9

The audio clips at ODO do not vocalise any sound resembling a 't', and the IPA contains no 't':

BrE /ˈkrɪsn/ ;   NAmE /ˈkrɪsn/

The 't' in 'christen' and 'hasten' (mooted by this comment in a deleted question),
was it ever pronounced?

What formal linguistic concepts or terms describe this phenomenon? I read this (Why is the 't' in 'nextdoor neighbour' usually silent?...) and this (Why does English spelling use silent letters?).

11

It's associated with the `Great Vowel Shift'. I found this on Hartford Courant, citing a letter from James McCawley (professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago at the time, I think currently acknowledged as the expert in his field) in a letter to language columnist William Safire (also highly regarded, but not really in the same league)...

As for the silent "t" in Christmas, McCawley explained that the "t" was once pronounced in words such as "Christmas," "glisten," "listen," "mistletoe" and "soften." (The pronunciation of the "t" in "often" by some speakers today is a remnant of this practice.)

But during the 1600s, the "t" sound was dropped whenever it was preceded by a spirant (a fricative consonant such as "s" or "f") and followed by a sonorant (a voiced consonant such as "l," "r," "m" or "n").

I really don't think I could add anything to such an eloquent summary.

  • Good and helpful answer!! – user66974 Jul 5 '15 at 19:11
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    @Josh61: Our resident "Grand Master" John Lawler was kind enough to give me his "spare" copy of McCawley's definitive The syntactic phenomena of English (the one he used to lend out to ill-prepared/impecunious students when he was still actively lecturing). That was over three years ago, but there haven't been many weeks when I haven't dipped into it since then. I'm sure the only reason I find it fairly hard going is because it covers a lot of ground, not because his style is "abstruse" in and of itself. – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '15 at 19:23
  • (okay - I'll come clean. Other reasons include the fact that I'm not exactly Einstein myself, I'm not getting paid to learn it, and I don't have any exams to pass! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 5 '15 at 19:26
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    I used McCawley's book several times as a course text, and I wrote out reference answers to all but the last few exercises. I love the book. In my experience, though, students don't like it very well. As McCawley admits at one point, he is not very good at dumbing things down. It's a linguists' text. – Greg Lee Jul 5 '15 at 19:48
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    Since the question mentions "formal linguistic concepts", I don't think we should leave the answer at McCawley's informal statement of the sound change responsible for the loss of "t". ... – Greg Lee Jul 5 '15 at 20:20
0

In words like chriSTeN, to pronounce three consonants such as stn which are all near the same place of articulation, is a lot of articulation work. So it is natural that such a difficult consonant group is simplified. Stn is generally pronounced as /sn/, just a simplification of articulation.

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