English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Knit picking

Q: Please settle a dispute. Which is the correct past tense—“I knit a sweater” or “I knitted a sweater”?

A: They’re both correct. You can say “I knit a sweater last week” or “I knitted a sweater last week.” In fact, an Anglo-Saxon would have used the same word in Old English (cnytte) for the present and past tenses of “I knit,” though knitting back then wasn’t quite the same as it is now.

Most of the 10 contemporary standard dictionaries that we regularly consult say the past tense of “knit” can be either “knit” or “knitted.” All five American dictionaries and two of the five British dictionaries agree with that. Three British dictionaries consider “knitted” the only past tense.

When the verb showed up in Old English as cnyttan (to knit), it meant “to tie in or with a knot; to tie, fasten, bind, attach, join, by or as by knotting,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Aelfric’s Grammar, an Old English introduction to Latin, written around 995: “Ic cnytte, necto” (ic is “I” in Old English; necto is Latin for “I bind, tie, fasten, connect,” etc.).

It wasn’t until the early 1500s, as Middle English gave way to early Modern English, that “knit” took on the sense of “to form (a close texture) by the interlooping of successive series of loops of yarn or thread.”

The first OED example is from John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la Langue Francoyse (1530), a French grammar for English speakers: “I knyt bonettes or hosen.”

Interestingly, the c of cnyttan was pronounced like the “c” of “cat” and the k of knytten (the usual spelling of the infinitive in Middle English) was pronounced like the “k” of “king.”

As the OED explains, “kn– is an initial combination common to all the Germanic languages and still retained by most. In English, the k is now silent, alike in educated speech and in most of the dialects; but it was pronounced apparently till about middle of the 17th cent.”

“In the later 17th and early 18th centuries,” the dictionary adds, “writers on pronunciation give the value of the combination as = hn, tn, dn or simple n. The last was probably quite established in Standard English by 1750. The k is still pronounced in some Scottish dialects; in others the guttural is assimilated to the dental, making tn-, esp. after vowels, as a tnife, my tnee.”

Why did English speakers stop pronouncing the “k” in words like “knee,” “knife,” “knot,” and “knowledge”? Probably because it was too much trouble.

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