Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It comes from the Latin musculus (meaning mouse) and Latin has only hard c's. The "c" has somehow become soft or silent during evolution. Why did this happen?

Also, if muscle is pronounced mussle, why isn't muscular pronounced mussular?

share|improve this question
4  
It's pronounced muskle by Popeye –  mgb Sep 15 '11 at 21:44
    
It's not? Shiver me timbahs! –  JeffSahol Sep 15 '11 at 23:18
    
corpuscle...... –  Simon Kuang Jun 2 at 3:54

1 Answer 1

up vote 3 down vote accepted

There are lots of similar examples with a different consonant: "thistle", "bustle", "whistle", "castle", and so on. I suspect that at some point during the history of English, there was a general sound change: -stle → -sle, and -scle → -sle. It just happened that the only moderately common words that ended with -scle were muscle and corpuscle. In neither of them is the "c" currently pronounced.

The reason that the "c" is still pronounced in "muscular" is that this sound change only happened at the end of a word; it's the same reason the "t" is still pronounced in "castellan".

There are also the rare words "crepuscle" (akin to "crepuscular"), which means twilight, and "arbuscle" (found in Johnson's 1795 dictionary), which meant a small tree or shrub. These words are quite rare nowadays, and I can't find a definitive pronunciation for them on the web.

share|improve this answer
    
You (and others in fact) are right; the change occurred in English. I was being very hopeful with the French theory. Indeed, French does have a soft 'c', but requires the cedilla. (Spanish almost always has a soft 'c', or a lisped one.) –  Noldorin Sep 17 '11 at 14:07
    
A quick search documents the well-known silent 'c' in '-scle' endings. This probably originated in Middle English or even Early Modern English out of convenience, I'd propose. –  Noldorin Sep 17 '11 at 14:08
    
In Shakespeare's time, everybody was still spelling words the way they sounded, so these consonants were presumably in the words in the late 1500s. However, we have from etymonline: *The modern spelling [of mussel], distinguishing the word from muscle, first recorded c.1600, not fully established until 1870s. So I'd say the sound change must have taken place somewhere around 1600. –  Peter Shor Sep 20 '11 at 18:55
    
That sounds about right, yeah. –  Noldorin Sep 20 '11 at 19:09
1  
Just in case anybody is wondering how to pronounce crepuscle or arbuscle, the OED says that they are both pronounced with a silent "c". And both these words seem to have come into English in the mid-17th century, so the sound change (that started around 1600) was likely still going on then, probably depending on your dialect. I'd bet the upper classes (those most likely to use arbuscle and crepuscle) still pronouced the "c" in muscle, while by then some of the lower classes had dropped the "c" from both mussel and muscle (originally the same word). –  Peter Shor Sep 22 '11 at 22:38

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.