35

Cambridge online dictionary pronounces "often" without the "t" but also gives the pronunciation with the t. I checked in many other dictionaries but it is silent.

UK: /ˈɒf.ən/ /ˈɒf.tən/
US: /ˈɑːf.ən/ /ˈɑːf.tən/
or US: /ˈɔf(ə)n/, /ˈɑft(ə)n/.

Some people do pronounce the "t" in often but most of the time it is silent. There are some other words that also have a silent "t". I did not know that the "t" in the word "fasten" was silent. I used to pronounce it with the "t" but when I looked up its pronunciation, it was silent. Is there any reason why it is silent?

  • 4
    glisten, listen, moisten, hasten,... I imagine the reason there's often a "missing /t/" is connected with how the French verb être loses that consonant in some of its forms (that one lost an /s/ too, being originally êstre). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 29 at 14:21
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    @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica: I believe that the spelling should be estre, as the hat (accent circonflexe ) is supposed to be a reminder that an s has been removed. Like in hospital->*hôpital* or maistre->*maître*. – Taladris Aug 30 at 10:56
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    @DKNguyen: I may be mistaken, but I believe that when the full OED gives multiple pronunciations for a word, apart from always listing British before U.S., they always list variants starting with the most common. Feasibly only "most common in the UK", I dunno. But their listing has Brit. /ˈɒf(ə)n/, /ˈɒft(ə)n/, followed by U.S. /ˈɔf(ə)n/, /ˈɑft(ə)n/ - the "/t/-less" coming first on both sides of the pond. Which sounds right to me, but I'm UK-SE, where very few of us normally enunciate the /t/ anyway. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 12:47
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    ...for soften, they don't even list a pronunciation with the /t/ at all. The (often facetiously reproduced) "upper-class" UK pronunciation ("ORFN") never includes /t/ – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Aug 30 at 12:52
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    @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica Related ELU post: The Ballad of Shameless Enjambment with many more examples of this. – tchrist Aug 30 at 14:50
19

In 1988, research by J. C. Wells for the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary showed that only 27% of British English speakers pronounce the "t". Subsequently, 1993 research showed that only 22% of Americans pronounce the "t".

Whether things have changed in the subsequent thirty years I don't know. The major dictionaries include both variants, but continue to put the silent-'t' pronunciation first.

The silent 't' is considered traditional, and the 1965 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage lamented the fact that the pronunciation with a "t" had become widespread. It saw this as part of the "speak-as-you-spell movement" in which native speakers were increasingly pronouncing things as they were written instead of in a more traditional way. Of course, in most cases this actually involves returning to an older pronunciation (and this is true of "often").

The Oxford English Dictionary records that the t-less pronunciation was avoided by careful speakers in the 17th century (despite having been used by Queen Elizabeth I) but subsequently became standard. Pronouncing the "t" was later regarded by some authorities as a "hypercorrection".

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64

It's an example of medial cluster reduction. The t was once pronounced but in the 17th century, the t in some words was dropped whenever it was preceded by a fricative (/f/, /v/, /s/, /θ/ etc) and followed by a sonorant (/l/, /m/, /n/ etc).

Examples:

  • In 'often', the t is preceded by /f/ which is a fricative and followed by /n/ which is a sonorant.
  • In 'fasten', the t is preceded by /s/ (fricative) and followed by /n/ (sonorant).
  • In 'whistle', the t is preceded by /s/ (fricative) and followed by /l/ (sonorant).
  • The t in the word 'Christmas' is silent for the same reason.

Wikipedia has explained it briefly:

Medial cluster reduction: Historically, similar reductions have taken place before syllabic consonants in certain words, leading to the silent ⟨t⟩ in words like castle and listen. This change took place around the 17th century. In the word 'often', the [t] sound later came to be re-inserted by some speakers as a spelling pronunciation.



Some background history:

There are loads of sound changes that took place in Early Modern English. There were many complex clusters in Old and Middle English that reduced and became simpler in Modern English. The 't' in words like listen, glisten, fasten etc was also lost in Modern English. Before Modern English, it wasn't silent. The [t] sound later came to be re-inserted by some speakers as a spelling pronunciation and is still around.

Some of the sound changes/reductions are listed below:

  1. Reduction of /kn/ to /n/: The <kn> in words like know, knot, knight etc used to be pronounced /kn/ in Old and Middle English. In Modern English, it is reduced to /n/. Therefore, not/knot, night/knight etc are homophones in Modern English. The cluster /kn/ is still present in some Scottish accents.

  2. Reduction of /gn/ to /n/: The <gn> in words like gnat, gnash etc was pronounced until the 17th century. In Modern English, word-initial and word-final <gn> is pronounced /n/. The cluster /gn/ is still present in some Scottish accents.

  3. Reduction of /ŋɡ/ to /ŋ/: Word-final /ŋɡ/ was reduced to /ŋ/ in Modern English. Before Modern English, the <ng> was pronounced /ŋɡ/ (with a hard g at the end). However, the cluster /ŋɡ/ is still present in some accents such as West Midlands and North West England.

  4. Reduction of /wr/ cluster to /r/: The <wr> in words like wright, wrong, wrath etc used to be pronounced /wr/ until Modern English. In Modern English, it's reduced to /r/.

  5. Silent e: The silent e in words like 'line', 'time', 'wise' etc was pronounced until Modern English (or late Middle English). In Modern English, it is often silent.

  6. I believe the <gh> also became silent in Modern English. It used to be pronounced [x] in Middle English. For example, night was /nixt/ (I'm not so sure about this one).

  7. The silent t in the word 'often' also took place in Modern English.



As per American Heritage Dictionary, the pronunciation of 'often' with a /t/ is spelling pronunciation (see the usage note).

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – snailplane Sep 1 at 20:32
  • I really want to accept your answer but I have now accepted rjpond's answer and I would feel a bit bad to remove the accept mark from his answer. I don't know why I didn't accept your answer in the first place as it is the best answer here. – Sphinx Nov 20 at 10:25
8

A "t" which follows a fricative consonant is often (but not always) silent. Here are some examples from "pronunciation studio"

-ften: often, soften

-sten: listen, glisten, hasten, fasten, moisten, christen, chasten

-stle castle, nestle, pestle, apostle, thistle, whistle, wrestle, gristle

And in other situations the /t/ is dropped when speaking quickly: eg "lastly" which is often pronounced /la:sly/ when speaking quickly.

The reason why a "t" is spelled, even though it isn't pronounced is historical. The word "often" comes from "oft" (which was pronunced with a /t/)

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2

Some people do pronounce the "t" in often but most of the time it is silent. @Sphinx

The "t" in often isn't always silent, there are native speakers who pronounce it, with more or less greater emphasis, but the general trend appears to indicate that these speakers are in the minority.

The following are excerpts where the letter "t" is heard (audibly) in the word often. Note that the speakers are not limited to the United Kingdom, and that the YouTube videos were produced in the last seven years.

  • When someone says climate change, we often think, "Oh, that's just an environmental issue.” Katherine Hayhoe (Canadian)

  • …we often think that control is the only thing we can do, that that's our great talent.” Brian Eno (British)

  • But we often think about CAPTCHAs from our perspective,…” Herbert Hugh Thomson (American)

  • “Now, critical thinking we often think is a good thing.” British speaker

  • …we're not as bad as we often think we are.” David Watson (Australian)

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-1

Soften always has a muted "T" and Often does only 3/4 of the time.

You can use whichever form you prefer, and which makes your phrase easier to listen to, keeping in mind that highly educated British people say the "T" slightly more frequently, and often unconsciously employ both. The "T" is inconvenient for fast speaking by posh people, so it is often omitted, and it's regionally and culturally variant.

"Oft" is also a word, and it's the archaic form of often. the addition of the "en" at the end has made the word a bit too long and over-articulated. The reason that the "T" is muted is because the archaic spelling is over-complicated

I went to a fairly good school in East Oxford, where the Harry Potter actors were sourced from because of the "good English pronunciation" there, and I have to be honest, I have never noticed that people say both forms of often! It's news to me! because both forms are said very commonly and with relatively little importance. 25% of people say it with "T", and many people say both depending on how fast they are speaking. So my point is... It really doesn't matter. If you ask me, I would have thought that the proper way is "Often", and that not that many people say "Offen"... So it depends your region and social entourage.

Well received English speaking people probably think the same as me, that "ofen" is informal, convenient, vulgar form of the word, and a bit more common in Scotland and America, and ofTen is the received English like you would hear on the BBC and radio... In Scottish and American, slightly more emphasis is placed on the first letter "O", which makes articulation of the T a bit slow and tedious, and in "harry potter English" the "O" is less emphasized, where as the "T" provides emphasis on the word if necessary. If the word is an important part of the phrase, or you want to make sure you want to be heard, including the "T" is probably a good idea.

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  • 1
    The pronunciation of often in Received Pronunciation has no t, as has been mentioned in other answers. Here's an example by a famous RP speaker, recorded in 1957: youtu.be/mBRP-o6Q85s?t=54 – Robert Furber Sep 1 at 11:07

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