English language Uncategorized

Almond joy

[Note: This post was edited on Dec. 29, 2022, to reflect evidence in updated dictionaries.]

Q: I listen to Pat’s 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 (AH-mund) given in our 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 former editions of the Oxford English Dictionary (an etymological dictionary), as well as older standard dictionaries like the 1992 third edition of American Heritage. 

But usage has changed. Today the latest versions of the OED (most recently updated in December 2022), plus current standard American and British dictionaries, give dual pronunciations of “almond,” both with and without the “l” sound.

The OED says both versions are used in both British and American English. Some standard British dictionaries, however, view the “l” pronunciation as more common in American than in British English. American dictionaries, for their part, disagree, viewing the “l” pronunciation as a less common variant.

A few of the dictionaries refer to the “l” version as a “spelling pronunciation” or “spelling-influenced pronunciation,” meaning that people have begun pronouncing the letter because it’s there in the spelling. (Another example of this phenomenon is the “t”  that’s sometimes heard in “often,” which we wrote about in 2012).

Interestingly, the “l” or its sound 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 ἀμυγδάλη (amygdale).

But when the word entered Middle English around 1300 it was spelled almande, like the Old French from which it was borrowed.

So where did the “al” spelling come from? As the OED says, “The forms with initial al- in French (and hence in English) perhaps ultimately reflect contamination from the final syllable of the Latin word.”

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, we wrote a post in 2018 that touched on many other interesting spelling puzzles.

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