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Silent sounds

By Anne Curzan
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The word “often” is spelled with a “t” so should it be pronounced with one?

The fact is that the word “often” used to be pronounced with a “t.” And it’s tempting to think it was modern speakers who were being lazy and deleted the “t” from pronunciation.

In fact the “t” was deleted hundreds of years ago during the Renaissance. It was deleted in words like “often” and “soften,” as well as in words like “hasten” and “castle.”

Right around the same time, English spelling was becoming more standardized. As a result the “t” was preserved in the spelling of many words but lost in the pronunciation. The case of “often” shows how English spelling can sometimes function like a museum of words’ earlier pronunciations. (The “g” in “gnat” and the “k” in “knife” both used to be pronounced.)

Which words could benefit from pronunciation of silent letters?

What’s happened recently is that, in the highly literate society in which we live, speakers see the “t” in the spelling of the word “often,” assume the “t” sound should be there, and are reinserting it into pronunciation in what linguists would call a “spelling pronunciation.”

I think that for at least some speakers, when they are trying to be particularly formal, they will pronounce the “t” in a word like “often,” but leave it silent in more colloquial speech.

We see a similar reinsertion of a sound in words like “palm” and “almond,” which lost the “l” sound during the Renaissance. Because spelling preserved the “l,” we now hear many speakers have put it back in. At the present moment, these words have two possible pronunciations, both of which are considered standard: one with the “l” and one without.

As a linguist, I find it fascinating to watch the ways in which speakers change pronunciation over time. Sometimes a spelling can reflect an earlier pronunciation that got lost hundreds of years ago. Sometimes that spelling can then influence modern pronunciation.

As a speaker of English, I can’t help but think it would be good pronunciation fun should the “g” return to the word “gnat.”

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.

Anne Curzan

Anne Curzan

ANNE CURZAN is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education. In addition, she serves as co-director of the joint PhD Program in English and Education at U-M. She is featured on the weekly segment "That's What They Say" on Michigan Radio.

COMMENTS

  • Cynthia Smith - 2000

    I wonder if you might comment on the pronunciation of the word apoptosis. As a professor of one of my pathology courses adamantly maintained, it is pronounced “App-a-TOE-sis”, but I hear “a-POP-toe-sis” most commonly.

    Reply

  • Peter Millington - 1967

    My introduction to speaking French required learning then using phonetics conjointly with reading written French. I never had that experience with my native English language. My English pronunciation, therefore, has its basis in the southeastern Michigan dialect against which I still differentiate from all other English language dialects.

    Reply

  • Megan Kubicz - 1993, 1996

    Funny, I never pronounce the “t” in often, and It actually irks me when I hear the “t.” I was always under the impression that that was a mispronounciation, while Prof. Curzan thinks people use it to sound more formal! I fondly remember my Structure of English class with Prof. Bailey, where we would have these same kind of discussions. Prof. Curzan, please address “coupon.” Are both COO-pon and Q-pon acceptable? I vote for COO-pon!

    Reply

  • Lisa Fetman - 2007

    I’m also curious about the pronunciation of “wh” words like “what” or “when”. Some people pronounce the “h” before the “w” sound which, I assume, spurs from their intent to speak formally. I wonder what has caused this phenomenon; is this a result of spelling pronunciation, or of the evolution of the spelling and pronunciation of these words?

    Reply

  • Orval Wolfgram - 1963

    My experience shows that persons who mispronounce words (or who allow characters to become silent), will also misspell those words. There are some words, however, where some letters are “silent” as accepted pronunciation. Sloppy pronunciation eventually leads to more complex language structure, and makes instruction of the English language more difficult. There is a tendency of colloquial speakers to omit the pronunciation of letters at the end of a word; example: words ending in “ing” are pronounced as “in”. A different example of silent characters occurs when even TV commentators reduce multi-syllable words; examples: list-en-er becomes list-ner; temp-er-ra-ture becomes temp-cher. Education of our aspiring TV & radio commentators should include proper pronunciation of words.

    Reply

  • Luis Acuña - 1984

    Nice article. In your last sentence, don’t you mean “I can’t help think…” (I can’t avoid thinking) or “I can’t but think…”? I’ve read that “can’t help but” is usually an incorrect expression.

    Reply

  • Janice yellon

    Interesting. I say often with the “t” and almond and palm with the “l”. In California, I am hearing the pronunciation of “each other” as one word “eachother”. I wonder if another, someone, somewhere, etc. all began as two words and at some point became one word.

    Reply

  • The Hillrays - 1985

    Folks who work with linux and other computer languages are familiar with this fact: people in-the-know pronounce the g in the gnu public license.

    Reply

  • Anne Curzan

    Anne Curzan weighs in:

    Thanks for all the comments on this column! I wanted to address a couple of the questions that have come up.

    First, the pronunciation of “coupon”: According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed., 2011), both the pronunciation starting with “koo-” and with “kyoo-” are standard/acceptable. The “kyoo-” pronunciation is, as far as I know, uniquely North American. The Dialect Survey map (this project was begun by Professor Bert Vaux) shows that it is the less popular of the two pronunciations and does not have a clear regional distribution: http://www4.uwm.edu/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_7.html.

    Second, the initial “wh”: Throughout most of its history, English has had two bilabial glides: “w” (which is voiced) and what we think of as “hw” (voiceless). Over time, many speakers have lost the “hw” and replaced it with “w.” If you’re wondering whether or not you make the distinction, try saying “witch” and “which.” If you say them the same way, then you probably have only “w” in your inventory of sounds; if you say them differently, then you have both “w” and “hw.” An interesting historical fact: Words that historically began with a “hw” sound (and still do for some speakers) used to be spelled that way in Old English: for example, “hwael” (whale) and “hwil” (while). In the Middle English period, scribes (often French) reversed the spelling of the cluster based on analogy with “sh,” “th,” and “ch.”

    Reply

  • Ronald Uhle - 1962

    Thank you for explaining the t and l business. I remember being in a toxicology course discussing lead poisoning. Our professor,Dr. Carey P. McCord, SPH, wondered why we pronounce solder the way we do. You have explained it. Keep info like this coming. I miss Wm.Saffire’s column.

    Reply

  • Julie Haggerty - 1988

    Why do today’s students pronounce important as import ent nor impor tent?

    Reply

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