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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.