On the ITV evening news yesterday the newsreader introducing a report about this pronounced the saint’s name as seɪnt æˈsæf. The reporter given the job of visiting the place and interviewing locals called it seɪnt ˈæsæf. But the local councillor being interviewed said sn̩t ˈæsəf, which is what you find in the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names as well as in LPD and in EPD (now CPD).
I think our pronunciation dictionaries are right to ignore guesses or ad-hoc spelling pronunciations used by people who are unfamiliar with a proper name and rather to show, or at least prioritize, the pronunciation used by those who are familiar with the name and mention it every day of their lives.
Asaph (or Asaff or Asaf or Asa) was a sixth-century bishop, the first bishop of the diocese that now bears his name. However the Welsh name of the city named after him is different: it is Llanelwy, church on the (river) Elwy.
One of the odd byproducts of my study of Welsh some 30-40 years ago is that I retain in my head numbers of paired English-Welsh placenames (Shrewsbury = Amwythig, Swansea = Abertawe, Bridgend = Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr, Milford Haven = Aberdaugleddyf etc., not to mention London = Llundain), though I do not recall ever having sat down consciously to commit them to memory. So when I heard this mention of St Asaph, I immediately thought “Llanelwy”, its Welsh name. Put it down to déformation
Savouring the pronunciation of Llan- ɬan makes me think of voiceless alveolar lateral fricatives. Yesterday I attended the funeral of an elderly Montserratian at a church in northeast London. According to the service sheet, the minister in charge, whom I hadn’t met before, was the Rev Dr J. Zihle. The service lasted some two hours, and as I listened to him I thought about this surname. Given that he was a tall black man and sounded African, I thought it unlikely that it was the Czech name Žihle ˈʒiɦle with a lost diacritic. Nor could it be Icelandic, which has hl but no z. So when I spoke to him after the service, I asked him whether he pronounced his name ˈziːɬe. “Yes,” he answered, delighted: “you’re the first English person I’ve met who could pronounce it correctly”.
The voiceless alveolar lateral fricative ɬ, the sound that is spelt ll in Welsh, is spelt hl in the Nguni languages of southern Africa. Forty years ago I attended an introductory Zulu course at SOAS.
I asked him whether the name was Zulu, Ndebele, or Xhosa (pronouncing the last-mentioned with its proper aspirated voiceless lateral click). He confirmed that he was a Xhosa. Then he had to hurry off, so I wished him hamba kahle ˈhamba ˈɠaːɬe ‘go well’, which is Zulu rather than Xhosa, but he understood — Zulu and Xhosa are mutually intelligible — and gave the appropriate reply sala kakuhle ‘stay well’. More déformation