Here is why ‘p’ is not pronounced in words like ‘psychology’ and ‘pseudo’ in English but pronounced in other languages

When it comes to silent letters, English has many. They are there, standing firm, occupying space and charge you for extra ink but not pronounced at all. Many people hate them for being there and they fuss about why for god’s sake they are not pronounced. Well, there is a reason they are not pronounced and we wrote an article just about that. So let’s find out *rubbing hands together*

For some reason, English does not pronounce the ‘p’ in “psychology” but French does. For the same reason, it does not pronounce the ‘k’ in “knight” but German does. So, that has nothing to do with the letter and it has everything to do with English.

It seems that English has some kind of rules about the way sounds can be combined together in words and syllables. This is what it is known in linguistics as phonotactics. Phonotactics places limits on what consonant clusters are allowed at the beginning of syllables. If a word begins with a stop /p, b, t, d, g, k/ the only sounds that are allowed between that and the next vowel are /r/, /l/, and /w/. That’s why we have ‘plan’, ‘grow’, ‘Gwen’, ‘cry’, ‘bring’, ‘cluster’, and ‘prawn’, but we don’t have any word that starts with ‘pn’, ‘gn’, ‘pf’, ‘dn’, etc.

Nasals (/m, n, ng/) have even stricter limitations in the sense that they can’t be put in clusters at all, only after /s/, e.g. ‘small’, ‘snow’, ‘smuggle’, etc. /ng/ can’t happen at the beginning of English syllables at all. It can only occur at word-final positions. This causes a lot of frustration to people who immigrate to English-speaking countries who have names such as Nguyen.

There are two ways English, or any language for that matter, deal with clusters that do not exist in the language: epenthesis (inserting a vowel in between or before that sound) and deletion.

Although nowadays a lot of newly borrowed words use epenthesis, in the more common Latin and Greek roots borrowed earlier, English uses deletion. Since the combination /ps/ cannot coexist in an English syllable, one of the sounds has to go and that happens to be /p/. The same thing applies to “knight” and pretty much all borrowed words that do not follow English phonotactics.

This is not peculiar to English. Every language has its own unique sound pattern. That’s why native Spanish speakers add /e/ to the beginnings of words like “spelling”, “study” and “Steven” while English speakers manage them just fine. And that’s why the only Japanese words that don’t end with a vowel must end with /n/.

This is what gives each language its unique intonation pattern. That’s why when you hear a language being spoken you can confidently guess what that language is despite not understanding a single word. That’s because you are familiar with what it sounds like. More technically, you are familiar with its phonotactics.

If anyone corrects your pronunciation of a word in a public place, you have every right to punch him in the nose.

Heywood Broun

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