Get the Word! Etymology of "Often"

Get the Word! Often

Good morning good evening good afternoon everyone, this is a short but sweet episode of Get the Word! Our series on the etymology of words in English. This will be a short one, and is intended more for advanced or native English speakers. Don’t forget to head to the website www.englishsessionswithmike.com for a transcript of this episode. Also, sign up to our Patreon page at www.patreon.com/theenglishsessions to get extra episodes of Get the Word! and much more. On the Patreon page you can also find sessions I’ve done with students all around the world. They may be very helpful for your learning. Also, I just recently took an IELTS test for Canadian immigration! Head to the Patreon page, www.patreon.com/theenglishsessions to hear my thoughts on the test. Also, I’d love for you to reach out to the podcast. Let me know if you’d be interested in a series on IELTS, or on the Canadian immigration process. Email me at mike@englishsessionswithmike.com

Today’s episode is about the word ‘often’. Notice how I pronounce the ’t’ in often? I’ve even had my students tell ME that I’m pronouncing it wrong. Let’s start there. I’m going to look at the phonetic spellings from the Oxford dictionary. Go to the website, I’ll post them there ( OXFORD: AmE ˈɔf(t)ən, ˈɑf(t)ən, BrE ˈɒf(ə)n, ˈɒft(ə)n ). From the phonetic spellings from Oxford, we see that the ’t’ is included as an option for pronouncing the word ‘often’ in both American and British English. What does that tell us? Well, that perhaps this is a regional pronunciation in both parts of the States and the UK. Where I grew up, for example, perhaps it was more common to pronounce the ’t’.

Let’s make a comparison to the word ‘soften’. Now, with the word ‘soften’ there is no accepted pronunciation in Oxford that includes the ’t’ sound. So, the ’t’ in soften should always be silent, despite the fact that the word ‘soft’ DOES have a ’t’ sound that you should pronounce. Similarly, ‘often’ is an extended form of the word ‘oft’. You don’t hear ‘oft’ too much anymore, it’s considered archaic, but pretty much has the same meaning. Same thing with ‘soft’, you always pronounce the ’t’ in oft. The oft-used rules of English. They’re both adverbs.

So if ‘often’ comes from ‘oft’, who decided to throw out that ’t’ sound and who are the ones deciding to hold onto it? We’ll get into that in a little bit.

‘Oft’ is derived from the proto-Germanic ‘ufta’ which ultimately just meant ‘frequently’ much as ‘often’ does today. He drank often. He drank frequently. The word ‘often’ started to become common use in the 16th century, eventually replacing ‘oft’ as the common word to use.

According to Merriam Webster, the ’t’ is typically silent, BUT has made a come back in modern English. That’s right, Merriam Webster says it has ‘returned’. So, who makes these rules anyway and who gets to decide what is an ‘educated’ and ‘uneducated’ way of speaking. Many of my listeners know this is not how I view language.

I’ll link to a very interesting article on the Atlas Obscura site about how rules such as never ending a sentence with a preposition in proper English are heavily influenced by, you guessed it, privileged wealthy white men of the day: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-cant-you-end-a-sentence-with-a-preposition

In this case, it was a privileged wealthy white woman, Queen Elizabeth I. The daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I ruled over England and Ireland from 1558–1603. Succeeding her Catholic sister Mary I, Elizabeth re-established Protestantism as the state religion. Queens get to decide what religions are dominant in their countries, and, at least in Elizabeth’s case, what ’t’s are spoken in her countries. She probably wouldn’t have had your head chopped off for pronouncing the ’t’ in ‘often’, but evidence shows she preferred a silent ’t’ in her ‘often’s. Interestingly enough, evidence also shows that careful speakers would have pronounced the ’t’ in ‘often’ in 17th century England, however, standard pronunciation eventually would follow the queen’s displeasure for the ’t’.



I’m sure some of you would say that few people have more authority to dictate the rules of the English language than the queen of England herself, and to be honest, I would have to agree with all of you who are saying that. However, to be considered brutish or uneducated or, to be called even worse elitist or racist terms, for how one speaks, is downright wrong.

Believe it or not, other words that have ‘en’ endings, like ’soften’, ‘hasten’ and ‘fasten’ all originally had the ’t’ pronounced. Imagine, ‘sofTen’, ‘hasTen’, ‘fasTen’. Now these sound very odd with the ’t’ pronounced because the English speaking population at large has accepted the silent ’t’ as the way to pronounce these words. There are no accepted phonetic spellings of ’soften’ or ‘hasten’ in the Oxford dictionary that includes a pronounced ’t’. But there are accepted phonetic spellings of ‘often’ with the ’t’ sound. Why is that? Why did all of these other ’TEN’ endings lose their ’t’ but not ‘often’?

BREAK 7:02   

It’s believed that the ’t’ came back in the 17th century due to spelling-influenced pronunciation (but again, why not the other ‘TEN’ endings?). This does track though, as this was a time of  incredible expansion of the printed word in England. And, as I mentioned before, during this time as well, you were considered being careful with your speech when you DID pronounce that ’t’, contrary to the preference of Queen Elizabeth.

So why then is pronouncing the ’t’ in ‘often’ considered the more ‘uneducated’ way of speaking today, when it was the opposite in 17th century England amongst careful speakers of the language? It’s not 100% clear from my research, but perhaps what survived was the knowledge of the speaking preferences of the queen. We all know history favors the rich and powerful and the lives they lived. However, by the 1930s dictionaries started to recognize that ‘often’ was not just the pronunciation choice of ‘the illiterate’. The Webster’s Second unabridged dictionary of 1934 states: The pronunciation ȯf-tən, until recently generally considered as more or less illiterate, is not uncommon among the educated in some sections, and is often used in singing. The Oxford dictionary al basocked up this idea: “The pronunciation (ȯf-tən), which is not recognized in dictionaries, is now frequent in the south of England, and is often used in singing.”. We all know however that this is an old entry, because, as I said earlier, there certainly are pronunciations with the ’t’ pronounced that are accepted by Oxford, for both American and British English.

I must mention once again the stuffiness and elitist nature, historically, of teams of dictionary writers. A true illiterate person would not be able to read ‘often’ or ‘often’, of course.

So why do I pronounce the ’t’ in ‘often’? Well, I do love to sing, but I’m certainly not from the south of England. Perhaps there are other regional variations in play, or, perhaps I just like the way it feels in my mouth. However, for all my English learners listening out there, always check the phonetic spellings in the dictionary. Dictionary.com has very simple phonetic spellings to read. Yes, the word ‘often’ is a case where you have more than one accepted pronunciation. Many other words, including many words with silent letters, only have one accepted pronunciation. You know I’m not a language elitist, folks, but if you don’t take things like silent letters into account, you run the risk of being misunderstood by native English speakers.

I’d love to hear from all of you about this topic. How do you pronounce ‘often’? Do you know what was happening back in the day in the south of England? Is this considered an ‘illiterate’ or ‘uncivilized’ part of England historically? Let’s get a dialogue going. Write in to the podcast, mike@englishsessionswithmike.com. You can also leave a message for me on the website. www.englishsessionswithmike.com where you will also find links to social media as well as a link to the Patreon page. Head over to patreon.com/theenglishsessions for ad-free episodes and much more, including bonus episodes of Get the Word! and other series, as well as sessions with learners from all over the world.




RESOURCES:
https://www.etymonline.com/word/oft?ref=etymonline_crossreference
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/correct-pronunciation-of-often
Oxford dictionary Macbook edition


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