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A subtle difference

Q: I was listening to you on WNYC the other day and I was struck that you did not mention the word “subtle” while discussing dropped sounds in consonant clusters. As I was growing up, I often came across the word in print and looked it up if I couldn’t remember what it meant. At the same time, I had no idea what the word pronounced “suttle” meant when I heard it in conversation.

A: We were talking on the air about words with consonant clusters in which one of the consonant sounds had been dropped over the years for ease of pronunciation. Examples of this can be seen in “often,” “soften, “listen,” “handkerchief,” “handsome,” “raspberry,” and others.

“Subtle” is a different case. The “b” sound was never pronounced. In fact, the “b” wasn’t even part of the word in early spellings.

Until sometime in the 14th century, the word was spelled “sutil,” “sutile,” or “sotil,” a borrowing from the Old French word sutil. The “b” was added to the spelling under the influence of Latinists who believed that English spellings should reflect a word’s classical history – or supposed classical history.

The ultimate source of the word was the Latin subtilis. Thus the silent “b” crept into the spelling. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the first editions of nearly all of Milton’s poems use the spellings “suttle,” “suttlety,” and “suttly.” The exception is Paradise Regained, which has “subtle” and “subtilty.”)

During the Renaissance, an entire class of words acquired silent letters because classical scholars wanted English to imitate Latin wherever possible. This is how “island” got an “s,” how “debt” and “doubt” got a “b,” and how “people” got an “o,” among others. (Sources were the Latin insula, debitum, dubitare, and populum, though “island” actually comes from the Old English iegland, not the Latin insula.)

If you’d like to read more about the pronunciation of consonant clusters, check out the “often” item on The Grammarphobia Blog.

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