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English has suffixes spelled "-le" and pronounced /əl/ with several meanings. However, they variously come from Old English -el, -ol, -ul, and -lian. Of these, only -lian has a vowel after the l.

Also, many other words are spelled this way. When I look up their etymologies, they often come from Old English words ending in "el," /əl/, which explains the modern pronunciation but not the spelling, or are borrowed from Old French words ending in "le" (like circle), which I understand would have been pronounced /lə/ in OF, which does not explain how they got their modern pronunciations. Other words, like battle, are borrowed from French or Latin words that had vowels before the "l," and must have been respelled since, the same as the OE origin words.

I suppose it could have come from later French, where "le" would be pronounced /l/, which is often unpronounceable in English and so would be approximated as /əl/, which may have already been pronounced as [l̩]. This would match British "re," I believe. However, it does not explain why so many other /əl/ words were respelled with "le," when the same did not happen with "er" words. It also does not explain why words borrowed from OF like circle now have /əl/ and not /lə/. I suppose it's possible so many words were respelled to match the French, but it seems strange that it would have only happened in this one ending.

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    My guess is that it happened when consistent spelling rules were formed, they wanted the same spelling for the same sound, and they went with the -le spelling that comes from French.
    – Barmar
    Jun 28, 2020 at 0:15
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    I suspect that the "invasion" of Old French, occurring after the Norman Conquest, had something to do with this.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 28, 2020 at 0:44
  • SEE ALSO: acre, chancre, euchre, lucre, massacre, mediocre, nacre, ochre, sepulchre, simulacre, wiseacre.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24 at 19:31
  • Some historical analysis of when this happened would help give a decisive answer. Compare the spellings of words of Anglo-Saxon origin with newer French, and see if it was due to the initial influx of French words; a decision by 17th or 18th century printers; something pre-existing in Old/Early Middle English; or maybe it happened to some words and not to others and had a completely different cause.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 25 at 13:55

3 Answers 3

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This can be regarded as specialized case of word-final "silent e". "Silent e" is a convention of Modern English spelling that ultimately originated from the regular loss in Middle English of the schwa sound /ə/ at the end of words, as I discussed in an answer to Why does a silent "-e" at the end of a word lengthen vowels?

However, at the word-to-word level, there is no consistent relationship between a word being spelled with "silent e" in modern English, and it having or not having word-final /ə/ in Middle English. Thus, it should not be surprising if many words spelled with -le never had a vowel sound after the /l/.

Words that originally ended with a consonant + /l/ + schwa in Middle English (such as whistle, from Old English hwistlian (verb) and hwistle (noun)) developed an epenthetic vowel before the /l/ when the word-final schwa was lost. (Or we can say that the /l/ simply became a syllabic consonant: there is no phonemic contrast in English between syllabic resonant consonants and schwa + resonant sequences.) Words like circle evolved similarly once they were taken into English (I don't know how many words like this were taken into English early enough to undergo the exact same change as in native words).

Preusumably, the analogy of words like whistle and circle caused the spelling ⟨le⟩ to be extended to other words ending in a consonant + /əl/.

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Aren't they two independent cases? Inserting a schwa sound between two consonants is a pan-indoeuropean thing. Preserving the spelling of borrowed from Latin or French words is another thing.

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    Feb 24 at 19:22
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Final /əl/ came to usually being spelled "le" due to the stressed syllable /F/, pronouncing it similar to words like spinal, terminal, and original. But, the greatest influence was probably lazy workers at the printing press wanting more efficient standardized spelling to speed up arranging the character plates on the press. More simply, more printers printed it with -le than those printing it with -el.

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  • Opera does not seem to illustrate what you suggest in that no e was ever “inserted”. Rather, in Latin opus/‑eris was merely a neuter third-declension imparisyllabic non-𝑖‑stem noun—all such nouns worked this same way. See also onerous<onus/‑eris; genera,general<genus/‑eris; lateral<latus/‑eris; federal<foedus/‑eris; venereal<Venus/‑eris; visceral<vicus/‑eris; funeral<funus/‑eris; corpora,corporal<corpus/‑oris; temporal<tempus/‑oris; decor<decus/‑oris; oral<os/‑ris; crural<crus/‑ris; jury,justice<jus/‑ris. Not to mention decorate, generate, operate.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24 at 20:57
  • Also remember that just as in other Romance dialects, Italian nouns derived from Latin accusatives not nominatives, sometimes with gender and even number reassignments along the way particularly with the neuters: opera is a feminine singular now in Italian, as too is obra in Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Galician.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24 at 21:00

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