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The question pretty much says it all. Why is "absorbtion" an incorrect spelling?

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Because it was borrowed like that from Latin (rather than created from absorb and -tion in English). –  RegDwigнt Feb 28 '12 at 19:00
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That is a distinctly unhelpful answer. The real reason has to do with pronunciation, not etymology. Where did the /p/ come from? –  John Lawler Feb 28 '12 at 19:26
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Being from North America, I don't detect any tendency to pronounce gobshite –  Chris Cudmore Feb 28 '12 at 20:30
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So one must know the etymology of any word before daring to ask about it here? Take note. –  John Lawler Feb 28 '12 at 21:11
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Even though the same thing happens, in the same ways, and for the same reasons, in English? gods forbid we might stray from The Topic here. whatever it is. –  John Lawler Feb 28 '12 at 21:23

2 Answers 2

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Voicing Assimilation is the technical term for what happened here.

In English (and Latin, and most Indo-European languages, among many others), /b/ and /p/ are identical in pronunciation (both are bilabial stops), differing only in their Voice parameter; /b/ is Voiced, while /p/ is Voiceless.

It is a fact about the human vocal tract that consonant clusters that differ in Voice are difficult to pronounce, because changing from Voiced to Voiceless consonants requires independent movement of the larynx, which can be very hard to switch on and off at the millisecond timing required for consonant clusters.

Therefore there is a universal tendency in human language for consonant clusters to be either all Voiced or all Voiceless. However, what determines voicing when a cluster is formed from two dissimilarly-voiced consonants varies from language to language.

In Russian, for example, it's Regressive assimilation -- the Voice parameter of the final consonant in a cluster becomes the parameter of the whole cluster. So the Russian preposition в /v/ 'in' is pronounced /f/ when its object starts with a voiceless consonant.

English, however, mostly favors Progressive assimilation -- that's why the {-Z} suffixes of noun plural, noun possessive, and verb 3spres vary between /s/ and /z/; they take their voicing parameter from the sound that comes before them. The {-D} verb past tense suffix varies between /d/ and /t/ in the same way.

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So I shouldn't get too attached to gobshite then? In the fullness of time that too will probably become assimilated. Good answer though, even if technically speaking the question could have been ruled "off-topic". –  FumbleFingers Feb 29 '12 at 0:18
    
So, what, the different between "b" and "p" is supposed to have something to do with how the noise is formed in the throat area (in the larynx)? For me it's purely an airflow thing - "b" builds up pressure behind the lips which stops building the moment the lips are opened, while "p" keeps the airflow going a moment after the lips are opened up. This answer doesn't seem to make sense. (US English here, perhaps this is a British English answer?) –  Izkata Feb 29 '12 at 3:16
    
It is an airflow thing. To keep the larynx vibrating, air must flow through it continually from the lungs; but since this is a stop consonant the air can't get out. So you can't keep a [b] (or [d] or [g] or any other voiced stop) going long; soon you have to unseal the lips and let the air pressure out. This is not true of [p] (or [t] or [k], the voiceless counterparts of [d] and [g]). They can be kept as long as you like because they don't involve voicing, i.e, continuous airflow. –  John Lawler Feb 29 '12 at 3:47
    
@JohnLawler The noise itself comes when the lips are unsealed, but the difference in flow causes the difference between "b" and "p". I can't keep a "p" noise going as you suggest (although I can do "k", and "t" to a small extent - it mutates into an "s" after a moment). –  Izkata Feb 29 '12 at 5:52
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Hm... linguistics -- The question itself is innocent, while the answer sounds off-topic. Would make an excellent post on linguistics site, though. Wonder if @Chris Cudmore's is satisfied. –  Kris Feb 29 '12 at 6:26

The main reason is most likely pronunciation. There is another example of this, where the difficulty may be more prominent: describe. It would be rather difficult to say describtion, as compared to description, which flows off of one's tongue rather nicely. The same goes for absorption; it is simply easier than absorbtion.

Etymonline suggests that this change occurred in the Latin roots (for both absorption and description). Nowadays, hoi polloi are more eloquent than the commoners who spoke Latin; while we today may not find it difficult to say these, they would have.

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My humor detector might be on the fritz. Is that last sentence a joke, or do you really claim that the Romans had some sort of speech impediment that we don't? –  Mark Beadles Feb 28 '12 at 21:20
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Also: "cribsheet" is a perfectly pronounceable English word that contains the same consonant cluster as in the hypothetical "describtion". –  Mark Beadles Feb 28 '12 at 21:21
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I think there may be something akin to circular reasoning here. You say description flows off of one's tongue rather nicely - so by implication, describtion doesn't. But it's not obvious to me either is inherently easier or harder to pronounce, except insofar as we are more used to saying "p" rather than "b" in these contexts. Per my comment to the question, Brits at least have no problem enunciating gobshite with "b" rather than "b" (not would Americans, if they were to adopt the word! :) –  FumbleFingers Feb 28 '12 at 21:34
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How can you say that the Romans were poorly educated? Why, almost all of them spoke Latin! –  Jay Feb 28 '12 at 21:44
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@Mr.ShinyandNew: People are free to disregard stylistic advice; but I think they should have it, especially if there is some sort of consensus. –  Cerberus Feb 29 '12 at 16:05

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