Why is the word Colonel pronounced like kernel when there is no R in the word?

By: | Post date: 2017-02-17 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

Originally Answered:

Why is the word colonel pronounced kernel?

Vote #2, Daniel Ross: Daniel Ross’ answer to Why is the word Colonel pronounced like kernel when there is no R in the word?

Vote #1 me, because I go a bit further. 🙂 I checked with OED.

So, the word started as colonnello in Italian.

The word became coronnel in French. Dissimilation, as Daniel points out. It’s also coronel in Spanish.

The word was borrowed into English in the 15th century as corronel. Pronounced with three syllables and an r.

In 1580, people started translating Italian military treatises into English, and spelling it as collonel.

Now, there were two pronunciations and two spellings in English of the word. The French corronel and the Italian collonel.

We reduced it down to one spelling by the 18th century. And we reduced it down to one pronunciation by the 18th century. And as too often happens in English, we use the one alternative in the spelling, and the other alternative in the pronunciation.

So, let’s ignore the spelling and stick to the pronunciation. I’ll add fauxnetics, with some disgust. According to dictionaries of English

  • In 1710, it was /ˈkʌrəʊnɛl/ (currownell)
  • In 1766, it was /ˈkɔːnɪl/ (cornill)
  • In 1780 it was /ˈkɜːnɛl/ (curnell), the pronunciation it has now.
  • In 1816, the older pronunciation (cor(o)nell with an o) was still around:
    • “Both the English and Scottish, but particularly the latter, pronounce the word Coronel, and so do the Irish.” (C. James, New Military Dictionary)
    • Some guy in 1825 spelled it phonetically as cawnel.

So what were the changes?

  • Dissimilation of l to r, already back in French.
  • Moving the stress from the last syllable (coronéll—it was French, after all) to córonell. That happened sometime in the 17th century, and it indicates the word being considered by English speakers as English now and not French.
  • Dropping an unstressed syllable, coronell to cornell. Irregular in English, but it does happen. OED says that was first attested in 1669.
  • The change that noone seems to talk about is cornell to curnell. That seems to me an assimilation of the vowels, from /kornel/ to /kernel/ (using fauxnemes): an /e/ before an /r/ is going to be pronounced as an /ɜ/. If English spelling was less silly, it would be kornell being respelled as kernell.

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