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

  • 11
    Because it was borrowed like that from Latin (rather than created from absorb and -tion in English).
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 19:00
  • 5
    That is a distinctly unhelpful answer. The real reason has to do with pronunciation, not etymology. Where did the /p/ come from? Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 19:26
  • 6
    Being from North America, I don't detect any tendency to pronounce gobshite Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 20:30
  • 5
    So one must know the etymology of any word before daring to ask about it here? Take note. Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:11
  • 6
    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. Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:23

2 Answers 2


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 3sgpresent 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.

  • 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". Commented Feb 29, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 3:16
  • 1
    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
    Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 6:26
  • 1
    I just wanted to mention that there´s something in what Izkata says: in English, neither [p] nor [b] is actually voiced very much in terms of the duration of time while the vocal folds are still vibrating during the closure-- compared to other languages where the "voiced" stops (canonically) have voicing right through the closure. In English, the difference is essentially one of aspiration, not voicing. However... Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 14:41
  • 1
    Yes, Neil's right. There's a whole lot more going on in phonation than simply voiced/voiceless. Most of the time English speakers take their cues from the aspiration of voiceless stops, for instance, or on the length of the vowel preceding stops, instead of their voicing value. And quite often voicing is neutralized. This was intended to be a somewhat elementary answer, in keeping with the nature and location of the question. Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 16:09

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.

  • 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? Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:20
  • 3
    Also: "cribsheet" is a perfectly pronounceable English word that contains the same consonant cluster as in the hypothetical "describtion". Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:21
  • 6
    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! :) Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:34
  • 4
    How can you say that the Romans were poorly educated? Why, almost all of them spoke Latin!
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 28, 2012 at 21:44
  • 2
    @Mr.ShinyandNew: People are free to disregard stylistic advice; but I think they should have it, especially if there is some sort of consensus. Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 16:05

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.