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May 21, 2013

I distrust people who call them [lightning bugs] fireflies.

I remember that. Those people. They are the same people who would pronounce the t in often and say interest with three syllables. Where do they come from?

They come from a strange room.”

This is an extract from Padgett Powell’s strange, enjoyable and very funny novel, You & I, which is an extended dialogue between two old codgers watching the world go by and talking opinionated nonsense. The three linguistic habits they mention here would all sound overly formal, a bit prissy and British in American English, I’m guessing. But it’s the middle one, often, that I’m interested in. I’m in agreement with the two old codgers on that one. There’s no reason to pronounce the t.

It may seem to be the more formal and correct form, but it’s actually a parvenu. When I was a child, we were taught at school that the word had a silent t – just like the silent t in whistle, castle, soften etc. (The letter t in the middle of an English word always tends to be unstable when it’s adjacent to other consonants, and if you’re a Cockney, even when it’s not.) The silent t in often is so long-established that, according to Simeon Potter in Our Language, Queen Elizabeth I actually wrote the word as offen.

But somewhere along the line people started to say the t again. It’s not uncommon to hear this pronunciation even from BBC newsreaders and announcers now, and most people (in Britain) would consider it the correct form; which means perhaps that it has become so. It’s one of those linguistic clues that is useful in estimating someone’s age. Anyone under forty or so pronounces the t, and those of us over forty leave it out.

By the way, my review of You & I appears in the Independent on Sunday this Sunday (26th May).

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