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.

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