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A research question on pronunciation

I have been looking for the explanation and history of the English pronunciation convention of not pronouncing the P at the start of double consonant scientific words, in particular the P in Psychology.

It is my understanding that the letter Psi in the root word psyche is pronounced in both the original Greek and in the Latin transliteration, and further that it is pronounced in German, where the word psychology originated.

The intuitive explanation is that the P was dropped because PS is an unusual initial letter cluster in English, and that the history of this pronunciation convention can be traced to the English pronunciation of Latin words of Greek origin, religious words, such as Psalm, and finally that later scientific coinages built on Greek words beginning with PS, PT or PN followed the pronunciation convention for established for Ps.

And so, my questions are, 1) Is this understanding of the explanation and history correct, and if so is there a source in English documenting or even simply asserting this understanding?

2) Is this understanding in error, partially or completely, and was the English language pronunciation convention established in another manner? For example, was the pronunciation convention already established in Latin of its Greek loanwords and English merely copied the Latin? Or do the English pronunciation conventions of PS and PT (Psi and Pi) have different origins and did they establish themselves independently of each other?

Thank you ahead of time

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    We pronounce the /sf/ in sphere and sphinx, despite the fact that it's an unusual letter combination of Greek origin. – Peter Shor Nov 18 '16 at 20:41
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    Yes, and we also pronounce the /skl/ in sclerotic, even though English doesn't have any native words beginning with that cluster. It's pretty much a matter of what English speakers think they can pronounce, and that's usually not much. So we leave out or change anything we like in foreign words. You may have noticed that English spelling doesn't have a terrific connection with English pronunciation; this is one reason why. – John Lawler Nov 18 '16 at 21:25
  • Related, but doesn't give the history: Pterodactyl and Archeopteryx: Silent P vs Voiced P – sumelic Nov 19 '16 at 6:41
  • Cf. mnemonic, Ctesiphon, gnostic, knight, kneel, know, knell. – Cerberus Nov 19 '16 at 18:29
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The source The Pronunciation of Latin Learned Loan Words and Foreign Words in Old English indicates that ps has sounded like s since Old English:

Latin p

...

It was not pronounced in initial ps-, as indicated by the fact that in the Psalms the word psalterium always alliterates with words beginning with s; but this is hardly to be regarded as an exclusively OE loss, since it had occurred long before in the Romance dialects, where it even drops out of the spelling of popular words, e.g., It., Span., Port. salmo (cf. ON sálmr).

(Of course, this all happened well before psychology was added to English in the late 17th century.)


I haven't been able to find any words starting with pt in Old English, but there are a number of words in Middle English.

And they all have alternate spellings without the p:

  • tisane (n.) Also tisan(ne, tisain(e, tizanne, tipsan, thisane, thesan, ptisane, ptisan(ne, pthisane, petisane.

  • tisik(e (adj.) Also ptisike, ptisic; pl. tisikes, thisicis, ptisicz.

  • Laurel, Thank you for the reference -- The Pronunciation of Latin Learned Loan Words and Foreign Words in Old English looks like a good source. I will look at this source further with an interlibrary loan (I cannot access the PennState website link). Since the P had been dropped in Salmo for Romance languages across southern Europe much earlier, this could mean either that it was already being elided in Late Latin in southern Europe, or that as Latin changed into Portuguese, Italian, Spanish it followed a similar pattern in all three language groups. – Stanley Nov 21 '16 at 8:37
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This is just a partial answer, but hopefully it gets the ball rolling.

John Walker's "Critical Pronouncing Dictionary" from 1824 records that "p" was silent as a rule in words starting with ps- and pt- (page 43). That gives an upper bound on the date of this sound change.

As you say, it's pretty certain that the /p/ was pronounced in all of these combinations in Ancient Greek.

The p in ps- and pn- is also pronounced in modern French and German. I don't know what happens to pt-; it seems it might be pronounced /pt/ based on this german bab.la "Pterodaktylus" and this Wiktionary entry "ptérodactyle". This doesn't show how it was pronounced in the variety of Latin that was ancestral to French, since both of these languages have strategies for pronouncing Latinate words based on their spellings, but it does show that the silent "p" in these contexts is not universally shared by European languages, which suggests it developed within English or when words were borrowed into English.

  • suməlic, Thank you for getting the ball rolling. Yes, English apparently did not have a strategy “for pronouncing Latinate words based on their spellings.” It appears the same was true for Greek, and – as I articulate this idea – I begin to suspect that there was a common British primer, directing a generation on how to pronounce the initial PN, PS, and PT in Greek words so that when scientists went on to invent words with Greek roots, they also agreed on pronunciation of these words. – Stanley Nov 21 '16 at 8:38

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