By Maeve Maddox
The word often is a good example of the way our language goes round and round.
Old English had the word oft. meaning “frequently.” It also had the word seldan. which meant “rarely,” and is the source of our word seldom.
It is thought that oft morphed into often by analogy with seldan. Then seldan changed to seldum by analogy with another time word, hwilum. which meant “sometimes” or “once”. Over time, seldum came to be spelled seldom .
The t in often continued to be pronounced until some time in the 15th century when a consonant simplification occurred in some words that had two or more consonants in a row. It was at this time that speakers stopped pronouncing the d in handkerchief and handsome. the p in raspberry. and the t in chestnut and often .
John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary. published in 1791 and still available in a 2001 reprint of the 1838 edition, stipulates that “in often and soften the t is silent.”
By 1926, enough speakers were pronouncing the t in often to provoke this testy comment from H. W. Fowler in Modern English Usage :
[the pronunciation of the t in often] is practised by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours…& the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell….”
In 1996, an editor of the OED2, R. W. Burchfield, avoided censuring the “t” pronunciation in this conciliatory comment:
Nowadays…many standard speakers use both [AWF-in] and [AWF-tin], but the former pronunciation is the more common of the two.
However, writer on language Charles Harrington Elster, in The Big Book Of Beastly Mispronunciations: The Complete Opinionated Guide For The Careful Speaker (1999), rejects such compromise:
I would caution those who might be consoled by the comments of … Burchfield to heed the admonitions of the past and avoid pronouncing the t.
Elster supports his position with an appeal to analogy:
analogy is entirely unsupportive: no one pronounces the t in soften, listen, fasten, moisten, hasten, chasten, christen, and Christmas—so, once and for all, let’s do away with the eccentric AWF-tin.
For the fun of it, let’s poll DWT readers (if you are reading this via email you’ll need to visit the site to cast your vote):