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silent autumn

Does anybody know why the ‘n’ in the word ‘autumn’ is silent? May it be possible that the ‘n’ sound got lost somewhere at some point in the historical development of English? Or maybe our ancestors mispronounced this word and such is the case up to this day? Or is it just a matter of the English phonology system, which does not allow for pronouncing ‘mn’ clusters? Can any phonologist help?

  • October 29, 2004
  • Posted by marta
  • Filed in Misc

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Working on it. In the meantime enjoy this representative list of silent letters in English:

Silent a: musically, realistically, logically
Silent b: thumb, dumb, climb, debt, doubt, subtle
Silent c: indict, muscle, Tucson, Connecticut
Silent d: handkerchief, sandwich, handsome, Wednesday
Silent e: bridge, serve, clue, many many others
Silent f: halfpenny
Silent g: light, sign, diaphragm
Silent h: hour, honor, heir, exhaust, exhibition, Birmingham
Silent i: business
Silent k: knife, knock, know, knead
Silent l: walk, talk, salmon, almond, calm, yolk
Silent m: mnemonic
Silent n: autumn, solemn, condemn, column, hymn
Silent p: corps, pneumonia, coup, receipt, cupboard, clapboard, Campbell
Silent r: (depends on dialect)
Silent s: island, aisle, viscount
Silent t: Christmas, whistle, castle, listen, soften, often, rapport, ballet
Silent u: guest, tongue, catalogue, guide, guitar
Silent w: sword, answer, two, write, whole, whore, Greenwich, Norwich
Silent z: rendezvous, chez, laissez-faire

Your mileage may vary... that is, you may disagree with some items of this list and that's fine.

Yes, I know that lots of these are foreign words pronounced the way the foreign language pronounces them. The real question is why they haven't or haven't yet been brought to conform to more typical English pronunciations.

speedwell2 October 29, 2004, 4:23am

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Wow, look what I just found. Not only did the word lose a formerly pronounced N, but it also gained and lost a P (of all the damned things) in both French and English. Here:

[Middle English autumpne, from Old French autompne, from Latin autumnus.] (American Heritage Dictionary Fourth)

[L. auctumnus, autumnus, perh. fr. a root av to satisfy one's self: cf. F. automne. See Avarice.] (Webster's Revised Unabridged 1913)

speedwell2 October 29, 2004, 4:39am

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Who says 'hal-penny'?
Also, I very much disagree with sandwich being on that list. Perhaps it is regional/dialectical?

Guest1 October 30, 2004, 4:36pm

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It's "ha'penny." And lots of people I know from the Illinois/Ohio/Pennsylvania belt say something like "samwich." Don't get your panties in a wad.

speedwell2 November 1, 2004, 3:32am

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I guess you've been influenced by some bad companies. :-) You are not answering Marta's question. The question is WHY that N is mute.
It is curius: the words ending with the mute N such as autumn (autumnus), damn (damnum), solemn (sollemnis), column (columna) have a vowel after the N that is more conviniant for the Indo-European languages to pronounce. [letalone the P you mentioned in their French version which make it more complicated.]
To answer the WHY it is important to trace the changes in the spelling, from the old English to that of the modern one.
I don't know much about the spelling development but found it an interesting thing when I tried to compare the Beowulf's modern to the original texts.
so some one tells of WHY, if you please.

goossun November 1, 2004, 3:58pm

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Thanks Goossun for your hints. I think, I understand now why the 'n' is mute in 'autumn'. You've made me realise that: now that the word 'autumn' is of Latin origin, logically then, English must have borrowed it and adjusted it somehow to its phonological system. As a result of this, the consonant 'mn' cluster got phonetically simplified so that nowadays only 'm' out of 'mn' sequence is pronounced. Latin and English differ much in many respects (e.g. grammar, pronunciation, origin etc.) and what possible in Latin is often not possible in English. Therefore Romanians could tolerate 'mn' clusters but the English can't. Or, supposedly, because the Latinate words such as autumn (autumnus), damn (damnum), solemn (sollemnis), column (columna) originally had a vowel in their inflectional gender endings (the endings themselves being 'cut off' or lost in the long process of borrowing), which made it phonetically possible and easier to pronounce the 'mn' clusters, were borrowed into English as already 'bare', 'robbed' words and not to be accepted by the English sound system. Facing up such strangely-looking lexical forms, English speakers intuitively ceased to pronounce the 'n' sound. Nevertheless the question still remains: why is it phonologically impossible to pronounce 'm' and 'n' sounds side by side? Maybe the reason for it lies somewhere deeply in the phonological structure of these sounds? For example, the two voiced nasal sounds surrounded by also voiced vowels can't be sounded and one of them must become silent...And why does it have to be the 'n' and not the 'm'? Does anyone know the real answer?A question breeds a question. I still remain perturbed.

Anonymous November 5, 2004, 1:56am

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Oops, forgot to sign my name again. What a forgetful creature am I!!! Hey Dyske, could we have an access to our later comments as well, so as to correct our misspellings and rewrite our signatures? Please! Such computer-shy people like me need it badly...:-]]

marta November 5, 2004, 2:07am

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Once again, I think whatever answer one may come up with will in some way or another have to do with a great consideration on spelling. The French language has historically played the role of pimp for the English to borrow the latin and ancient greek words. Some call the French "Bastard Latin." So one can say that the Latin vocabulary was used by the "book-people", the upper-class English people who gained this vocabulary through texts and it was a luxurious way of speaking and writing English uploaded by Latin. One can still trace this attitude in the English translation of Itanian texts even today.
Funny enough there are equvalents for the Latin words in "English." But especially when it come to Human Scince terminology almost all the terms are Latin-rooted which are borrowed through French.
(One more strange thing is that although two consonates can begin an English word with no difficulty, it does not work in the end of the words. i.e. speak. A Spanish would pronounce it "Espeak"!)

And I don't think it is a good idea to have access to our previous post. Our mistakes are our history; let'em be the way the are.

goossun November 8, 2004, 4:20am

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I think the silent n is simply more aesthetically pleasing. Honestly, who wants to try and pronounce "mn" ? Of course, it makes sense that the n was not simply dropped. It would sound pretty silly to say "autum" and then have its adjectival form be "autumal."

Dominic November 30, 2004, 11:12am

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IMO, the mystery is clearly not why the n is silent (English being infamously "lazy-tongued"), but why it is still there in writing.
The silliness of "autumal" is hardly a reason, since there's lots of precedent for anglicizing the spelling of a (everyday-usage) noun while keeping the original form of the (more exotic) adjective, which would seem to apply to "autumn"/"autumnal".
Examples: "name"/"nominal", "language"/"linguistic"

The claim that double-consonants work better at the beginning of words than at the end is, I think, clearly flawed. It's just that while double consonants always work "inside" a word, surrounded by vowels, there are some combinations which are tedious to pronounce if the vowel is missing on one side, such as "autumn", "mnemonic" or "Ptolemy".
I think it's mostly combinations of the same type of vowels (sorry, don't know the proper terms here), such as [k,p,t] and [m,n].

It's not actually phonetically impossible to pronounce these, actually I don't think saying "P-Tolemy" is any harder than saying "Cryp-T", it's just that one is used to the one but not to the other, so one notices the strangeness more...

The decision which of the sounds is dropped is seemingly simply that one keeps the one neighbouring the vowel, which makes sense to me. Then again, I just noticed that "receipt" works differently - but hey, exceptions are what English is all about :)

MM December 4, 2004, 2:59am

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Probaby has more to do with oral anatomy and the necessity to get on with it than anything else. In Korean, when a word that ends with "p" is followed by a word that begins with "n", then the "p" becomes an "m". This is because of the relationship of the lips, which are closed then rapidly opened to articulate "p", to the necessity of having an open mouth to make the tongue's rapid descent from the dorso-dental area followed by the exhalation from the nostrils, as in "n", possible. In essence, we are lazy, in whatever language. All of these "silent" letters are merely indicators of that. Thus, some people find it easier and more productive, in the effective-communication sense, to say "samwich" rather than "sandwich", and others do not. I was taught to say "offen" as being more desirable than "often", but lately I hear "often" more frequently than not. But looking Speedwell's list, you can see that most of these dropped letters are the result of it being just too damn difficult to pronounce them, given their placement amongst the vowels and consonants around them.

panama December 4, 2004, 5:25am

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Let's not forget the silent N which is not preceeded by an M in the word "Kiln" granted the N can be either pronounced or not pronounced...but why the variation? It's from the Old English "cyln" and before the the latin "culina" (kitchen) but why on earth would there be the option to prounced the word "kiln" as "kil" ?

pianoman300 January 18, 2005, 2:45pm

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Bill(n), the answer to your question can be found in this thread:

speedwell2 January 19, 2005, 5:38am

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Name isn't really a precedent, since it's derived from Anglo-Saxon 'nama' (from which comes German 'Name'). Nominal, OTOH, comes from Latin 'nomen'.

Persephone Imytholin January 22, 2005, 7:12am

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Are you sure the L in the words "almond" and "yolk" silent?

ixd11 January 24, 2005, 3:25pm

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It's not my list, id, but I'm sure that certain dialects do omit the L (members of my family from the Midwest and California speak this way). In others, the L is at least partly suppressed. As I said, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

speedwell2 January 25, 2005, 2:52am

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In case someone might start to suspect that life is more coincidental than it actually is, I feel I must mention that of course old German Nama and Latin Nomen come from the same root. I don't know where the Germans got it from - it might really go all the way back to the mythical land of Indo-Germany, or maybe they just picked it up from the Romans.

joachim January 29, 2005, 7:51am

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MNEMONIC - it's the only word I can think of where both M and N are pronounced. Or would you say M is silent?! Oh, actually Merriam-Webster says it's pronounced ni-'mä-nik.
Then I guess M is silent after all...

Can't really answer the initial question; I believe all languages pose baffling questions whose answers lie in the distant past. :)

Diana April 16, 2005, 7:52pm

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Marta as Anonymous wrote: "Nevertheless the question still remains: why is it phonologically impossible to pronounce 'm' and 'n' sounds side by side?"
I question if Marta has even tried to pronounce 'mn'? I find that hard to believe since she claims it is impossible, when it clearly isn't. Besides the fact that I can do it, there are languages with words (like column) that end in pronounced 'mn'.

slemmet April 17, 2005, 9:53am

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silent k words
silent w words

Anonymous May 17, 2005, 11:37pm

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dear Slemmet,
well, as a speaker of polish i have tried to pronounce "mn" cluster many times and it really works, but the question was: why the english phonological system doesn't allow for this if it's possible technically?

marta May 31, 2005, 2:03am

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I'm the Lord of the Chavs

22106 July 13, 2005, 2:14am

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The word for autumn in latin is autumnus. I latin, word order means nothing. It is the endings of a word that tell its part of speech. The "us" from autumnus just means that it is a noun. When english adopted the word, the ending was not needed because of the use of word order. The "n" was part of the root word

mike September 26, 2005, 3:02pm

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This did not even a litle bit help me with my HW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Nicole October 13, 2005, 3:24pm

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i think silent 'n' words are hard to find

jimbob December 8, 2005, 9:57am

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this didnt help me wiht my homework

Anonymous January 26, 2006, 1:59pm

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Both the "m" and the "n" are pronounced in the adjectival form of "autumn," which is "autumnal."

Avrom January 28, 2006, 2:34pm

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Slemmet, are you saying that you pronounce the "n" in "column"? That's interesting, and isn't a pronunciation I've heard of. I certainly don't pronounce it. (Although, like the silent "n" in "autumn", the "n" in "column" becomes pronounced if you add an appropriate suffix: "columnar" definitely has both those sounds in there.)

Avrom January 30, 2006, 7:45am

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pronounce word (ptolemy) as used on coin about 320(b.c.e )

marvjann February 1, 2006, 11:21am

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marvjann February 1, 2006, 11:24am

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now I KNOW this will start an argument, but I am going to posit that it is IMPOSSIBLE for ANYONE to say autumn or column in such a way as to pronounce the "n" at the end. In fact, I would claim the sounds "mmmmmmm" and "nnnnnnnn" are indistinguishable from each other. In order to tell the difference between "m" and ''n", they must be either preceded or proceded by a vowel.
In order to pronounce autumn and make the "n" sound clear, you would have to pronounce it "au-tum-NUH, putting a schwa at the end. You could choose to do so, but I wouldn't say that that is a normal pronunciation by any standard. In effect, you would have to add an extra syllable.
Now, I know that a bunch of you are going to say "I can tell the difference between 'mmmm' and 'nnnn'", but I say you can't. Here's a test. Try saying "mmmmnnnnmmmmnnnnmmmmnnnn" continuously. Yes, you can make it two distinct sounds, but you can just as easily make it indistinquishable. In any cays you really can't tell which is which, especially considering the normal variation from person to person. The problem is that when you make an m or n sound, all the air is rushing out your nose and resonating in your throat. The shape of everything inside your mouth has only a slight (or possibly no) effect on the resonance. You can make any number of shapes with your tongue, teeth, jaw, etc. but they all sound basically the same. Depending on whether the back of my tongue is against the roof of my mouth, or my jaw is dropped, I can make a hundred different and distinct sounds but they all sound like mmmmmm, especially to someone else.
Now, you can tell the difference between "ummm" and "unnn" or "maaa" and "naaa", but not between just plain old "mmmm" and "nnnn".

porsche February 2, 2006, 1:25pm

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Ok, now that I think about it, I will soften my view just a little, as I think I may have contradicted myself. I did say it is possible to make a different sound for mmm and nnn, although only slightly different. Thus, it is possible to differentiate them when put together. I would still say that the difference is only barely perceptible, and then, only when great effort is taken to create two distinct sounds. It is no wonder that the n in question is treated as silent. It's almost impossible to make it sound any other way. (see? I added the word almost!)

porsche February 2, 2006, 6:20pm

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I need 1 more word that begins with a silent k.

80boy May 10, 2006, 1:55pm

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How about knave? And how about a good silent "g" word: "gnarled" ?

porsche May 14, 2006, 7:30am

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and let's add kneel and knickers!

porsche May 15, 2006, 4:33am

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found a bunch more: knack, knapsack, knell, knew, knob, knobby, knobbly, knock, knuckle, and knoll.

porsche May 15, 2006, 4:40am

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Avrom, I don't know if I have ever said 'column' since I live in Sweden and seldom speak English except when at work and then it is mostly computer related, but I would guess if I ever did use it, I probably did pronounce the 'n' since that is how we pronounce the word in Swedish (kolumn) and I wasn't aware of the 'n' being silent in English.
My point though is still that pronouncing it like colum or columN, is possible, and sounds different, even if slightly.

slemmet July 1, 2006, 12:51am

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Sometimes apopocation leaves a vestigial final consonant that would have been the first letter of the final syllable in the source language. Au-tum-nus is the syllabication. Removing the "us" leaves an orphaned "n" at the end. Deprived of its vowel, it's no longer a part of a third syllable and is left hanging as unvoiced orthography.

The reason one can't pronounced sequential "m" and "n" in a single syllable is that while both phonemes are nasal, "m" is bilabial while "n" is dento-alveolar. That requires an occlusion of the air column in switching from one to the other.

Bismarck July 1, 2006, 10:03am

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The French word for "autumn" is "automne" which is pronounced "ôton'", that is to say, quite surprisingly, English silences the N and French does the M.
Now, I don't find it hard to prononuce a "mn" sequence being a French native speaker, but an English speaker probably does because of phonotactic constraints.
Pronouncing a "mn" sequence is not impossible at all and many languages are not phonotacticly constrained against it: French (MNémotechnique; aMNésie...), Greek, Swedish and others

françois September 15, 2006, 9:17am

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porsche, I am sure that [m] and [n] are distinguishable. They have different shapes on spectrograms.

John September 15, 2006, 1:41pm

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John, I did soften my position somewhat; however, I would not completely agree with you. They might or might not have different spectrograms depending on how the speaker exaggerates the position of his or her tongue, lips, etc. I can alternate m's and n's with absolutely no discernable difference in sound, or I can do so and make it quite clear that there's a difference. I would say that a spectrograph would show that the "n" may have more energy at higher frequencies than the "m", but only in an imprecise, qualitative way. Depending on exactly where I put my tongue, I can emphasize any one of six or seven different upper harmonic frequencies. I would put it to you that there is enough difference between speakers, that, hearing any single consonant in isolation, say, from 10 different speakers, it would be impossible to tell the difference.

porsche September 15, 2006, 3:40pm

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I think I'll soften my position too! I think I spoke too soon. It does seem to be the transition that distinguishes them.

John September 19, 2006, 3:57pm

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I don't understand what you people are yapping about. You say 'm' with lips closed and tongue lying down. You say 'n' with open lips and tongue up. If you say 'I net him yesterday' everyone will hear 'net' and not 'met', although the sentence suggest it should be 'met'. Likewise people will notice the error if you say 'The met profit is 10 dollars'. This means there is a difference. End of story.

slemmet September 21, 2006, 1:14pm

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And it doesn't matter if your 'n' sound like my 'm' if you stand upside down and have a finger in your butthole. When you say a sentence it is only your 'n' and 'm' that will be heard, not a combination of my 'm' and your 'n' regardless of where you stick your finger, and then you will hear a difference, if you speak in a normal fashion.

slemmet September 21, 2006, 1:36pm

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Of course there is a difference between /n/ and /m/. We were arguing about where the difference is from an acoustic point of view.

John September 21, 2006, 3:23pm

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Here's my guess:

autumnus > atumpne because of the loss of the ending, which caused the necessary of separating the [m] from the [n]; like them, [p] is a labial, but is a stop, so it makes a nice divider.
autumnalis > autumnal with the loss of its own ending.
autumpne > autumn because it then loses the rest of its ending, probably because it wasn't accented; unaccented vowels, especially final ones, tend to first become schwas and then fade away. The [n] was removed from a vowel to anchor it, so it went, and the [p] then lost its entire reason for being, so it went too. But the "n" was kept in spelling, because of the obvious connection with "autumnal," even though it was no longer pronounced.

Regarding the silent "i" in words like "basically," that's another case of the disappearing unstressed vowel.

Silent "h's" such as in "herb" have a funny history. These words come from French, and then from Latin. Their English spellings didn't used to have an "h" because they were never pronounced with one, having come from French, which didn't pronounce them either. In fact, they hadn't been pronounced since around the time of Christ, which is when the sound disappeared from Latin. However, those delightful academicians who gave us so many other absurdities (like outlawing the double negative) decided that the "h" should be in the word, even though it had never been pronounced there. The funny part is that that means that the English shouldn't get all snotty about pronouncing the "h" in "herb," because it shouldn't be there in the first place. They're just pronouncing the spelling, which doesn't reflect that pronunciation in this case. I recommend that they start pronouncing the "s" in "island," another letter that the academicians added. In that case they were even more wrong, since the word didn't in fact come from French, but has a fine Germanic etymology, and was always pronounced like it was originally spelled: "iland."

David Fickett-Wilbar September 22, 2006, 10:23am

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You're right about one thing, slemmet. You don't understand what everyone else is talking about. Read Bismark's post again. The reason met is easily distinguished from net is because of the e following the first consonant. Your description of the tongue and lip position is certainly accurate, but without a preceding or following vowel, all the air is passing through the nose. No air is coming out of the mouth, thus the position of the lips and tongue have very little effect on the sound.

porsche September 22, 2006, 2:25pm

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Oh yes I understand. I understand that since you are not accustomed to saying 'mn' at the end of words, you don't hear the difference. If I say column, pronouncing both m and n, and having my mouth closed when switching from m to n, it sounds correct, assuming you want to pronounce the word that way. However if you pronounce it colunm it will not sound right. Not very easy to hear, but it can be heard. But you think it all has to do with the preceding vowel. The problem with that statement is that if I close my mouth and make the m-sound, then while keeping the mouth closed switch to the n sound, there is a clear difference. If I, while keeping my mouth closed, switch between m and n in a rapid fashion, this is evident. You earlier stated the opposite. This is just wrong. Lately you have been discussing that n and m are almost the same and if only hearing one it is hard if not impossible to tell which one. Yes so what, they aren't meant to be spoken one at a time. 'L' can be hard to distinguish then also. Yet you still say helm. There is enough difference for it to work, and same with n and m just that it is not always that easy to hear.

slemmet September 23, 2006, 10:12am

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slemmet, if you switch between /m/ and /n/ in quick succession, obviously you can hear the difference, because you are making the sound. But will the difference show up on a spectrogram? We use spectrograms to measure the acoustic properties of sounds. This is the closest we can get to representing how sounds are perceived and converted to phonemes in the mind of the listener.

In spectrograms, different nasals are distinguished from each other by the formant transition from the nasal to the vowel sound. It is not obvious to me that /m/ and /n/ *by themselves, without an accompanying vowel,* will look very different from each other on a spectrogram.

But I don't have the equipment on hand to test this.

John September 23, 2006, 11:26am

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I didn't say m and n without vowels are indistinguishable. well, actually, I guess I did, but then I took it back. I said that they are difficult to distinguish from each other. I also said that one can say mnmnmnmnmnmn and exaggerate the difference, or, just as easily, make them virtually indistinguishable. The point is, this is all relevant. All we are saying is that M and N without nearby vowels are difficult to distinguish and offering some explanation as to why, which is why one is silent in the words in question.

porsche September 23, 2006, 1:37pm

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Ok, but just remember that words like column are in fact pronounced with both m and n in other languages, which is also relevant. English isn't the only language out there. Sometimes it sounds like you forget that, that's all.

slemmet September 23, 2006, 2:04pm

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you've got "autum" but then it's "autumnal" instead of "autumal". It makes NOSENSE.

C July 12, 2007, 4:41pm

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Latin: autumnus

Au - Gold
Tumnus - (from tumeo - to swell. And 'us' plural)

So in Latin, Golden Swellings (as in swelling harvest heaps)

programmer91 September 25, 2008, 6:14pm

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Robert's etymology is very doubtful. It does not explain the final "n", and also the fact that the Latin word was also spelled "auctumnus".

John September 28, 2008, 3:52pm

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There are a lot of silent letters in English. English has taken words from so many sources - Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Arabic - just to name a few. Autumn was derived from Latin "autumnus" (via French). Latin also gives us "Vernal" for the spring equinox.

The reason for the silent 'n' in autumn is quite simple - then 'n' survived from Latin and it is virtually impossible to distinctly pronounce an 'n' in front of an 'm' in English. Who ever said English spelling was supposed to make sense!

shaunc December 26, 2008, 4:07pm

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In the previous article, I of course switched the 'm' and the 'n'!

shaunc December 26, 2008, 4:09pm

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Actually, depending on your accent, the "n" in autumn is not silent. With American pronunciation, the "n" cannot be heard. With certain British accents the "n" is heard...

shaunc July 23, 2009, 7:38pm

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Honestly, are all these posts part of a Monty Python skit???

Virginia October 26, 2013, 8:03pm

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Ignoring Virginia's witty, perceptive and constructive contribution, it's obviously concerned with ease of pronunciation, as others have said.

In Latin it was autumnus, which is easy to pronounce because the two consonants belong to separate syllables - au-tum-nus - so there was no problem.

The problem arose when Romance languages removed the Latin case ending -us, leaving a consonant cluster which is virtually unpronounceable for English speakers (despite what françois says about other languages). Which is why we don't pronounce both opening consonants in 'mnemonic' or 'psychiatrist', for example.

So it seems that either m or n had to go; in Romance languages it was m, in English, for some reason it was n. But as goossun has shown, that is quite consistent with other -mn words in English, such as column.

While French and English kept the original double consonant, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian went for more phonetic spelling (as they often do, e.g. ph > f), dropping the m altogether: Italian - autunno, Spanish - otoño, Portuguese - outono

As for c's remark, it makes perfect sense: in autumnal, it is easy to pronounce both letters, as each of them belongs to a different syllable - au-tum-nal; the same cannot be said for m and n in autumn.

And now, for something completely different ...

Warsaw Will October 27, 2013, 3:23am

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Yes, I am American..

Virginia October 27, 2013, 3:35am

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Dear Warsaw Will.. Why you didn't ignore me at all, you gave me three complements, unless of course you were being passive-aggressive....

Virginia October 27, 2013, 3:37am

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sorry for the suspicion, Will, but the word 'ignoring' is very dismissive...

Virginia October 27, 2013, 3:56am

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@Virginia - I don't know about passive-aggressive, but I was certainly intending to be mildly ironic. I wouldn't have mentioned it all had I not found your own Monty Python quip somewhat 'dismissive' of everyone else's comments. Or was I reading too much into it, perhaps? If so, I apologise.

Warsaw Will October 27, 2013, 9:53am

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I regret, Will , that I sounded dismissive of everyones comments. They just seemed comical to me, expounding on such trivia in such depth, so similiar to a Monty Python episode.. Nice of you to opologise for saying that you were ignoring me.

Virginia October 27, 2013, 10:01am

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