Spelling and Pronunciation
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:
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.
Want to improve your English in five minutes a day? Get a subscription and start receiving our writing tips and exercises daily!
Keep learning! Browse the Spelling category, check our popular posts, or choose a related post below:
Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!