Monday, July 12, 2010

"Often" with a t?

John McIntyre has started a list of broadcasting language peeves, among them "Sounding the t in often." I've been interested in this one since my daughter, brought up as an OFF-en speaker, went to college at the University of Michigan and came back saying OFF-ten. I don't think it's a regional thing -- I grew up two hours south of Ann Arbor, and I don't remember OFF-ten even as a variant. It must have been something she picked up from friends.

That's why I was primed to notice when Ben Zimmer, in a public radio interview after he was named Safire's successor, said OFF-ten. Of all people, wouldn't he have a clue about the pronunciation shift? Well, no. "Funny, if you had asked me, I would've guessed I say OFF-en," he e-mailed. "Just goes to show how unreliable self-reflection is when it comes to phonetic matters." (And, of course, he might well say OFF-en 98 percent of the time; we all have variant pronunciations -- depending on circumstance, audience, whim -- for some words.)

He pointed me to a discussion at ADS-L, where posters had not been able to establish that OFF-ten was either a generational shift or a regional variant, though one noted that it was an old pronunciation:
The variation seems to go quite far back in history. The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996) suggests that the /t/ was lost in the 15th century, but that "Because of the influence of spelling," often "is now commonly pronounced with the t." That would, as Robert suggests, make the t-full version a spelling pronunciation.
Naturally, the t version has been scorned as both an ignorant goof and a pretentious mannerism. "The bad odor of class-conscious affectation still clings to it," says Charles Harrington Elster in "The Big Book of Beastly Pronunciations." And it's true that OFF-ten deviates from the usual pattern of soften, listen, fasten, christen, etc.

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I've been wary of ascribing motives to people's pronunciations. I grew up with "mirror" pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn't use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did. And my Eastern friends who said VAHZ for vase and AHNT for aunt weren't being pretentious; they too were speaking the language they'd grown up with.

Pretentious pronunciation surely exists -- I sympathize with McIntyre's aversion to "Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia." But I think that in general, we're much too eager to label people dimwits or social climbers on the basis of pronunciations they probably acquired in the usual way -- by imitating the people they talk to.


Vireya said...

I've been paying attention to offen/often recently, after reading about it on a couple of US language sites. My observations have mainly been of podcast gardening talkback shows from Australia and the UK. So they included people of varying backgrounds and educational levels. From my (limited) observations, it seems a lot of people in England say the t, and about half the Australians do.

I tend to say the t, although I do remember being taught as a child to say offen. I don't know when or why I changed, but as another example, I was taught to pronounce wh differently to w, and I don't do that any more, either.

jhm said...

Mr. Zimmer might indeed usually elide the 't,' but fail to do so (or fail to do so consistently) when he is reading copy aloud. This type of mispronunciation happens often on news broadcasts and other situations where the speaker is reading from a teleprompter; the only difference here is that there is debate as to whether it isa mispronunciation.

I'll add that I usually pronounce the 't' to myself when I write (or read carefully), and have done so ever since I learnt the correct spelling in whatever grade it was (which provides some evidence that a pronounced 't' isn't (or wasn't) de rigueur in Western Massachusetts).

Lars Larson said...

I say the "t". And I am a grammar Nazi. Am I wrong? I don't think so. Older American dictionaries might I find the OFF-en pronunciation throws people into the same speaking category as those who say "libary" and "seprit". But that's just me.

There is the argument that "often" is like "soften"...but then there are loads of examples like this in English.

I say the "t" in "often". I also say the "ing" in "fishing".

Eunoia said...

'Offen' is the pronunciation used by people who say 'nukulah' and 'aloominumb' ;-)

Sean (quantheory) said...

"soften, listen, fasten, christen"

I actually follow different rules for all of these words. I always pronounce the "t" in "often", sometimes pronounce it for "soften" (depending on whether or not I'm reading), and for the latter three I sometimes pronounce the "t" as a glottal stop (almost always in "christen", almost never in "fasten").

Jan said...

JHM: Ben was not reading but answering questions from radio listeners (on "On Point," IIRC: But I agree with your general point -- I know I sometimes overenunciate if I'm afraid a word (unfamiliar, foreign) won't be recognizable to a listener in its usual pronunciation.

And Eunoia, that's funny: "Off-en" is definitely the traditional educated pronunciation in American usage. And what's wrong with "aloominumb," otherwise known as "aluminum"? Are you a member of the "aluminium" speech community?

Kevin Morrison said...

Vireya has been listening carefully: as a Brit, I can assure you that the received pronunciation always gives full value to the 't' in often.

'Mere' for mirror (always a two-syllable word in English) has fascinated me for as long as I've been in the States, but my all-time favorite is the inability of vast numbers of people to say 'Social Security'. It comes out invariably as 'so security' from a wide variety of speakers. Yet 'racial profiling' gets the full treatment. Why is this?

empty said...

My, this is getting peevish. I suggest we all stop, reread the last paragraph of Jan's post, and take a deep breath.

I think Eunoia likes alyoo rather than aloo in his/her aluminum. By the way, where I come from, the invisible b in aluminum is inaudible, too.

Jeff said...

I can tell you I won't be commenting here very OFFEN. Too much pressure. ;-)

joe said...

This left me wondering how Americans pronounce "Bach". With a k-sound?

Pageturners said...

Not to mention 'birthday', which I now say as written, but grew up saying burthay.

And don't get me started about the migrating emphasis: fiNANCE is now FIEnance, reSEARCH is now REESearch, proTEST (as a verb) is now PROtest - all the emphases seem to be sliding back to the beginning of words. It makes me INDignant.

The Ridger, FCD said...

If you put in the T you will (as an American) have two barriers to the pun in Pirates of Penzance. "Do you mean often, frequently, or orphan, a person who has lost his parents?"

The existence of "oft" might confuse things, although we let "soft, fast, etc" coexist with T-less verbs.

MelissaJane said...

Clicking on the link to Eunoia's blog reveals him as a Scot, so yes, he probably is a member of the al-yoo-miny-um community.

It always amazes me how peevish the comments on a blog devoted to debunking peevology can be.

empty said...

Lots of us Americans pronounce Bach with a final consonant that is softer than a k but not nearly as ostentatious as the full mucous-and-saliva performance than Jan describes.

cheryllynn said...

I found this webpage to be quite amusing as well as elucidating (I scored much higher as a Southerner using pronunciation I used as a child opposed to the way I speak now).
Also, I've always been somewhat bemused by all the fuss generated by language usage. I've always considered language to be a tool used for communication purposes. Whether it be short and to the point, or poetically graceful, to require more of it is to worship at the altar of language. I would hope for a higher altar.

Anonymous said...

If you want pretentious, listen to Obama pronounce "Pokh-eeee-stan". Why doesn't he call it also "Afff-GHAN-eee-stan"?

John Cowan said...

Ridger: The orphan/often pun fails for the great majority of speakers nowadays. You'd have to have NORTH=CLOTH, whereas almost everyone with /O/ in CLOTH nowadays is rhotic, and that's without taking the /t/ into consideration at all.

Anonymous said...

@Jan: I'm afraid not. OFF-ten has always been the traditional educated American pronunciation. Offen is a pronunciation for people who warsh their clothes in the crick and write with a pin.

Jan said...

@Anon 10:10 am: Since educated speakers in my family go both ways, I don't have a favorite here. But on what grounds do you base your brief for off-ten?
Elster cites a 1791 pronunciation guide; Fowler (who calls the t pronunciation either affected or half-literate, depending on the user) and later 20c dictionaries; WII (1934) says the t-ful version was "until recently ...considered more or less illiterate" but is now "not uncommon among the educated in some sections." Random House II (1987) said the t disappeared in the 17th c, and in the 20th was "still criticized" but now so common it was "fully standard once again."

The record also doesn't show any disparagement of the silent-t pronunciation.

As for crick, warsh, and pin (for pen), they were common variants along the isogloss where I was nurtured. But I don't remember "offten."

Maybe it depends on your definition of "always"?

Jan said...

Anonymous left the following comment, which I can only reproduce in part. (I'm afraid this is about to become a dead-end debate, so comments may be closed soon.)

Anonymous said ...
"I believe your premise is incorrect that dropping the -t in this pronunciation was ever some kind of standard in the minds of anyone but a handful of extraordinarily pretentious grammarians. There is a reason why the -t was included in the spelling of the word -- obviously pronunciation of the -t was NOT dropped back in the 15th* Century (lol), and I'm pretty sure a look back through the history of audio recordings in the 20th Century will show the pronunciation of the -t was quite common (and I would guess MOST common) at any point during the 20th Century, on any side of the English speaking Atlantic or Pacific. For example, here is a recording of Bing Crosby singing the word 'often' in the first line of a famous song, he hits the -t pretty hard: "

Well, Anon, I said (quoting Random House) "17th century," not 15th century. And yes, off-ten came back into use through singers' enunciation, according to the language historians. And while I appreciate a good rant, if you want to call someone rude names, this isn't your billboard; you should take your comment to his site, and (preferably) bravely identify yourself.

Taylor Selseth said...

I grew up in rural NW Minnesota and I have always said it with a T: /ˈɑf.tən/

Big Daddy Malcontent said...

"OFF-ten," contrary to being the "traditional educated American pronunciation," is the pronunciation favored by those who are NEW to the tradition of education. This is why the "OFF-ten" pronunciation diagrams appears last in dictionaries. The entry at has this disclaimer:

Usage Note: During the 15th century English experienced a widespread loss of certain consonant sounds within consonant clusters, as the (d) in handsome and handkerchief, the (p) in consumption and raspberry, and the (t) in chestnut and often. In this way the consonant clusters were simplified and made easier to articulate. With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people's awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often, which is now frequently pronounced. In other similar words, such as soften and listen, the t generally remains silent.

And offers this explanation:

—Pronunciation note Often was pronounced with a t -sound until the 17th century, when a pronunciation without the  /t/ came to predominate in the speech of the educated, in both North America and Great Britain, and the earlier pronunciation fell into disfavor. Common use of a spelling pronunciation has since restored the  /t/ for many speakers, and today  /ˈɔfən/[aw-fuhn] and  /ˈɔftən/[awf-tuhn] exist side by side. Although it is still sometimes criticized, often with a /t/ is now so widely heard from educated speakers that it has become fully standard once again.

Jose M. Blanco said...

I agree that way too many people are too eager to criticize someone based on their pronunciation. The "t" in often is a good example. I teach English, and I hear educated people, from all parts of the United States, pronounce the "t." Naturally, students listen to them and pronounce the "t" as well. But where does one draw the line. Do we slide from pronunciation to grammar and become absolute descriptivists and accept expressions like "between you and I" simply because others use them? I hope not.

Rob said...

Hello. English. Londoner. Thus:


Lars Larson: it's fisshin.

But, yunnow, fanks for thu diffrunces.

Justin Y. said...

I didn't realize there were other ways of saying 'often' or 'groshery' for a long time. Given I'm an Ohio native as well (with most of my youth within half an hour of Columbus,) I found it rather surprising.

My 'mirror' is more like "MIR'R" than 'MERE'. Texans find me a bit strange for my 'often' and 'clothes' (I wish I knew IPA for that one, but the t isn't entirely gone when I say it as is often the case with those I meet).

Thanks for your interesting blog, by the way. I found it a few days ago and, while definitely not perfect or even well-informed on the subject, find it quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

HOw about the t's hard and then softened in , fast and fasten, haste and hasten, moist and moisten, nest and nestle, wrest and wrestle....notice a trend? Same trend in oft and often. Oh...not to forget...Christ and Christmas

Anonymous said...

My impression is that I heard the t in often only rarely in public until just a few years ago, when it started becoming very common. I attribute this change to cable tv and talk radio which brought so many new and untrained speakers on air. I believe, in order to be more clearly understood on broadcast and recorded media, speakers are tending to emphasize the consonant sounds, which often get lost in less formal speech. Then add reading from a script, and the speaker needs to be pretty swift to silence that t. People then repeat what they've heard lately, in this case wrongly. Yes, I know it's always been around, but I've never yet heard a teacher say the silent t was incorrect, or that the hard t in often was any better than frowned upon. I discount brownie points for it.