Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Invisible Letters — Or, Mr. Hamster and the Disappearing “P”

Because I don’t enjoy venting word-related frustrations to people when I can actually see their pained expressions, I took to this blog yesterday to write about the weirdness of writing Zeus’ hotplate instead of Zeus’s hotplate, with the traditional extra “s” that you would add to any other possessive noun. In the comment section — yes, I got a comment on that, thank you — it was stated that English shouldn’t require us to pronounce invisible letters since enough trouble arises from not pronouncing the silent ones. Unfortunately, English already has silent letters, and my go-to example for this rare phenomenon occasionally blows people’s minds.

Okay: How do you pronounce the word hamster? Say it out loud. Shout it, if you need to. Don’t worry, your coworkers and neighbors will not think you’re weird for doing this. (Mine don’t.)

If you pronounced it like it’s spelled, you may have mispronounced it, at least according to one interpretation of the Merriam Webster entry for the word, which says it should be pronounced as if it were spelled hampster. As I understand it, the “p” sound happens because it feels more natural for the mouth to let out some air between the closed position necessary for the “m” sound and the “s” that follows. The result? A “p” that shouldn’t be there and that we can only prevent if we consciously suppress our mouth’s inclination to make it. It should be noted, however, that neither the American Heritage Dictionary nor Wiktionary have the “p” in their pronunciation, but listen to people pronouncing the word if they’re made aware of this phenomenon. You’ll hear it.

You know, the next time everyone is talking about hamsters.

(artist’s interpretation of hamster terrified by alleged ghost letter)

There are a few other silent letters, depending how you look at the matter, including the implied vowels in the first syllables of names like McCoy and McKenzie and the “r” that certain English-speaking regions and Tony Danza pronounce at the end of Mona and Samantha and other words that end in “a.” I’m glad there aren’t more. I think the hamster is too.

10 comments:

  1. How can you not mention the most famous hampster? HampsterDance.com has always been spelled with the P. I didn't even realize that was an error until years later when someone did a "Hey, remember that old internet fad" thing and mentioned it was a misspelling.

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    1. Wow. Not only had I blocked that out until right now -- thanks, by the way -- I literally never realized that tit was spelled wrong either. Weird. But I guess if our brains are programmed to make the "P" sound they might also not object to seeing the letter. I guess?

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  2. I'm originally from rural upstate South Carolina, where Clemson University is located. Since people there are VERY Southern and have the twang to prove it, the school and town are very often pronounced "Clempson" (which absolutely drives me insane).

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    1. Yeah, that's the kind of thing that would have bugged me too. Now I'm trying to think of another example. I can't, aside from the name Samson. Do I make a "p" sound in that one? I'm not sure. What about Samsonite?

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  3. Anonymous10:25 PM

    I think this is one of those rare times where it is appropriate to relay the story that a former roommate of mine thought that there was a silent n in the word "pretzel" until sometime in high school. He thought it was pronounced "prentzel."

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    1. I'm not sure why it didn't post under this name :(

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    2. Wait, what's going on?

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    3. I was pretty sure I was logged in when I posted the prentzel story, but I guess I wasn't. As for how my roommate lived for so long not realizing that the word was "pretzel," that I cannot answer.

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    4. Yeah, both are pretty inexplicable. As for the latter, I knew a guy in college who insisted on pronouncing "milk" with a short "i" rather than the little nothing vowel most West Coasters use. I don't think he ever understood why his pronunciation was different.

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  4. This happens a lot after nasals. "thumb" was Old English "├żuma" and "limb" was Old English "lim". The "b" got added because that's how people talked. (Then it disappeared, but it remains in the spelling.)

    I pronounce "prints" and "prince" identically for the same reason.

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