am not one to add “ar” when it should be “er”

    I am outstanded as to why the words would have been changed. Can we really say it was for the case of uneducated British people? Are people really that stupid? What world am I growing up in?

  4. Zechariah Sanders

    Mississauga and Albuquerque aren’t hard to pronounce and don’t veer wildly away from their spelling. But then again, brits can’t say paella right so ;p

  5. Robbie

    The two theories aren’t incompatible. Pronunciation changes tend to spread from the upper classes downwards, so it’s likely there was a period — possibly of several generations — when the higher and better educated classes were using the trendy new “er” pronunciation in most words, but the lower classes and rural areas were still using “ar”.


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