Q: I listen to your WNYC podcasts from the Arabian Gulf. My question is about the pronunciation of “almond.” I had a fifth grade teacher in Ossining, NY, who told us that the “l” is silent, but I often hear people pronounce it. Is it or is it not pronounced?
A: The “l” in “almond” was silent until very recently. That’s the only pronunciation given in my old 1956 printing of the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2d ed.).
It’s also the only pronunciation given in the Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford American Desk Dictionary (1998), and the old third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1992).
But usage has changed. More recent standard dictionaries say we can now properly pronounce “almond” either with or without the “l” sound.
I consulted American Heritage (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.), and the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.
Apparently, many people have started pronouncing the “l” simply because it’s there in the spelling; Random House calls this a spelling-influenced pronunciation.
Interestingly, the “l” didn’t appear in the first syllable of amandola, the medieval Latin word from which “almond” was derived, or in the earlier Latin amygdala, or in the still earlier Greek amygdale.
So where did the “al” spelling come from?
When the word entered Middle English around 1300 it was spelled almande, like the Old French from which it was borrowed.
The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the “al” spelling in Old French and in Spanish (almendra) may have come about because of the influence of the Arabic article al, which appears in many Spanish spellings.
“The initial al- in Fr. and Sp. prob. arose in the latter, by confusing the initial a- (dropped in It., as if no real part of the word) with Arab. article al-,” the OED says.
The “l” was soon dropped from French (amande), but it stayed in English even though it was silent for many centuries. The “l” also doesn’t appear in the first syllable of the Italian (mandola), Portuguese (amendoa), or German (mandel).
Some other English words (“should,” “walk,” etc.) have a silent “l” because those sounds were once pronounced but now are not. In case you’re interested, I wrote a blog item last year that touched on this other spelling puzzles.
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