Q: I hear educated people pronounce the word “congratulations” as if it were spelled “congradulations.” This occurs to the point that many people must believe it is spelled that way too. Is this an example of a spelling change based on a common mispronunciation?
A: You’re right that many people spell “congratulations” with a “d” in the middle, though they’re often deliberately misspelling the word as a pun in which “congradulations” are sent to recent graduates.
The standard spelling, as you point out, is “congratulations.” However, many people who aren’t punning replace the first “t” with a “d,” probably because of the way the word is often pronounced in the US.
There are three standard ways to pronounce the first “t” in “congratulation” (or “congratulations”). American dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ch” or “j,” while British dictionaries say it’s pronounced as “ty.”
Merriam-Webster Unabridged and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, list only the “ch” and “j” pronunciations.
The UK versions of the Oxford, Cambridge, and Macmillan online dictionaries show only a “ty” sound in their written pronunciation guides, but their audio pronouncers sound somewhat like the first American pronunciation (“ch”).
As for the sound you’re hearing, it’s probably the second American one (“j”), which as we’ve said is considered a standard pronunciation in the US. In fact, the “j” is sometimes written as “dʒ,” a sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet that combines the “d” sound with the “s” of “vision.”
If you listen carefully to yourself saying “congratulation,” you may hear a “ch” sound where the first letter “t” is written. And if you hear a “t” sound instead, you’ll probably notice a “y” sound stuck to the end of it.
Yes, spelling and pronunciation are related, but not quite as closely as you seem to think. Even Siri, the voice on our iPhones, is programmed to pronounce the first “t” of “congratulation” as “ch” when using American English. If it used a perfectly enunciated “t” here (like the one in “kite”), Siri would sound even more like a robot than it does.
As we explained on the blog in 2014, the letter “t” isn’t always aspirated crisply (as in the words “tea” and “bite”).
When it follows a vowel and precedes an unstressed syllable (as in “water,” “butter,” and “atom”), it’s often a mere flick of the tongue that sounds a bit like a cross between “t” and “d.” Linguists refer to this sound as a “flap” (some use the word “tap,” but it’s the same sound).
When the letter comes just before an unstressed nasal syllable (as in “mitten,” “button,” or “mountain”), another kind of “t” is often heard. This “t” is pronounced as a glottal stop—the air flow through the vocal cords actually stops, skips over the “t,” then is released. As a result, those three words sound like mi’n, bu’n, and moun’n.
As for the etymology of “congratulation,” English borrowed the word from French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin verb congrātulārī (con-, together, plus grātulārī, to express joy).
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from John Harington’s 1591 translation of Orlando Furioso, an Italian epic poem by Lodovico Ariosto: “Only Gradassos faint congratulation, / Makes men surmise, he thinks not as he saith.”
Harington may be even better known for A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596), which describes a forerunner of the modern flush toilet. He installed one for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, at Richmond Palace. The “Ajax” in the title is a pun on “jakes,” an old term for a privy or a latrine.