Etymology Pronunciation Spelling

Why is “t” often silent?

Q: I teach English at a high school in Wyoming. I was looking to justify my abhorrence of the word “oftentimes,” and I came across your piece about pronouncing the “t” in “often.” I usually point out to my students that we don’t pronounce it in “soften,” “hasten,” and “fasten,” so why do it in “often”? Do you have a good explanation?

A: The short answer is that the “t” in many words is silent because it’s too difficult or awkward to pronounce and has become assimilated into the surrounding consonants.

Let’s start with a little etymology. Some verbs with silent “t”—like “soften” and “moisten”—were created when the suffix “-en” was added to an earlier adjective ending in “st” or “ft.”

In the case of “fasten,” the ending was added even before the verb came into English from old Germanic languages. But the root is still the adjective “fast,” meaning stable or fixed.

A couple of similar verbs are special cases. “Listen” originally had no “t” (it was spelled lysna in Old English), but it acquired a “t” by association with the archaic synonym “list.” And “hasten” is merely an extended form of the old verb “haste,” formed by analogy with the other “-en” verbs.

As we said in our blog posting about “often,” the word can be properly pronounced either with or without a “t” sound. The “t” had long been silent but it came back to life in the 19th century with the rise of literacy, when people seemed to feel that each letter in a word should be sounded.

For some reason this didn’t happen with “soften,” whose “t” is always silent. And in the other verbs we mentioned—“moisten,” “fasten,” “listen,” “hasten” —the “t” is invariably silent, never pronounced. Similarly, the “t” disappears when we pronounce words like “castle,” “christen,” “epistle,” “glisten,” “nestle,” “pestle,” and others.

It’s a good bet that if a word ends in “-sten,” “-ften,” or “-stle,” the “t” will be silent. Why? We found an answer in a paper published more than a century ago.

The article, “On ‘Silent T’ in English,” by James W. Bright, appeared in the journal Modern Language Notes in January 1886.

As Bright explains, the “t” in these words is an acoustically “explosive” one, and to sound it after an “s” or an “f”—both of which expend “considerable breath”—is “especially difficult and obscure.” Consequently the “t” sound is assimilated into its surroundings and becomes silent.

However, the “t” sound persists in some other words spelled with “-stl” and “-ftl,” like “lastly,” “justly,” “mostly,” “shiftless,” “boastless,” and others.

Bright explains that such words “are, with most persons familiar with their use, conscious compounds; as they become popular words, and therefore subject to unstudied pronunciation, they conform to the regular rule. It is only after administered caution that we learn to make t audible in wristband.”

We’ve written before on our blog about silent letters: The thing to remember is that English words have varied in their pronunciations over the centuries. So letters that live on in our spellings may have fallen out of our pronunciations.

And if you’re still bugged by “oftentimes,” you might check out our posting about its history and legitimacy.

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