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According to Google at least, the word "cupboard" originated in late Middle English as denoting a board that held cups. Since then, the word has evolved to mean a kind of cabinet.

My question is, given its origin and spelling, why do we pronounce "cupboard" with a silent "p"? Has the pronunciation simply evolved because "cup-board" is too awkward to say, or is there a deeper pronunciation rule that I'm not aware of?

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    Wait, you pronounce cupboard with silent p? Because I've been pronouncing cupboard exactly as cup-board my whole life... – Raestloz Sep 16 '14 at 11:19
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    The p and b are both bilabials, pronounced using both lips. As such they merge into a single sound. There's no chance of parting the lips in between, so it's a single consonant sound weighed in favor of the "heavier" b. HTH. – Kris Sep 16 '14 at 11:19
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    @Raestloz Sounds like you missed out on nursery rhymes from Mother Goose — and Mother Hubbard, too. In “Old Mother Hubbard / Went to the cupboard” those have to rhyme, or the nursery rhyme if no longer a rhyme at all. – tchrist Sep 16 '14 at 17:42
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    @tchrist: Wait. Don't you pronounce Hubbard with a p sound? (Just kidding, not mocking.) – Drew Sep 16 '14 at 20:32
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There are sev­er­al fac­tors in play here.

Dif­fi­cult con­so­nant clus­ters are of­ten re­duced in rapid speech or over time; think of friend­ship, spend­thrift, twelfth, months.

Much of the dif­fer­ence be­tween an un­voiced and a voiced stop in English is ac­tu­al­ly not its voic­ing but its as­pi­ra­tion, and be­cause one nor­mal­ly on­ly as­pi­rates stops that are both un­voiced and which be­gin a stressed syl­la­ble, you have just lost the prin­ci­pal dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture.

When you have two con­sec­u­tive stops that dif­fer on­ly in voic­ing, these are es­pe­cial­ly like­ly to fuse, with the first of the pair dropped. Without an au­di­ble re­lease, there is noth­ing to mark the end of one and the be­gin­ning of the next.

Here is a set of words or phras­es where you nor­mal­ly sup­press one of the two ad­ja­cent stops that dif­fer on­ly in voic­ing:

  • cup­board
  • rasp­ber­ry
  • black­guard
  • back­ground
  • post­doc
  • post­dat­ed check
  • sub­poe­na
  • next-door neigh­bor
  • last-ditch ef­fort
  • best dog­sit­ter

It is not al­ways the first of the two that is sup­pressed. For ex­am­ple, no­tice how in back­ground noise, it is the g that ap­pears to get lost: it sounds more like back round.

In con­trast, in black­guard (when pro­nounced as though it were spelled blag­gerd) it is the first of the two ad­ja­cent stops that seems to go away, mak­ing it work like cup­board and rasp­ber­ry with their lost p.

A lost dog may well come out sound­ing like a loss dog in rapid speech, and a black glass like a black lass.

This is not com­plete­ly guar­an­teed, es­pe­cial­ly in new com­pounds whose mor­phemic bound­aries are still clear. It is al­so more apt to hap­pen when the stress is on the first syl­la­ble than when it’s on the sec­ond. But on­ly very care­ful speak­ers will gem­i­nate stops when go­ing out­doors: the t be­comes at most a glot­tal stop — if that. So an out­door the­ater might be said [ˌäʊ̯ʔ.doɻʷ ˈθiː.əɾɚ].

But even a big kite, a bad turn, or a job posting is li­able to lose the first of the paired stops in con­nect­ed speech, since the sec­ond stop is as­pi­rat­ed and the first gets no au­di­ble re­lease.

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    Your examples are not all of the same type. I would certainly pronounce cupboard, raspberry and subpoena without the first p/b. But in the case of "background" I would pronounce both k and g in slow speech, and even in rapid speech I would realise the first k as an unreleased [k], followed without a break by a normal released [g]. I would never say ba-ground. And thus also with your other examples. – fdb Sep 16 '14 at 16:56
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    "I don't do that!!" mouths some words from list "Oh." – OJFord Sep 17 '14 at 16:34
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    @LeoKing If you mean that why the /t/ in doctor is unaspirated, it is more because it isn’t at the start of a stressed syllable than because it has a /k/ right before it (which is closer to being “unreleased”). Compare the two versions of /t/ in each of tater, titan, and tutor: the first t in each is aspirated, but the second one is not (and is subject to other affects as well, like flapping in applicable dialects). Whereas in titanic, the second t now gets aspirated because it starts a stressed syllable. The simplest pair for the two t's is probably top versus stop. – tchrist Sep 17 '14 at 21:56
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    Sorry, I wasn't talking about the aspiration in /t/, but the /k/ plosive - I realise I wasn't very clear here. Some people would pronounce the /k/ by placing the tongue on the velum but not releasing the air, instead releasing the air on the next sound in the cluster, the /t/. That's what I meant by an unreleased plosive. – Lou Sep 17 '14 at 22:00
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    As @fdb says, there are two different kinds of ‘silent letters’ here in your list. Some of them are actual suppression a or simplifications of clusters (those will generally be remade to complex clusters in careful speech, and at least for some people are never likely to be reduced in the first place); but the ones like cupboard are never remade to clusters—in fact I would say there are no clusters in those words at all, phonemically speaking. Cupboard is just /ˈkʌbərd/ phonemically. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 18 '14 at 7:57
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Just to emphasise the pronunciation guides that people have given elsewhere, it's not pronounced as "cup-board" or "cu-board" but really "cubbered" very similar to "covered".

You have to really think of English as 2 separate languages; the spoken one that has dynamically evolved for a thousand years and the written one which was codified 500 years ago into standard spelling. Over time, the pronunciation is going to drift further and further away from the spelling such that the written version of a word will contain virtually no clue as to how it's pronounced - but will just serve as a generally-accepted "code" that we all know and understand.

It has the added benefit that the "code" will be an endless source of fascination for people like us explore how our "cubbered" must have evolved from a board that cups were put on, that gained some sides, then a top, then, finally, some doors.

In short, in Britain today, there really is no "p" in "cubbered" - except in the archaic spelling "code" that we use to represent it. You may not like it but that's the way it is.

There will always be people at the forefront of the spoken evolution - and those lagging behind. It is interesting that we never seem to hear people campaigning for the proper pronunciation of "knife" as "k-neef" as it "should" be said. Even better, "knight" as "k-nichhter". There are countless, no doubt better, examples if I could think of them.

  • Depends on where you live or originate. My folks did not say "cubberd", but "cupberd". The "p" is not dominant, but it is definitely there. I've definitely also heard it the way you indicate, however. – Cyberherbalist Sep 16 '14 at 20:52
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    I'm in the UK and I think I can honestly say I've never heard anyone pronounce the "p" - even partially - either in person or on television/radio. I think there could be something psychological involved here - do we think we hear the "p" because we know it's there? Is there a "p" in "psychological"? – Lefty Sep 16 '14 at 21:33
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Perhaps the closest spelling match to cupboard is clapboard (which can refer either to a type of exterior wall used in building houses and other structures or to the rectangular device used to designate a scene and take in filming and to signal the beginning of the scene).

According to the phonetic system that Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary uses, cupboard has the pronunciation given in this entry:

cupboard \ˈkə-bərd\ n (1530) : a closet with shelves where dishes, utensils, or food is kept; also, a small closet

In contrast, the pronunciation of clapboard is variable and, to some extent, depends on the sense of the word that one intends. Again from the Eleventh Collegiate:

clapboard \ˈkla-bərd;ˈkla(p)-ˌbȯrd\ n {part trans. of D klaphout stave wood} (ca. 1520) 1 archaic : a size of board for making staves and wainscoting 2 : a narrow board usu. thicker at one end edge than the other, used for siding 3 \ˈklap-ˌbȯrd\ : a pair of hinged boards one of which has a slate with data identifying a piece of film and which are banged together in front of a motion picture camera at the start of a take to facilitate editing — called also clapper board

So we have two nouns that came into the English language at approximately the same time, with the same pb combination at the junction of the two syllables and with the same -board ending. And yet, whereas the Eleventh Collegiate lists the only pronunciation of cupboard as \ˈkə-bərd\ , it lists three pronunciations for clapboard: \ˈkla-bərd\ , \ˈkla(p)-ˌbȯrd\ , and (for the much later meaning of the word) \ˈklap-ˌbȯrd\ .

A discussion headed "Clapboard & Cupboard" on a page of Merriam-Webster's site emphasizes the etymological differences between the two words, but makes no attempt to tie those differences to the variable pronunciations of clapboard versus the unitary pronunciation of cupboard:

Cupboard literally is a "cup board": that is, a board or table on which cups can be stored—at least at its origins in the Middle Ages. The "closet" meaning dates to the mid-1500s, and the "p" and "b" of the spelling have long since merged in pronunciation. As an exercise, try saying the literal "cup board" ten times fast, and you’ll experience firsthand how language evolves.

Clapboard has a different story: it came to English as a partial translation of the Dutch word klaphout, meaning "stave wood"; it probably derives from the Dutch verb clappen, meaning "to clap" or "to hit," from the way carpenters nailed the siding to houses. The literal pronunciation is sometimes used for the wood siding but always used when clapboard refers to the clapping slate used in filmmaking.

I suspect that the pronunciation of cupboard progressed through each of the three stages that clapboard exhibits, in this order: \ˈkəp-ˌbȯrd\ , \ˈkə(p)-ˌbȯrd\ , \ˈkə-bərd\ . But cupboard is a more common word than clapboard, and that may help explain why the slurring loss of the p sound occurred more completely and perhaps at an earlier date with cupboard than with clapboard. The completeness of the loss of the p sound may also owe something to the fact that almost every native English speaker first encounters cupboard in spoken English (such as in "Old Mother Hubbard") rather than in writing, reducing the possibility of a spelling-influenced pronunciation.

As for the mechanics of the transition from clearly sounded p to dropped p in the case of cupboard (and one pronunciation of clapboard), I defer to the answer posted by tchrist, who has far deeper understanding than I do of this aspect of language.

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Technically, both are pronounced. But since the sound of letter 'b' dominates the sound of letter 'p', we feel that p is silent. I am not aware of any such rule where the letter 'b' should be silent.

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    Do you mean you say "scrabbook" and "humback" rather than "scrapbook" and "humpback"? For me, the "p" is silent in cupboard, but the "p" is pronounced in "humpback" and "scrapbook". And Oxford Dictionaries says the "p" in scrapbook is pronounced, the "p" in humpback is optional, and the "p" in cupboard is silent. – Peter Shor Sep 16 '14 at 12:57
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    @PeterShor I looked at those particular examples and came to the conclusion that the several extra centuries of use in cupboard (or raspberry) compared with humpback accounts for it. Plus we no longer think of the first two as being composed as two distinct free morphemes, while with humpback, we do. – tchrist Sep 16 '14 at 13:11
  • The 'b' is silent in 'lamb', 'comb', 'dumb'. Is that another rule or the same rule? – Mitch Sep 25 '16 at 15:22

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