My curiosity got the best of me this morning, so I went to Dictionary.com to see what I could find. There I hit pay dirt. Under the listing for often from The American Heritage Dictionary, perhaps my favorite general-purpose English dictionary, I found the following “Usage Note”:
During the 15th century English experienced a widespread loss of certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in handsome and handkerchief, the (p) in consumption and raspberry, and the (t) in chestnut and often. In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate. With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often, which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as soften and listen, the t generally remains silent.Well, that clears up a lot and confirms my suspicion that the of-ten pronunciation is largely the product of uneducated literacy. It also reminds me that English is wildly inconsistent. There is certainly utility in dropping the t in chestnut, as chest-nut is a decidedly ungainly pronunciation. It is difficult to make a similar case for of-ten, however, which is not difficult at all to articulate. Why was t dropped in the first place? (Notice that all the other consonant clusters referred to in the Usage Note are three letters long.) But if you say of-ten, why don’t you say sof-ten and lis-ten? God only knows!