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.