May 31, 2010

English Pronunciation is Often Frustrating

I was taught in school that the word often is properly pronounced without a t sound. Increasingly, however, I hear the word pronounced as of-ten. I cannot remember ever researching the pronunciation, but I have continued to find the “wrong” pronunciation grating, even though I was not 100% certain that the “right” pronunciation was the only acceptable one.

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!

3 comments:

  1. In the United States, a great deal of this is regional variation. When I went to college and encountered a student body drawn broadly from the entire country, I was struck by the variations I found. Those who pronounce the t in often usually come from east of the Appalachians.

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  2. If one pronounces the "t" in "often" then the classic interchange between the Pirate King and the Major General in Pirates of Penzance is lost.

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