In today’s pronunciation lesson, we’re going to find out if the way you pronounce ‘often’ is posh, or not. You will learn how the pronunciation of ‘often’ has changed over time in British English, which has resulted in two variants of the word: with or without the ‘t’ being pronounced. In the second part of the lesson, you will also remove some commonly mispronounced words from your English that share the same confusing pronunciation pattern as found in ‘often’.
More from Jade Joddle
‘Often’ Pronunciation UK
If you have ever wondered about the correct way to pronounce ‘often’, you are not alone! The confusion around this word results from the fact that it is commonly pronounced in two ways. Some people pronounce the ‘t’ in the spelling so that it sounds like ‘off-ten’ /ˈɒf.tən/ . For others, the ‘t’ in the word is silent and it is pronounced as ‘off-en’ /ˈɒf.ən/. Both pronunciations of the word are acceptable to use, but only one of them is considered ‘posh’ (indicating that the speaker belongs to a higher social class).
The word ‘often’ comes from the Old English word ‘oft’, which is always pronounced with a ‘t’. Though ‘oft’ is rarely used nowadays, you may have come across it in classic literature or poems:
Despair and genius are too oft connected.Lord Byron, who was a famous English poet.
Since the word ‘oft’ is pronounced with a ‘t’, it seems logical that ‘often’ should also be pronounced with a ‘t’. Importantly, however, British pronunciation isn’t determined by logic! Since English is a non-phonemic language, the spelling and pronunciation of a word often don’t match. In many cases, the prestige pronunciation of a word is counter-intuitive (not what you would expect).
Deciding to pronounce the ‘t’ in ‘often’ because you think that it ought to logically contain a ‘t’ is an example of hypercorrection. Put simply, overthinking the pronunciation or misapplying the rules leads to making a mistake. Hypercorrection happens when people try too hard to make their English pronunciation correct.
Historical Pronunciation of Often
The earliest historical pronunciation of ‘often’ contained a ‘t’, but by the Elizabethan age, it had already been dropped from the pronunciation.
Reign of Queen Elizabeth I
The reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) was when Modern English, the recognisable language that we speak today, emerged. During that time period, the prestige pronunciation of ‘often’ didn’t contain a ‘t’, as demonstrated by the Queen’s own pronunciation of the word.
The First Dictionary
A second influence on the pronunciation of the word ‘often’ was the publication of the first English dictionary in 1755. Samuel Johnson, who compiled the dictionary all by himself, made the decision to spell ‘often’ with a ‘t’.
Prior to the dictionary’s release, not much thought was given to making the spelling of words consistent. However, the dictionary quickly became an authority on spelling and even influenced the reading public to start pronouncing ‘often’ with a ‘t’ in it again.
Since the upper-classes weren’t insecure about their pronunciation of words, the English dictionary didn’t influence them to change their pronunciation. They carried on pronouncing ‘often’ without the ‘t’.
The Victorian Era
The Victorian era was marked by increased prescriptivism in language, which means they created a lot of rules about the ‘correct’ way to speak and write.
Victorian Britain was highly stratified according to social class, but it was also more socially mobile than most other periods in British history. This perhaps explains why the Victorians became snobbish about the pronunciation of certain words. During that time, the upper classes would have looked down on people who pronounced the ‘t’ in ’often’.
The reign of Queen Elizabeth II runs from 1952 to the present day. The Queen actually pronounces the word ‘often’ as ‘orphan’. This means that her pronunciation sounds the same as the word that is used to describe a child that has lost both of its parents.
To be considered very posh in today’s era, you would have to use the same pronunciation as the Queen. However, before you change your pronunciation to ‘orphan’, you should know that the Queen’s pronunciation of ‘often’ is special. This is because she pronounces it in the High RP accent (Received Pronunciation).
High RP is an old-fashioned upper-class English accent that very few people speak with nowadays (not even the Queen’s heirs!). Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend pronouncing the word ‘often’ as ‘orphan’.
Should the ‘t’ Be Pronounced?
Let’s begin by looking at the two words below, which have two different pronunciations. Roughly 50% of people will pronounce them with ’t’, and 50% without. Whichever pronunciation you choose, it doesn’t matter. It’s entirely down to personal preference.
often pronunciation → ‘off-en‘ or ‘off-ten‘
soften pronunciation → ‘soff-en‘ or ‘soff-ten‘
Words with Silent ‘t’
In contrast to the above, the below words should never be pronounced with a ‘t’ in them. The ‘t’ has disappeared from the pronunciation.
- fasten: to secure something.
- hasten: to do something more quickly.
- moisten: to make something wet.
- glisten: to shine or sparkle due to being wet.
- bustle: to do things in a busy and hurried way.
- hustle: make someone move by pushing them in an aggressive manner. It is also used in the idiomatic phrase; ‘The hustle and bustle of life in a big city’.
- jostle: to push against people in a crowd to get past them.
- nestle: to rest in a warm and comfortable position.
- wrestle: to take part in a wrestling match with someone.
- castle: a large fortified building for a nobleman to live in.
- gristle: cartilage in meat that is hard to chew.
- pestle: a round-headed stick used to grind peppercorns etc. For example, ‘Every cook requires a pestle and mortar for grinding spices’.
- thistle: a type of wild plant that is associated with Scotland (it has prickly leaves and purple flowers).
- apostle: disciple or follower, such as the Twelve Apostles of Christianity.
- epistle: a letter sent to a group of people.
Are You Posh or NOT? Lesson Recap
All of the above listed words are spelt with a ‘t’ but no /t/ is ever pronounced in them.
However, pronunciation of the ‘t’ in the words ‘often’ and ‘soften’ is down to personal preference. Remember though, not pronouncing the ‘t’ is considered the ‘posh’ or prestige way.
Thank you so much for watching and/or reading this advanced pronunciation lesson!
Extend Your Learning
▶︎ Watch my lesson on the Pronunciation of ‘Garage’, Are You Posh or Not?
▶︎ Learn How to Speak Like the Queen
Improve Your Pronunciation
Sign up to get 3 Clear Accent Training Exercises (video).
*For email subscribers only.