Fossil L-Words

By Maeve Maddox

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An aspect of English spelling that fascinates me is the existence of what I call “fossil words”— words in which a letter is embedded like a fossil in the rock—there, but no longer pronounced.

Among these fossil words are some “silent L” words that go back to the earliest forms of English.

Old English had two words that developed into our verb walk: wealcan and wealcian , both of which had a sounded l.

The general sense of walk in modern English is to go from place to place on foot, but the OE parent words described a different kind of movement: kneading, rolling, working with the hand, moving back and forth.

The modern sense emerges suddenly with walken in Middle English. It’s probable that speakers of Old English had already attached the “moving on foot” meaning to the words informally.

The verb for speaking in Old English was spreccan. The progenitor of talk—talken— shows up in Middle English, possibly an import from Frisian.

The noun in OE was cealc (pronounced “chee-alk”).

The OE word stealcian meant “to walk softly or warily.” The word derives from OE stelan, our modern word steal, “to commit a theft.”

Although the l in words spelled with –alk is not pronounced, its presence affects the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, changing the short sound of a (as in cat) to the sound /aw/, as in paw.

The word for yolk in OE began with a letter called yot. It looks like a g when written with our alphabet, but it was pronounced like y. OE geolca (“yee-ol-ka”) became modern yolk. The OE word for yellow was geolu (“yee-o-loo”). The yolk is “the yellow part.” When the letter o comes before the letter l—pronounced or silent—it represents the long sound of o as in go: yolk, bolt, molt, told, etc.

The OE verb willan (“to wish or desire”) had the past tense wolde. This became would. The l was pronounced at one time.

OE sceal (“ought to, must”) had the past tense sceolde. (The OE spelling sce represents the sound /sh/.) The modern descendant of sceal is shall. The notion of futurity evolved in Middle English.

Not all of the silent l’s in English words were once pronounced. Some of them were inserted by the spelling reformers of the sixteenth century.

OE cunnan meant “to know.” It could also mean “to be able.” Its original OE past form was cuth, which survives in our adjective uncouth. In OE, something “uncouth” was unknown or unfamiliar. Not surprisingly, the meaning has evolved to mean “awkward or uncultured,” thanks to the human tendency to assert superiority over the foreign and unfamiliar.

OE cunnan became our verb can, with the past form coude. The reformers thought the word ought to match would and should, so they added an l that had never been there.

The reformers, students of Latin and Greek, knew their etymology. They took pains to “restore” l’s to words that had originated in Latin, but had come into English from French without the l.

Some of these gratuitous l’s remained silent, but others came to be pronounced. A few still stoke arguments between modern speakers who disagree as to whether the l should or should not be pronounced.

Here are a few words that had the l restored.

balm from baume, Latin balsamum
salmon from saumon, Latin salmonem
psalm from psaume, Latin psalmus
palm from paume Latin palma
fault from faute, Latin falsus
assault from assaut, Latin adsaultus
solder (to fuse metal surfaces) from soudur, Latin solidare

Related post: “L Words in English

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6 Responses to “Fossil L-Words”

  • Penn

    For the OE definition of “walk,” see “waulking,” a term well known to weavers, especially Scottish weavers. See for a clip of women waulking the fabric, part of finishing.

  • Maeve

    What an excellent illustration of a living language fossil! Thanks.

  • Jim Murphy

    I’ve long enjoyed DWT, but my head is spinning on this one. I’m an old fart American and we certainly do pronounce the ‘l’ in walk, talk, and chalk. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who pronounces them as ‘wawk’, ‘tawk’, or ‘chawk’.

  • Maeve

    Jim Murphy,
    Well, you have my head spinning along with yours.
    I’m the same kind of American, but I have never heard a native speaker put an l in walk, talk, or chalk. I HAVE heard people from some regions pronounce them with an “ah” instead of an “aw,” but never with an “l”.
    Where do you live?

  • Richard Wheeler

    I’m not a Californian, but I’ve been stranded here since birth. I’ve never heard the L in walk, talk, or chalk, but I’ve often heard, and usually pronounced, the L in yoke… er, I mean, yolk. And no, I’m not yoking.

  • ApK

    Sometimes I hear an l pronounced in those words. Sometimes I hear it even when I’m the one saying them. Sometimes I think I hear it even when it’s not being pronounced. . . More than mere fossils, it’s like I still feel their ghostly presence.

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