Spelling and Pronunciation

By Maeve Maddox

Posts on the topic of pronunciation usually provoke a lot of attention, often drawing heated defenses of one pronunciation over another and suggesting that only one can ever be “correct.” In fact, “correct” pronunciation differs from century to century and from region to region.

Words are affected by pronunciation changes of two kinds:

1. Changes that have taken centuries to develop, the kind that have transformed Old English into the English spoken today.

2. Changes that began as a deliberate alteration of the established pronunciation for some purpose or other.

According to Ida A. Ward (The Phonetics of English), the latter type of change arises

through some person who deliberately adopts a new pronunciation because he thinks it better; it is an affectation on his part. At first it is probably regarded as a false refinement by those who do not use it, but gradually by frequent repetition, the new pronunciation spreads, and a succeeding generation acquires it as its natural pronunciation.

This type of deliberate change probably dates from the 16th—18th centuries when scholars busied themselves with the “refinement” of English spelling to make it reflect Latin or Greek origins.

One change was to introduce an extra consonant sound into words that did not have them. For example, our word perfect entered English from Norman French as parfet or parfit, as in Chaucer’s “He was a veray parfit gentil knight.” The modern form perfect acquired its c to show the derivation from Latin perfectio. The English pronunciation eventually changed to reflect the /k/ sound represented by the c.

The same thing happened to Norman French verdit when the spelling was changed to verdict.

On the other hand, Norman French endite, spelled indict in modern English, is still pronounced without a k sound in spite of the c: /in-DITE/.

The word victual, pronounced vittle by many speakers, is another holdout against spelling pronunciation.

The consonant d was added to the word aventure to produce modern adventure.

In 1701, an observer listed several words that were spelled with d’s and t’s that were not pronounced in speech at that time:

of(t)en
Chris(t)mas
cos(t)ly
ghos(t)ly
mos(t)ly
roas(t) beef
husban(d)
pagean(t)
We(d) nesday
wris(t)band
Wil(t)shire
frien(d) ly
han(d)maid
fon(d)le
can(d)le
han(d)le
chil(d)ren

Modern speakers pronounce the d or t in most of these words, but not in all. The pronunciation of at least two of the words—often and Wednesday—is hotly contested in comment columns on sites such as this one.

So far, native speakers don’t try to pronounce the t in castle or listen, but some preachers have been heard to insert it into apostle and epistle.

Speakers who become really put out with people who pronounce the l in palm, calm, and almond, probably think nothing of pronouncing the l in fault, falter, vault, Walter, falcon, almanac and cauldron—all words that had the l inserted after they’d been adopted into English without it.

Spelling pronunciations that are well established in the language, regardless of their “original” form, are no longer contested.

More recent innovations, like restoring the t in often or pronouncing the l in almond, remain the stuff of blogging controversy.

Related posts:
How Do You Pronounce “Often”?
L Words in English

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4 Responses to “Spelling and Pronunciation”

  • Bill

    The words mentioned here are all old ones. I’m seeing just in my time common words being pronounced differently by young people and it’s making me feel like a geezer. “Houses,” for example. When I say it, the first s sounds like a z, and so does the s in “expertise.” The plural of “leaf” is “leaves” in my world and pronounced that way, not “leafs.” Just yesterday I heard a reporter on NPR pronounce “Islamist” with the accent on the first syllable and again, the s sounding like an s. “Often” will always have a silent t when I say it, at least until everyone pronounces the t in “soften.”

  • Paulette Reilly

    Regarding Spelling and Pronunciation; Gilbert and Sullivan’s orphan/often pun would not work if you pronounce the t in often.

  • Andy Knoedler

    The 1701 list has one entry that jumped off the page for me, namely
    “Wil(t)shire.” I never realized that Wiltshire’s “t” was earlier not sounded; anyone I’ve met from Wiltshire pronounces the “t” clearly. When I found out that California had a Wilshire Boulevard, I assumed it was a mistake on the North Americans’ part. I realize the avenue is named after Henry Gaylord Wilshire, but his surname must predate the insertion of the “t” sound. Interesting!

  • venqax

    “In fact, “correct” pronunciation differs from century to century and from region to region.”

    I would agree with the former, generally, but not with the latter. “Regions” as normally used, do not have standardized forms of language and standardized language includes proper (standard) pronunciation. Standard American English has standardized pronunciations. Regional variations of American English do NOT. Real standards differ at more of a national, not a regional or local level. So Standard American English, Received Pronunciation in the UK, General Australian, etc. No matter where you are from in America, a creak is standardly a kreek, NOT a krick. Regional pronunciations and accents are informal, not formal. Standard pronunciations in American are based mostly on Midwestern variation because they’re the most widely spoken. If that seems unfair to people with other accents, sorry, but that’s how it is and has been for about a hundred years. SAE and your local accent is the difference between a suit and tie, and and jean and a t-shirt. If you are at home or among your own crowd, speak regionally. Otherwise you might sound pretentious. If, however, you are in a formal or professional, cosmopolitan setting, speak standardly, or you risk not being taken seriously. Knowing and navigating the differences between the two is a mark of education.

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