Chief Mover Cawley was kind enough to put the following article on the Kasterborous website last October.

The Doctor Who world is growing ever smaller. The show is broadcast almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. Stories are shot on location in the US. The senior echelon at Cardiff seems to decamp to the States for weeks on end each year to promote the show at conventions. It may be that only one thing still separates American from British fans: the word that dare not speak its name.

When you work in central London, you regularly meet American tourists asking for directions and you smile welcomingly while silently praying that they’re heading for anywhere but Leicester Square. The American tendency to pronounce it as “Lie-sester” is enough to make even the friendliest Brit’s smile waver for a millisecond as our neatly ordered world threatens to spin off its axis and go hurtling into the Sun.

Actually, the one thing that American tourists nearly always say to strangers which is guaranteed to confuse your average Brit is when they address him as “Sir”. Our brains are instantly sent into panic mode as, in the wink of an eye, we desperately recheck our internal class system compasses, scan the horizon to see if there’s anyone within earshot deserving of such unheard-of politeness and finally come to the conclusion that yes, they really are addressing us. It must be even worse for women as the only people who get called “Ma’am” over here are the Queen and Delia Smith.

Americans should never stop doing this, of course, as we deserve the occasional reminder that, however snooty some Brits may be towards them, they invariably have far better manners than we do. Having said that, you could work harder on the “Leicester” thing, guys.

When it comes to differences in speech patterns though, the one thing that is beyond both comprehension and the pale is the standard American pronunciation of “Dalek”. In British pronunciation (which I think we can without arrogance assume is standard throughout the cosmos), it’s DAR-LEK/DAH-LEK. How do Americans come to pronounce it as DALLIK? Even Canadians (and I think we all know who I mean by that), who really ought to know better, give us something midway between the two. How does this come about?

You could understand it if the average North American Doctor Who fan encountered the TARGET novelisations before the TV show itself. When you read a made up word which you’ve never heard spoken, naturally you assign to it your own familiar speech patterns. I hear that, when the first Harry Potter film premiered, half the world’s children reeled in shock to learn that Harry didn’t after all hang out with a girl called HERMY-OWN. But this can’t be the explanation. Americans must surely encounter the TV series first and therefore hear the word pronounced before they ever see it written down. So why change it? It’s as mystifying as the tendency of 99% of British podcasts to call our showrunner “MOFATT” (with the stress on the second syllable) instead of “MOFFUHT” (with the stress on the first). If anyone has an explanation for either, I’d love to hear it?

I have heard it argued that it’s no different from the British saying Dionne WARRIK rather than WAR-WIK, or my own habit (as a Northerner) of referring to the Doctor’s nemesis as The MA’STER rather than The MAR-STER/MAH-STER when I’ve only ever heard him referred to as the latter in Doctor Who. This doesn’t hold at all though. Warwick is both a British town and a significant figure in English history. The British are likely to have heard of their own Warwick before they heard of the chanteuse. I heard the word “Master” pronounced with a short “a” (or “properly” as we say in the North) before I ever encountered The MAR-STER on TV. And I regularly hear the word pronounced with a short “a” every day.

North America doesn’t have this excuse. Dalek is a word invented by Doctor Who and only ever used in a Whovian context. Why would they automatically convert it to American speech patterns? Do they subconsciously think that, if they pronounce Dalek the British way (or the universal way, as we must now accept), they’ll sound pretentious? I have heard that the British pronunciation of “can’t” can cause paroxysms of mirth in the States. It’s not as if Americans have problems with the vowel sound. They all pronounce TARDIS the right way and, when they first heard the word Dalek, they would have had no reason to suppose that it didn’t contain an “R” or an “H”.

Therefore, I’m seeking support for an elegant solution to the problem. I propose an international campaign to persuade the BBC to officially change the spelling of Dalek to Darlek. Then our transatlantic cousins would have no excuse. We’d have to also change the spelling of Kaled to Karled to keep the anagram intact but that would be OK because we could change Thal to Tharl while we were at it and so maintain the balance of linguistic power across that unimaginably vast expanse between their two city domes. It’s a proposal where everyone’s a winner.

And, in the event that the spelling change proves enormously unpopular, we can always change it back again and claim that the Darleks were only ever intended to be a officer class (or “an officer clarss”). With any luck, in the meantime the BBC will have sold so much respelled Darlek merchandise that they’ll have covered the reprinting costs with enough left over to send the whole production team on a freebie to Lanzarote. At least future generations won’t be able to say that we never tried.

So, while the New World is having its own Dick Van Dyke moment of anguish in the wake of the accents in A Town Called Mercy, now you know how it feels. It’s just not good enough to point out that lots of planets have a North America.


Posted February 7, 2013 by docwhom in Doctor Who, Misc


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  2. As an American, I’ve wondered about this, as well. I try to pronounce Dalek the way I first heard it from Tom Baker’s mouth. In general, though, Americans tend to pronounce non-English words more like they might be pronounced in the foreign language than Brits seem to. For example, we say “Erb” when talking about herbs such as oregano and chervil, like the French word it is. The odd thing is, of course, there are counter examples on both sides. My guess is: the core of your question is ripe for a doctoral thesis.

    On the other hand, telling a Yank that the word is pronounced “dar-lek” is going to get less than pleasing results. Americans don’t very comfortably use the soft and quiet (disappearing?) R sound as Brits do. Americans are likely to use the same hard and pronounced R sound in Dar-Lek as Brits might in Warwick or Barry. The results will certainly be giggle worthy.

    Now, just so we’re clear: Leicester and Worcester (lester and wooster) are just pain silly. Americans have some silly ways to say some things, but Leicester has always made me think “Yes, well, it’s spelled Luxury Yacht, but it’s pronounced Throat Wobbler Mangrove!”.

  3. Throat Wobbler Mangrove? How come you know my stage name from my TV wrestling days? I thought I’d kept that secret safe.

    I must confess that dropping the H in herbal is probably the one that sounds strangest to ears on this side of the Atlantic. Reminds me of that story about the 1930s film star Jean Harlow meeting the snooty English socialite Margot Asquith and saying “You must be MargoT Asquith” only to be told “It’s Margo, dear. The T is silent – as in Harlow.”

    The British aristocracy really take the biscuit though when it comes to surnames. Fotheringay is pronounced Fungy. Featherstonehaugh is pronounced Fanshawe and there’s a woman who writes for The Guardian called Decca Aitkenhead whose name is pronounced Airhead. Though I admit that my only evidence for the last is the quality of her writings.

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