The R in Colonel

By Maeve Maddox

A reader comments,

I’ve often wondered where the “r” sound came from in colonel. I’m certain, in the original French, both Ls were pronounced as Ls–what happened?

Colonel is the spelling in modern French, but when the word entered English in the 16th century, the French were spelling it coronel or coronnel. The first “l” had become an “r” sound by way of dissimilation.

dissimilation:  a. Philology. The differentiation of two similar or identical sounds occurring near each other in a word, by change of one of them. An example is Latin peregrinus, which became pelegrino in Italian.

Dissimilation is also at work in the way many speakers pronounce February as FEB-yoo-ER-ee. (A pronunciation, by the way, that Charles Elster finds “beastly.”)

Colonel derives from Latin columella, “a little column.” At some point, the first “l” became an “r,” and the word became established in French as coronel. The coronel was the officer who led the “little column” of troops at the head of a regiment. By the end of the 16th century, the more etymologically correct spelling colonnel displaced coronel in French literary use. The spelling colonel appeared in English about 1580.

For a time, both spellings existed side by side in English; the coronel spelling prevailed in writing until 1630, but by 1650, colonel had pushed out coronel.

The pronunciation of colonel also went through changes.

In the 17th century, colonel was trisyllabic in English, as it still is in French. By 1669, it began to be pronounced with two syllables, “col’nel.” Apparently many speakers were also pronouncing it as “ker’nel,” because that is the pronunciation that has survived.

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8 Responses to “The R in Colonel”

  • philip e.

    Does the common mispronunciation of Wednesday as “Wensday” fit this category, or is it more a regional idiom?

  • Dan Lafrenière

    Thank you for today’s explanation (colonel), Maeve. My father who was in the military (he was a captain, not a colonel) always pronounced the word in question (whether in English or French) as col-len-el. In fact, francophones still pronounce it as it is written, with the ‘l’ sound.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Think of Corporal Lebeau, the Frenchman in HOGAN’S HEROES.
    He always said “Col-len-el Hogan”.

    Klink was also a colonel (Oberst in German), but they always called him “Kommandant Klink”.
    Due to budgetary constraints in the American TV show, the Kommandant was the only German officer who was usually present, but in a real Luftwaffe P.O.W. camp, there was always a second-in-command and several other officers on the Kommandant’s staff.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    There are a few words like this in English, where the spelling and pronunciation are completely disconnected. It’s different from “silent” letters, but situations where a letter “makes” a completely different sound from what it normally represents—like the L in colonel making an R sound, or the MP in comptroller making an N sound (it is pronounced controller, regardless of whether you spell it controller or comptroller). In the military rank arena, like colonel, you have the British pronunciation of lieutenant which is even further away from any kind of reason. Here is not a silent letter but an invisible one, since there is no consonant present at all to make the mysterious F sound that emerges from cosmic nothingness (or an medieval typo). Of course you could interpret it differently and say the I, the E, or the U in some way make an F sound, or that the colonel’s the first L is silent and the R is invisible, like lieutenant’s F. In the end I think these all originate with incidents where spelling and pronunciation got fossilized at different times, and neither was made to accommodate the other. Arguably this category includes some of the oldest and most common words in the language: the O in women, the F in of, the A in was, the U in busy. One of the results of not having any rule-making body in English.

  • venqax

    And Charles Elster is right!

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Venqax:
    My direct knowledge of Anglo-Saxon-Jute is minimal, so I have to reason from my knowledge of modern English and modern German.

    In German, the preposition that (usually) equivalent to “of” is “von”, and in German, the pronunciation of a “v” is like an English “f”. Also, in some words, the word is spelled with an “f” instead of a “v”, such as in “funf” instead of “five”, and “ofen” instead of “oven”. So, there seems to have been some twisting and turning during the centuries of change between Anglo-Saxon-Jute and Middle English. I will leave the details up to you.

    One of my German teachers also told me the following about the American brand name “Vicks”. When that company started selling its products (such as Vapo-Rub) in Germany, the name “Vicks” was printed on the containers, and the Germans pronounced this as “Ficks”. The American managers (or were they British?) did not like this very much, so they changed their trademark to “Wicks” in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Aha! This sounds like “Vicks” when German speakers say the word, and this is what the company wanted all along!
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Continuation: In German, the preposition “von” can mean “of”, but it is not usually used that way. More often “von” means “from”, and sometimes it has a double meaning.
    The reason for this difference between English and German is that most of the time in German, “von” is avoided by using a noun or pronoun in the dative case. For example, “Die Berge (then a dative case article) Bayern” means “the mountains of Bavaria” w/o using “von”.
    English does not have a dative case anymore, and it has not had one for (estimated) 600 years, so we have to use “of”.
    As for double meanings “Der Meistersanger von Nurnberg” means both 1) The master singer from Nuremberg, and 2) The master singer of Nuremberg.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note that the names of some places in German are different from what they are in English:
    Nurnberg = Nuremberg, Bayern = Bavaria,
    Wien = Vienna, Osterreich = Austria,
    Kalifornien = California, Australien = Australia,
    Neuseeland = New Zealand, Rom = Rome,
    die Schweiz = Switzerland (This word is plural in German.)

    And then there are the minor differences, like Amerika, Afrika, Nordamerika, Afrika Korps.
    I believe that in German-speaking countries, they spell these names the same way that we do: Carolina, Colorado, Connecticut, Chile.
    D.A.W.

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