Etymology Linguistics

Why do “label” and “table” rhyme?

Q: I’m baffled that “el” and “le” are often pronounced the same at the end of a word (e.g., “label” and “table”), but always sound different at the beginning (“elbow” and “legal”). Is there a reason or is it just a weirdness of English?

A: When “le” comes at the front, the “e” must be pronounced in some way or other because it supplies the first syllable’s vowel sound. But an “e” at the end of a word is frequently silent. 

This isn’t unusual. It’s true no matter what consonant you pair with “e.”

For example, take “e” plus “m”: the “e” is pronounced at the front of the word (as in “mesa”), but it’s silent at the end (“same”).

Or take “e” and “z”: the “e” is pronounced in “zebra” but it’s silent in “amaze.”

A silent “e” at the end of a word is not itself pronounced, but it can influence the pronunciation of the preceding vowel.

For example, “sit” has a short “i” but “site” has a long one. “Dam” has a short “a,” but “dame” has a long one.

Now back to “l.” Generally, English words ending in “el,” “al,” and “le” all have a final syllable that sounds like “ul.” Example: “vowel,” “final,” “little.” 

But when these same letter combinations are found at the beginnings of words, the vowel sounds vary widely: “elegant/eleven,” “alderman/altitude/ale,” “lenient/leg,” and so on.

Our point is that vowels can sound very different depending on their position. And when “e” comes last, it’s often silent.

There’s another question hidden in all this: Why do some English words have the suffix “le” and some the suffix “el”?

This is a complicated question, because there are two kinds of “el” endings and three kinds of “le” endings! So if you’re still interested, read on.

Words ending in “el” generally are nouns and come from either Old English or Old French.

(1) A few Old English words that once ended in el, ela, or ele are still spelled with “el” in Modern English, though most have since changed to “le.” The words that have retained the earlier spellings include “hovel,” “brothel,” and “kernel.” 

(2) Most modern-day nouns that end in “el” came into English from Old French, including “tunnel,” “bowel,” “chapel,” “novel,” “pimpernel,” “apparel,” “jewel,” “vowel,” “satchel,” and “kennel.” In French these words had the endings el (masculine), elle (feminine), eil, and il.

And now for the three types of “le” endings, which are found on the following kinds of words.

(1)  Nouns. Some are derived from Old English and earlier Germanic languages and are names of tools or implements: “handle,” “thimble,” “bridle,” “kettle,” “girdle,” and others. Some are derived from Old French: “castle,” “bottle,” “battle,” “mantle,” “cattle.” The French endings were el, aille, or eille.

(2) Adjectives. These are from Old English and often have the sense of aptness to do something, as in “brittle,” “fickle,”  and “nimble.”

(3) Verbs. These are from Old English or earlier Germanic sources, and they tend to express repeated action or movement, diminutive senses, or echo-like sounds. Examples include “nestle,” “twinkle,” “wrestle,” “crackle,” “crumple,” “dazzle,” “hobble,” “niggle,” “paddle,” “sparkle,” “topple,” “wriggle,” “babble,” “cackle,” “gabble,” “giggle,” and “mumble.”

More than you wanted to know? Blame the Oxford English Dictionary and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, which are the sources for much of this information. 

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