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The 't' in 'listener' is not pronounced, and these kinds of words always make me misspell them. Instead of memorizing each of them, can you give me some advice/insight/cause? How common are these kinds of words in English?

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@JSBangs I like you correction. It looks more like English. –  lovespring Feb 13 '11 at 5:16
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I can't offer much insight, but have one suggestion: perhaps it's easier to memorise words in groups? "listen, fasten, hasten moisten, chasten, glisten, christen" all have a silent "t". I can't think of any "-sten" words with a vowel before the "-sten" where the "t" is sounded, but for an example with a consonant in that position there's "tungsten". –  psmears Feb 13 '11 at 8:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

There are a few common words like "listen", i.e. with "st" where the vowel before the "s" is stressed, but the vowel in the following syllable is unstressed. Other examples include "fasten", "Christmas", "whistle" (and of course derivations: "whistling", "Christmassy" etc). The word "often" is an interesting case with two alternative pronunciations (the "t" may or may not be pronounced).

If you know enough about English phonology, then another rule of thumb is that if you have two or more consonant letters next to each other which "don't fit" with the phonotactics ("usual combinations of sounds") of English, then one of those consonants almost certainly isn't pronounced. For example, there's no word in English that has the combination [mb] in the coda (final part) of a syllable. So in the word "comb", one of the final letters must be silent. (Contrast with "combine", where the "m" and "b" are in different syllables, and both are pronounced.)

However, in general, the problem with silent letters is that they really span a number of categories, including some cases where the letter in question was just arbitrarily inserted. For example, in the word "debt", the "b" has never ever been pronounced in English, nor indeed was it in French when the word was borrowed into English: the "b" was simply arbitrarily inserted in effect to "remind people" of the Latin word 'debitum' (from which "debt" only indirectly dervies). So inevitably, there will be some cases that you have to "just learn".

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Gotta give you credit for trying to give specific pointers. Most of us seem to have skipped straight to some variation of "there are too many different cases" in our answers. –  John Y Feb 14 '11 at 2:05
    
The /Ft/ -> /F/ where F is an unvoiced fricative is quite common: soften, hasten, fasten, etc.; also it's a general pattern that consonant reduction is most likely between stressed and unstressed syllables (same thing occurs with /h/ in prohibit vs. prohibition). –  Mechanical snail Aug 19 '12 at 5:29

Because the British isles were conquered many times over in its history, English has words from many other languages. Therefore, depending on the source langage, similar sounding phonemes in different words can be written differently.

Unfortunately, the answer is to either understand the source languages of words or to do the memorisation work. Regardless of the method, you'll probably want a copy of the OED on hand.

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Tricky question. I would say these kinds of words are common enough to require attention, but unfortunately I have no insight to give. In my opinion, it is easier just to memorize them than to try to find some rationale behind them. Eventually, if you read enough English, these things should start to "look right" on their own. (Though books are a better source for this than the Internet!)

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It's also somewhat dialectal and societal. A person who is proud of their "correct" use of English might slightly pronounce the 't' in "listener". Similarly, the network of communicative tubes that we are using may be pronounced as the "in'ernet". There's a lot of this about, but 't's are particularly troublesome, with pronunciations ranging from a full hard 't' through glotal stop to complete omission.

Unfortunately, a learner needs to immerse oneself in an environment to acquire a sense, no, a knowledge, of when each is used. Only later (at near fluency) can the advice/insight you seek be found. However, listening to anything on the BBC (except Radio 1) can give a listener a few examples of "correct" (received pronunciation) usage.

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I have never encountered anyone who pronounced the "t" in "listen" even slightly (and I've met a lot of people proud of their "correct" English!). Nor can I find any dictionary which shows pronunciation of the "t" in any of their pronunciations. Certainly nobody on the BBC (Radio 1 or otherwise!) does :) –  psmears Feb 13 '11 at 7:59
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Can you define phonetically what you mean by "slightly pronounce"? I'm not sure it makes much sense. –  Neil Coffey Feb 13 '11 at 15:57
    
The two cases are not remotely comparable. "Listen" has no [t] in any variety of English I've ever heard; but glottalisation of the [t] in "internet" is regular in some dialects and not found in others. –  Colin Fine Feb 13 '11 at 22:05

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