Should the T in “Often” Be Seen and Not Heard?

by Owen Fourie

There was a time when it was said that children should be seen and not heard.

This is hardly the case today as you can see on Facebook and You Tube. Children are being seen and heard.

Something else that is being seen and heard is the letter t in the word often—a word that is used to indicate the frequent occurrence of something.

In English forums, people often ask which pronunciation is correct. Should the t be silent, or should it be heard?

Often with t; then, no more t

A usage note in TheFreeDictionary.com tells us that during the 15th century certain consonant sounds disappeared from use.

In particular, the sound was of a single consonant found in a group of two or three consonants in a word.

In the following words, the consonant group or cluster is indicated in red with the disappearing sound indicated in blue:

  • handsome
  • handkerchief
  • consumption
  • raspberry
  • chestnut
  • often

While the letters of these “disappearing” consonants were retained in writing, they became silent in speech. This was to make the consonant cluster easier to articulate.

Time for t again; quite often, but not without some censure

By the 19th century, with the increase in literacy, the sounds of the silent letters were sometimes restored. Once again, the t in often was heard.

In the continuing discussion in English forums, some say that to pronounce the t in often is silly, underclass, less educated, or an overcorrection.

Some argue that if the t is heard in often, why shouldn’t we hear it in soften, hasten, and listen?

Others point out that it is a sign of literacy not illiteracy, and even a prestigious pronunciation.

A useful Wikipedia article notes that a “spelling pronunciation often reflects an even older pronunciation than the traditional one …”

The evidence is that articulating the t in often was the original pronunciation. Although often with a silent t has become the traditional pronunciation, it is not incorrect to express the t.

In this video on You Tube, HRH The Prince of Wales pronounces the t in often at 6:01.

Having been schooled in the traditional pronunciation, I’ll continue to use the silent t, but I must regard the articulation of the t as correct, too.

And there’s the tea bell—a better type of tea, don’t you think?


Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome. Are there other pronunciations that puzzle you? Ask here for clarification.

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