The 'ofen' confusing world of English pronunciation

Aug 19, 2012

When you say the words soften or often, do you pronounce the "t"?

This week on That’s What They Say, we explore the reintroduction of the silent letters. Michigan Radio's Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan, who specializes in linguistics.

The words "soften" and "often" have gone through some pronunciation changes, says Curzan.

"They both used to have a 't,' and they lost it in the Renaissance. So in the 16th- 17th century, both words lost their 't,' so you get 'sofen' and 'ofen.' What seems to have happened with the word often is that speakers saw the 't' in the spelling, assumed that we were being lazy, and just left it out. And so, when they're being careful or formal, they put the 't' back in and say 'often.' For some speakers, that's become their standard or every day pronunciation at this point," she said.

Listen above to hear other examples of what Curzan calls "spectacular exceptions" in spelling-to-pronunciation in Standard English including the words "palm," "almond," "doubt," "debt" and "adventure."

-Elaine Ezekiel, Michigan Radio Newsroom