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.