Tuesday 26 January 2010


There are words that we read before we hear. We guess their pronunciation on the basis of the spelling. Unfortunately, the indications given by the spelling are quite often inadequate. Here’s part of what I said about “spelling pronunciation” nearly thirty years ago, in AofE.What I do find surprising, though, is that people are often unaware of very robust sub-regularities in our spelling system.
What do we know about words with the spelling -stle? Think of nestle ˈnesl, trestle ˈtresl, wrestle ˈresl. Think of castle, thistle, whistle, epistle, bristle, gristle, jostle, apostle, bustle, hustle, rustle. In all of these the t is silent. There are no exceptions: no words with this spelling in which it is usual to pronounce t. (Compare pistol ˈpɪstl, crystal ˈkrɪstl, etc., with a different spelling.)
So how is it that Neil MacGregor, presenting a BBC R4 series entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects, thinks that the thing that goes with a mortar to grind up grain and spices is a ˈpestl? (You can listen to the programme here, but only for the next few days.)
He is not the only one. Rather reluctantly, I included the -t- form as a secondary variant for pestle in LPD, as do some other dictionaries.
Nevertheless, as the spelling pestle indicates to anyone who is sensitive to this subregularity, it’s usually a ˈpesl . The word rhymes with vessel. Indeed, in the Neil MacGregor programme one of the interviewees, the food writer Madhur Jaffrey, uses the expected pronunciation ˈpesl .
In pre-Gimson editions of EPD you can read DJ’s tactful comment
Note.—The form ˈpesl is usual among those accustomed to make frequent use of a pestle and mortar.

Is this the only case of -stle spelling pronunciation? Or are there people out there who think that Jesus had twelve əˈpɒstlz and that Paul wrote ɪˈpɪstlz?


  1. I do all of the spelling pronunciations mentioned (pestle, apostle, epistle - actually, I'm not sure I've ever had occasion to say the last word), though I vary on my pronunciation of apostle. I'm a native speaker of (Canadian) English, but I've spent my teens onward in continental Europe.

  2. I picked up the pronounced T in pestle from my parents, living in Scotland.

  3. Conversely, "Nestlé" used to be spelt "Nestle" in the UK, and this 1977 Milky Bar TV ad's jingle clearly pronounced "Nestle" the same as "nestle", to rhyme with "vessel".

    The T in "often" is now often sounded, and I've heard Scots sound the T in "soften"; but then AFAIK there are only those two words with -ften (excluding Festschriften) as against lots with -stle.

  4. I'm sure I've used /t/ in several of those examples at some point or another.

    People should watch more Danny Kaye: "The vessel with the pestle holds the brew, that is true."

  5. When I was a boy in the fifties, not only did we say nɛslz but the instant coffee they (or anybody else) made was nɛskæf.

  6. Dave Nancekivell26 January 2010 at 14:17

    I am not the only person I know who, for a long time, thought "misled" rhymed (at least at the end of the word) with "weaselled". I read the word long before hearing it.

  7. Oddly, there are quite a number of names ending in "-fton" -- Afton, Grafton, Sefton..., bot these usually retain the /t/, I think.

  8. My understanding of all these pronunciations is exactly the same as yours, John. I would not advise anything else to someone wishing to acquire "mainstream" pronunciation, but for an acting client wishing to play someone with a regional accent or dialect, I would - if I had enough prep time - try to find out the local pronunciation and use that.

    @mollymooly: Often with both silent and pronounced t is not new. Jones 1917 reports both pronunciations for RP (he called it PSP at the time), and Kenyon and Knott 1944 report both in the "cultivated speech" of the US.

    Does OED report on history of pronunciation, or just etymology? Sorry I haven't got time to check that myself just now, but in any case, both pronunciations have been considered standard for quite some time. I don't know which came first, but I suspect it started out with pronounced t, then began losing the t considerably later.

    When I was about five, I think, my father heard me tell my three-year-old brother to "cease your idle chatter." I pronounced "cease" with a k. My dad thought that was so hilarious he never forgot it. I don't remember doing this, but I have no reason to believe the story isn't true. I just wish I knew where I had read the phrase.

  9. And, to add to your list of questions, how is it that no less a personage than the Director of the British Museum can be not only so (I'll use the word) ignorant as not to know how to say the name of a well-known domestic utensil, but so unprofessional as to mispronounce it repeatedly on national radio? My view is that ignorance is not necessarily a crime (though in his case...), but to be so lacking in self-awareness and professionalism as go around (literally) broadcasting one's ignorance -- well, there's no excuse for that. Likewise, it's not so terrible to unable to spell, but to be too lazy and disrespectful of one's audience to reach down a dictionary or even run a spell-checker over one's document before having it printed is unacceptable.

    1. To call him 'ignorant', 'lacking in self-awareness', 'unprofessional', 'lazy' and 'disrespectful' suggests there is a 'right' pronounciation, from which he has diverged. Like Neil McGregor, I was born in Glasgow and grew up in Scotland, and I pronounce the 't' in pestle (and have done for nearly 50 years). Perhaps his inexcusable error is merely a regional variation.

  10. My first thought was that it might be a Scottish thing. Anyone happen to know?

  11. Are those sloes or peppercorns, John?

  12. @Harry Campbell: I hope you're just speaking ironically, and as a Yank I've missed the joke. But just in case ... how are you supposed to know to look something up if you don't know there is something to be looked up?

    I'd be a bit more irritated if it were something one should know as a term of one's own specialty. I've heard some beauts on American television from people mispronouncing names of things used frequently in their particular business. "Damask" and "tester" being mispronounced by an interior designer spring to mind, and also "foliage" by the hosts (presenters) of several gardening shows. But is the director of the British Museum well known to be a cook?

  13. Having read here confessions to idiosyncratic pronunciations of words such as pestle, apostle, epistle with /t/ and having taken cognizance of the pronunciation habit of a director - professional or unprofessional - of a museum I ask myself to which conclusion one should come. Either a speaker is ignorant (in the sense of unknowing), and s/he should be told to comply with the pronunciation habits of others, or the speaker uses the pronunciation contrary to better knowledge, again s/he should be told to comply or be left alone.

  14. Michael Everson, they're peppercorns. Taken from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/99/Black_peppercorns_with_mortar_and_pestle.jpg.

  15. Nestle('s) in the U.S. is commonly [nesli:(z)].

    I grew up in a town with /t/ in often, but I myself talk like my parents, with no /t/. Accent acquisition is a strange business: I have no trace of my mother's marked German accent or my father's old-fashioned Irish-American one, but I don't have the shibboleths of my peer groups either, presumably because I was ostracized as a child. I have a regional accent rather than a local one.

  16. Thanks to this post, I have discovered the word "istle", pronounced (if I understand Merriam-Webster's pronunciation key correctly) /ˈɪstliː/

    I presume that the /t/ "castle" and "fasten" must have been pronounced at one time: they're both in the BATH lexical set, and BATH-broadening generally applied only to the environment _sC, not _sV (compare "hassle", "tassle").

  17. VP: By tassle do you mean tassel? OED doesn't list it as an alternative spelling, and no other word tassle at all.

  18. Well "hassle", "tassel" are so marginal, anyway, but hassle could be from hastle < haste, though I can't find such an etymology anywhere, and tassel is from French in the first instance.

    All the "fasten" types seem to be among JW's "very robust sub-regularities". The t is showing no sign of coming back in Vsten as it's trying to in Vstle and Vften.

    And John W,

    Reading rules we have internalized were to a great extent internalized _into_ our generation don't you think? Along with the rubbish like i before e except after c there was worthwhile stuff like this. Certainly I remember not just being told the t was silent in all these –stle, –sten, and –ften words, including often, but actually being given more than enough examples to be convinced that they formed some of your "very robust sub-regularities". I don’t think I was even aware of pestle, apostle, epistle etc. with a t, but spelling-pronunciations like that are proliferating precisely because no one is taught anything any more.

    If multiplication tables aren’t taught any more, or even the alphabet (and some kids can't look things up in dictionaries even if it occurs to them, Amy – and probably never will be able to now, as they’ll always rely on electronics), then English pronunciation may eventually get back in synch with English spelling, and the spelling reformers will be out of a job.

    Dave Nancekivell's misled rhyming with drizzled should remind us to beware of the hilarious confusion we see all the time between grisly and grizzly, and perhaps even prompt us to be Aware of the great likelihood of that mispronunciation being the origin of mizzle: To confuse, muddle, mystify; to intoxicate, befuddle (OED, which feebly says "Origin unknown; probably a frequentative formation (compare -LE suffix 3). Perhaps connected with MIZMAZE n. (compare sense 2 s.v.). Compare later MAIZEL v. Compare MIZZLED adj.2")

    Not much of a comparison, as their definition for that is: Muddled, confused; intoxicated, drunk. But they do give one example of which they say "The following perhaps shows mizzled as a graphic representation of a misreading of misled, past participle of MISLEAD v.": 1999 Scotsman 30 Apr. 23/4 Do not be mizzled, I mean misled, by their propaganda.

    Which is not much of a perhaps either!


    > My first thought was that it might be a Scottish thing.

    Mine too. We see it here attributed to Scottish parents and Scots in general, but Neil MacGregor sounds a bit like a Scot, in both name and residual rhoticity, does he not?

    But that doesn’t make it less of a spelling pronunciation. Look at the Scottish dialect word
    fissle, fistle (bustle). Almost as if they were trying a spelling-pronunciation-proof spelling on!

  19. @mallamb: "(and some kids can't look things up in dictionaries even if it occurs to them, Amy – and probably never will be able to now, as they’ll always rely on electronics)"

    Well, yes, that's true, and very sad. Did I say something earlier that could have been interpreted as snark, or an unreasonable assumption, on that point? I apologize if I seemed snarky. I do find it unutterably distressing that kids today (arrrgh! I'm old enough to say "kids today" with a straight face!) aren't routinely taught to do simple research.

    I don't regret having missed out on diagramming sentences, and I wish I hadn't wasted years of my life under difficulties imposed by the last gasp of the New Math, but at least I learned something about the parts of speech, and grammar, even if much of it was unnecessarily prescriptive, and some of it turned out to be wrong. (There is nothing wrong with singular they - there, I said it and I'm glad - take that, you fourth-grade teacher!) And I did learn how to do simple arithmetic, except for long division (New Math), with a pencil and paper.

    If you don't learn these basic skills, then how can you tell if your calculator (remember those?) is giving you a wonky answer (dying battery), or that Wikipedia is reasonably reliable on this subject, but full of compost on that one?

    The reason I can research anything at all effectively online is that I was taught how to research before there was an online - using dictionaries, encyclopedias (with or without the "extra" a), and library card catalogues. This was taught in my primary schools, but I was an old hand at it by then; I learned all that at my mother's knee before I went to kindergarten. (I know that's unusual. I think I was very lucky.)

    I'm astounded at the number of my adult colleagues (I'm not speaking of anyone on this forum) who seemingly cannot perform even the most basic research). I'm really not being snarky here; I find it shocking, and I think it's dreadful.

    But is it really true that one can't now look things up in dictionaries? There are numerous dictionaries online; I'm partial to the one that returns entries from Webster 1913 along with others. I only wish I could afford an online subscription to OED; fortunately my two-volume copy, a high-school graduation gift, maintains its pride of place on my living room shelves (it's too large for my office shelves). Complete with magnifying glass, of course. It's among the very best gifts I ever received.

  20. Ah, I saw that coming. I too thought the 2-vol OED was wonderful, except for the magnifying glass. It made me wish I was short-sighted and could just take my pebble glasses off.

    Oh but you're a really funny lady. And constitutionally incapable of snark, I'm sure. I was only referring to your query "how are you supposed to know to look something up if you don't know there is something to be looked up?"

  21. "i before e except after c" was not rubbish for me, and I still have occasional recourse to it. It may well be that I am one of a minority in the sweet spot between those on the one hand who spell well enough never to need it, and those on the other hand who spell badly enough to misapply it uncritically.

  22. Wait, you mean there's no 't' in epistle?

    It's really lovely that there are these patterns where complex combinations of letters join up to generally suggest a pronunciation, but I watched The Court Jester about forty times and never figured out what on earth a pessle was. I thought it might be something like a tassel, but nothing like a castle.

    The trouble is, if you do learn to read early there is often (with no 't', but due to adolescent shame at being informed of the faux pretentiousness of it) very little pronunciation input. I actually have separate semantic categories for words based on my inability to relate the spelling to the pronunciation.

    But I'm pretty sure I heard epistles with a t in church, or if I didn't, thought i did. I can also often superimpose missing letters on pronunciations. How else do you differentiate between homophones?

    After an early attempt at Oedipus "oudipUs" and a college seminar embarrassment about Goeth (beginning the same way as 'ghost', obviously and not as "girt"), I have decided that pronunciation is a lovely thing, but if someone doesn't know what I mean, spelling is going to be the answer. For if we talk about only things we've heard before, we aren't really saying anything interesting, are we?

  23. @mallamb: What do you mean I'm funny? What do you mean, you mean the way I talk? What? Funny how? What's funny about it? What? You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me ...

    Lucky you, to have such good eyesight. I've been nearsighted most of my life, but am now at the stage where my arms are no longer long enough.

    Sorry, everyone else, about wandering so far OT, but I've lost mallamb's email address, which I'm pretty sure I had once.

  24. @Amy, re the pronunciation of "often": The OED doesn't always give pronunciation history, but in the case of the newest draft edition, we have struck gold:
    "Often is less commonly used than oft until the 16th cent. Several orthoepists of the 16th and 17th centuries, including Hart, Bullokar, Robinson, Gil, and Hodges, give a pronunciation with medial -t-. Others, including Coles, Young, Strong, and Brown, record a pronunciation without -t-, which, despite its use in the 16th cent. by Elizabeth I, seems to have been avoided by careful speakers in the 17th cent. (see E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500-1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §405). Loss of t after f occurs in other cases; compare SOFTEN v., and also RAFT n.1, HAFT n.1, etc. The pronunciation with -t- has frequently been considered to be hypercorrection in recent times: see for example H. W. Fowler Mod. Eng. Usage (1926), s.v."

    It goes on to mention the pronunciation /ˈɔːfn̩/, which used to be common in Britain (there's an often/orphan pun in the Pirates of Penzance).

  25. I'm not a NS and I can't recall having heard a NS pronouncing any of "pestle", "apostle" or "epistle", but if I had to guess I would have used no /t/ in the first (by analogy with the other -stle words), but a /t/ in the other two (because they remind me of the Italian cognates and hence of their Latin and ultimately Greek etymology, with a /t/). Of course that makes little sense, because "pestle" is pestello in Italian and so it must be a Latin borrowing, but 1) my intuitions about English pronunciations seldom make sense, and 2) after all "pestle" is (or, at least, used to be) more of an everyday word, so it would have been more likely to lose a /t/.

  26. @ Amy: "I only wish I could afford an online subscription to OED".
    If you can somehow get yourself membership of an English public library, you may be able to access the OED free. I belong to Hertfordshire Libraries, and can log on to the OED by signing in with my library number. I believe that many county libraries have this facility, and you don't always have to live in the county to get the membership!

  27. @Stephen: I know we've only known each other a short while, but I love you.

    @Graham: I'm going to investigate your brilliant idea. It may be that I can do the same by joining a university library here. As an alumna, I have privileges at the New School University Library that I've never bothered much about. I don't think the NYPL gives OED access from home. I'll check that, too, as I've had a library card there for mmmph-mmph years (since I was five). I do have home internet access to an awful lot via NYPL. And I love you, too!

  28. Ae these necessarily instances of spelling pronunciations? They might be hypercorrections, the backlash as it were of actively not dropping t anywhere.

  29. What about other plosives? The only word with -scle I can think of right now (muscle) has no pronounced /k/. I can't think of any word with -sple, can anyone?

  30. Well the other obvious example is corpuscle, and the more obscure ones all behave like that, except for mascle, which looks suspiciously like another spelling-pronunciation.

    mesple (OED: /ˈmɛspl/, US /ˈmɛsp(ə)l/, Caribbean /ˈmɛspl/ – a prime case for JW's 'Aw shucks' thread!)

    That may be it for –sple, but you would expect that plosive to survive. In fact the behaviour of t k and p all three is exactly what you'd expect: kl and tl are acoustically so similar and obviously neutralized in initial position, and the preceding s makes a three-way distinction with sl in the relevant positions hardly likely except for spelling-pronouncers.

    BTW do check out the rest of the discussion on your latest examples on the calliope thread.

  31. Just heard Mariee Sioux - who definitely isn't Scottish - singing about a mortar and ˈpestl.

    (/waves to Harry upthread - another former Collins colleague)

  32. Are you doing any research on the "Anne Robinson Weakest or Stron(g)est Link Syndrome"? The dropping of the sounded "g"? Is it hypercorrection, especially in Lancashire / Merseyside? But it seems to be spreading fast to many words where "g" is traditionally pronounced in RP like "lon(g)est, sin(g)le" etc. I understand the latter maybe an established Glaswegian / Scottish pronunciatiion but not RP.

  33. On the unsounded "g" point: has anyone heard "finger" pronounced "Fin(g)er", as in Geman? Only a matter of time?

  34. Going back to pestle, Murray in 1905 gave both pronunciations in OED1 (pe·s’l, pe·st’l).

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  36. I stumbled across your blog when I googled on "pestle pronounced" after hearing Neil MacGregor's strange way of pronouncing the word. I had never come across this pronunciation before and found it most off-putting. (I have always had difficulty in remembering which was the pestle and which was the mortar - until now!)

    Both my Concise Oxford Dictionary and my marvellous Oxford Talking Dictionary (based on the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary) give only the pes'l pronunciation. However the word is derived from the Old French "pestel" and so perhaps there is a case for pronouncing the "t".

    Interestingly "A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language" (1806) by John Walker (available on Google Books) states categorically that the "t" should be pronounced, being the only exception to the general rule that the "t" is silent for similar words.

    Clearly the pronunciation of this word has changed in the last 200 years, but whether Neil Macgregor's pronunciation is a result of his Scottish upbringing, or a mere affectation, would be interesting to know.

  37. John,

    You are completely discounting the etymology of these words. As you can easily find out, the English word pestle came from Old French pestel.

    Someone subsequently change the spelling to match other English words and reversed the el to become le.

    Just because all of the words you quote "happen" to be spelt the same way DOES NOT MEAN that they should be pronouced the same way.

    I am appalled at this level of ignorance.

    Pestle is correctly pronounced as pestel.


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