Elsewhere on the web, people have been arguing about whether pronouncing “Melbourne” as MEL-BORN in Melbourne is rude, or whether thinking as much is chippy. That’s Melbourne, Victoria, not Melbourne, Florida, which makes all the difference, because the former is MEL-bn and the latter isn’t.
From my point of view as a former resident of Melbn, it isn’t about rudeness or chippiness. It’s just that how you say a place name tells the local listener something about you. Whether that feeds into prejudices they have about tourists or foreigners or whatever is between them and their prejudices, but it’s unavoidable that it will say something about your relationship to the place.
I’ve known a good number of American expats living in Australia over the years. Some say MEL-bn, some say MEL-burn, and in neither case does it sound like they’re pretending to be Aussies; they just know that the first syllable is stressed and the second sort of disappears. Whether they slip an R in there or not depends on whether they can force themselves across the non-rhotic/rhotic divide, but there’s no shame in it either way. What tells you that an American isn’t a resident is when they say MEL-BORN. Now, for many visitors this is no big deal—who cares if people don’t think you’re a resident?—and it’s no big deal for many locals either, who just accept that they’re dealing with a tourist. It only becomes an issue if you want to consider yourself, or be seen as, more than a tourist: then you would be well-advised to de-emphasize the second syllable.
The pronunciations of English words often diverge from their spelling with frequent use. Australians say “Melbourne” every day, so it’s been worn down to a pronunciation that fits our accent more comfortably. But even though it’s one of our biggest cities, we know that it’s hardly everyday usage for people on the other side of the world, and so there are other pronunciations out there.
Compare this with the city we’ve all been paying attention to these past few weeks. Do any Americans say “LONN-DONN”? Of course not—English-speakers are all familiar enough with the place that we know it’s LUN-dun, for various accents of “u”. The only people who say Lon-don are non-English speakers translating from a language where their word for the city does have a proper LON sound in it.
The second city in my home state is called Launceston, LON-sess-tun. If you used the Cornish pronunciation of LAWNCE-tun there, nobody would know what you meant. Vice versa in the Cornish town it was named after, I expect. There are even plenty of Australians who get its pronunciation wrong (for Tasmanian versions of “wrong”), because they’ve never been there or paid it much attention. If I hear an Aussie say LAWN-sess-tun, I know immediately that they’ve never visited my home state. That’s neither them being “rude” nor me being “chippy”—it’s just information. I never think of it as anything else because I know that Launceston is an order of magnitude less familiar than London.
But if I, as an Australian, went to Melbourne and wandered around calling it MEL-BAWN, even though I was doing it a non-rhotic way, I would expect people to look at me like I was from Mars. How, they would think, could any Australian not know that you don’t stress the second syllable? Because Melbourne features in national news stories every day, in a way that Launceston doesn’t.
All of which is quite different from what I find myself doing in America. When I’m in America I have to accept that most people don’t know my accent very well, and if I want to be understood I’d better change a few things about my pronunciation. Talking over the phone is an excellent test; you can’t fall back on other ways of making yourself understood, so it all has to be there in the sounds you’re making. So if I ever visit Melbourne, Florida, I’ll do my best to get the stresses right, if not manage to include the R. Same as I tried to go with the flow in Nawlins or at the very least Noo Awlins, which now that I’m a long way away I once again call Nyoo Aw-LEENZ.
This isn’t such an issue for Americans in Australia, because Australians hear American accents much more often on TV and in movies. But it’s an issue for a lot of Aussies overseas. When you hear US-based Australian expats interviewed on TV, they can sometimes sound pretty odd to Australian ears, with a whole bunch of US pronunciations overlaid on their original accents. It doesn’t happen as much to UK-based Australian expats, perhaps because we’re more easily understood by locals here and don’t have to change our accents as much as a result.
We still adapt a bit, though. When I hear another Australian here in Edinburgh say Edin-Burra, I know they’re just visiting. When I hear one say Edinbruh, like I do, I know there’s a good chance that they live in Scotland or at least the UK. We couldn’t possibly pretend to be from here; and I’ve never heard an Aussie call it “Embra”. But I can let locals know that I’ve lived in Edinburgh for a while by using the proper pronunciations of areas like Dalry, Gorgie and Hunter’s Tryst. It’s an important way of showing that I’m not just a tourist, and of bypassing awkward conversations that assume that I am.
Well done speedysnail - from a resident of Melbn
Added by JJ on 21 August 2012.
Well said Rore (that's Raw, to you)! D. :)
Added by Rod Ewins on 14 October 2012.