Monday, July 15, 2013

What happened to the t in listen? Or, shouldn't that be Eas'enders?

Some if not all of my posts are completely redundant, as you can find all of this information quite easily elsewhere if you have a mind to. It's just about things that come up for me. Last night I was watching an episode of Eastenders and was sure I heard a character pronounce listen as 'list-en', with a hard t. It was plausible because he was black and had a sort of Jamaican British English, and I thought maybe just one of those variants of English that happens because of its farflung nature.

Luckily, I was watching this on tape, and as it turns out, I was wrong. I don't know quite what he was saying, but I think the 'listen' was pretty normal. But then I started wondering why we don't pronounce the 't' in words like listen and glisten.

Like I said, this turns out to be a common question. And you can find a pretty thorough answer here at Grammarphobia, which looks to be a much more authoritative blog than this one. Basically, the unsurprising answer is, we're lazy. Apparently, we just find it too hard to make that 'st' sound. Too much work. It's a bit odd when you think about it, because we don't mind saying words like stone and stalk and stammer, do we? I guess by the time we reach the middle of a word, we're just too tired out. Because although I happened to think of listen and glisten, there's also moisten, hasten and fasten (and try explaining to a non-English speaker why those last two don't rhyme. Actually, try explaining it to me.) And so on. Not going to pronounce that t, are we? Je refuse!

We don't always refuse, though. As Grammarphobia points out, when it comes to words like justly, mostly, lastly, we muster up the strength to keep that t sound in. They quote one William Bright as referring to these as conscious compounds. By this I think he meant that the words just and most and last are solid enough in our minds that they don't sound right to our ears if we omit that last, or should I say las' 't'.

The funny thing about 'listen' in particular, though, is that the spelling is kind of made up. The original Old English word was hlysnan, which had Germanic roots and is related to present day German lauschen. The t was added, probably because of an association people made to the Old English word hlystan, or list. Apparently our forebears were made of sterner stuff than we. They actually wanted to pronounce that t, whether it was there to begin with or not.

Hlysnan, do you want to know a secret?



  1. Do you often ask yourself such questions?

  2. I honestly couldn't tell you, Peter. I do sometimes, but that's only apparent to me because I have some place to write about it.

  3. You did, I hope, notice the third word in my previous comment.

    But "honestly" reveals what may be a similar linguistic development in French, all those words like hospital and honest and host whose French counterparts, hôpital, honnête, and hôte, where a circumflex occurs, presumably to indicate the disappearance of the s.

  4. I 'ones'ly didn't, Peter but I should have been on the lookout for something like that. I thought about the French when writing this post, as French has English beat cold for leaving things out, but then I thought the French might take it as a slight and sacre bleu, I don't want that.

    Actually, the English have Americans beat cold for leaving things, as I learned as a child and innocently tried to pronounce the Worcestershire sauce label.

  5. My favorite example is Featherstonehugh, pronounced, obviously, Freestone. The great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock has great fun with this tendency in one of his Nonsense Novels:

    "But the scene of this narrative is laid in the South of England and takes place in and around Knotacentinum Towers (pronounced as if written Nosham Taws), the seat of Lord Knotacent (pronounced as if written Nosh)."

    Some figure in my distant past, a teacher or an old relative, used to sound the t in often. The Boston Globe used to publish a column called The Litr'ry Life, though I'm not sure if I have the apostrophes placed correctly. And I recently read some old Irish complaint that it's bad enough to call Derry Londonderry, but to pronounce the name as if written Londond'ry was even worse. I agree.

  6. Either way, gh is another mysteriously silent spelling.

    The Grammarphobia article starts off with 'often', which apparently is correct with the t or without, but the article claims that 'often' had gone the usual silent t route, but that with the rise of literacy, people saw the t again and began to self-consciously correct themselves.

  7. Which may have something to do with

    Muff (historically spelt Mough, from Irish: Magh) is a village in County Donegal, Ireland.