Silent no longer

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Dateline April 1, 2010, a bulletin from the Association for Psychological Science to its members:

Silent No More:

The Case for Changing Our Pronunciation

At its December 2009 meeting, the APS Board of Directors was unanimous in support of a proposal by the APS Pronunciation Committee to change how we say the words psychology and psychological (and psychologist) to include the initial "p" sound. In keeping with APS bylaws, such a change in pronunciation needs to be decided by a vote of our membership. If approved, members would be required, or at least strongly encouraged, to pronounce the "p" sound in the name of our science.


The word psychology has a long and hallowed tradition, having been coined in the 16th Century by the German theologian Melanchthon based on the Latin psychologia, meaning"study of the breath" – exactly what the word means for today's researchers. From then until early in the last century, the initial phoneme in psychology was said aloud. Psycholinguists speculate that nonpronunciation of the "p" can be traced to none other than James McKeen Cattell, who idiosyncratically left the sound off, and to his students and colleagues, who imitated his affected way of saying psychology in the hope of posthumously getting a Cattell sabbatical award. Thus the silent "p" has its origins in sycophantism, much like the Castilian lisp. Since Cattell's time, the "p" has remained silent.

However, increasingly the trend among both professionals in the field and laypeople alike is to once again pronounce the "p," and the APS initiative represents an attempt to keep our relatively young organization in step with the times. This change would also better distinguish our Association from other organizations whose members continue, anachronistically (and, we think, pretentiously), to leave the "p" silent. In the halls of psychology departments, and at meetings, it will no longer be difficult to tell who is a member of which organization: How you pronounce psychology will be like a badge of loyalty: Are you a scientist or are you … something else?

And there is a final, long-term consideration. The trend in written English is toward simplification of spellings to conform to how words are commonly pronounced. Witness the words plow (formerly plough), catalog (formerly catalogue), and the increasingly common CUL8R ("see you later"). If this trend continues and English speakers continue to leave the "p" silent, the time may soon come when psychology is spelled sykolojy. Our acronym would then become ASS. Nobody wants that.

So, we respectfully submit, let's look again at the pronunciation of our Association's middle name. Think it over, members, and decide.

As an added note, the APS Pronunciation Committee is also currently considering a motion to pronounce the first, silent "c" in science as a hard "c" – i.e., "skience." If approved by the committee, this proposal will also be put to a vote. Stay tuned!

I am a real skientist; I have a degree in skience.

[Addendum: Jonathan Lundell points out that the title of this posting should be: "Psilent no longer".]

[Further addendum: I originally didn't open this posting to comments because I feared that comments would branch off in a number of different directions, several of which have been touched on in Language Log. But a number of people have their favorite plays on "silent letters" in English spelling, so I'm opening up comments for people who want to cite some of the vast number of these. I'm kicking this off with a piece of mail from a reader.]


  1. Zwicky Arnold said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    From Eli Morris-Heft:

    I am reminded of the show "Animaniacs", where "psychiatrist" was routinely pronounced by the title characters as [pisǝkajatʃrɪst] (that's pi-suh-ka-ya-trist if the IPA doesn't come through). Also of Terry Pratchett, whose fans refer to him as Pterry, probably due to his spelling of names that begin with "t" in his book "Pyramids", but just as likely because any Pterry fan is likely to find such a spelling fitting and humorous.

  2. Mark P said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

    It reminds me of the movie Harper, with Paul Newman. If I recall correctly, he is in a bar and tells the bartender, "You must be physic". The bartender corrects him, "psychic." Of course Newman's character is too cool to make that mistake unintentionally.

  3. Krishna said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 7:51 pm

    Lt. Randall Disher: First letter, "T" as in "tsunami".

  4. Spell Me Jeff said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 8:24 pm

    P.G. Wodehouse: Leave it to Psmith

    The "P", of course, is silent. A wonderful farce outside the Wooster Canon.

  5. onymous said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    Having learned to correctly pronounce "psi" and "xi" in math classes, I now occasionally pronounce "psychology" or "xylophone" in ways that prompt funny looks.

  6. Jonathan Lundell said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    We have phthisis (OAD gives both |ˈθaɪsəs| |ˈtaɪsəs|) and a couple of other doubly-silent initials. Are there others (besides the phth group)?

    A friend .sigs 'That’s “Chris” with a silent *and* invisible “3”.'

  7. Melissa said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    @Jonathan Lundell: chthonic?

  8. Jonathan Lundell said,

    April 1, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

    Chthonic is good. Anything non-Greek?

  9. Margaret F said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 1:40 am

    Sounds like an April Fools' joke to me.

  10. Cialan said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    The "t" in the English suffix -ten is a puzzling one. It's silent when preceded by a consonant ("soften," "fasten"), except in a few examples like "shorten" and "molten." This is unrelated to the pronunciation of -ter in the corresponding words. For instance, "faster" and "shorter" both have the "t" pronounced, but they differ when changed to -ten.

    Regarding doubly-silent initials, would it be cheating to suggest "Tschaikowsky"? It makes the same sound in English with or without the initial "ts," and it's obviously not Greek.

  11. innokenti said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    "The word psychology has a long and hallowed tradition, having been coined in the 16th Century by the German theologian Melanchthon based on the Latin psychologia, meaning"study of the breath" – exactly what the word means for today's researchers."

    Whut? Latin? Really? What is the Association for Psychological Science on about?

    [(amz) The APS was producing an April Fool's joke, and they were entitled to concoct any damn-fool thing they wanted to. In this part of the posting, however, they stuck pretty close to the facts.]

    ψυχή + λογία (breath/soul + study of) is from Greek. Honestly, it's not hard.

    [(amz) Save your withering scorn. The OED says of the English word that it's from the post-classical Latin psychologia, attested from the late 16th century, originally from German sources. In turn, the post-classical Latin psychologia is, according to the OED, composed of two "combining forms", which you list; the first it identifies as ancient Greek, the second as a post-classical Latin combining form. It notes, "Neither this word nor any member of its family is paralleled in Greek."

    On the other hand, it observes that it "has frequently been claimed … that psychologia was used earlier by Philipp Melancthon … in a lecture title, but this use has never been traced." So here the APS was citing "common knowledge", which turns out to be unsubstantiated.]

  12. innokenti said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 4:24 am

    (Although… I suppose it may have come via the Latin… in which case it's still a strange way of saying it. Makes me twitch.)

  13. Mark P said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 4:44 am

    Tschaikowsky is the German spelling, no?

    English uses the French version, Tchaikovsky, when referring to the composer.

    The more normal transliteration for English would be Chaikovskii, which you sometimes see for less famous people.

  14. innokenti said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 5:07 am

    Fantasy writer friend of mine, Adrian uses 'Tchaikovsky' for publishing books but the Polish 'Czajkowski' normally as his family came from Poland. I can imagine what sort of confusion attempts to pronounce the Polish variation would result in among most UK/US readers!

  15. Acilius said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 8:38 am

    Like onymous, I often prononuce the "p" at the beginning of "psychology." I'm especially likely to do that when I say "psychology" right after word ending in a nasal, so that "in psychology" usually comes out as "imp sychology." I may be the only one who does that, but I may not be- I've never gotten a look for doing it.

  16. Joshua Zucker said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    I think the childrens' alphabet song by the well-known rock group Barenaked Ladies needs to be mentioned here:

    a is for aisle
    b is for bdellium
    c is for czar

    you get the idea.

    Can anyone help them out with an 'r' word?

  17. empty said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    My father used to say "The 'p' is silent, as in swimming."

  18. George said,

    April 2, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    Oh pshaw!

  19. Zwicky Arnold said,

    April 3, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    And from Mike Nichols and Elaine May in their "Telephone" sketch, which I have on the "Retrospective" recording from 1972, a telephone operator lining out the spelling of the name KAPLAN to a desperate pay-phone user:

    K as in knife
    A as in aardvark
    P as in pneumonia
    L as in luscious
    A as in aardvark again
    N as in newel post

    K and P have silent letters; the rest are just unlikely, but entertaining, keywords for spelling words out.

  20. Private Zydeco said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    Reference Q. Pheevr, on "Beyond Ghoti"

  21. Army1987 said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    Which ghoti is pronounced huge, of course

  22. Dan T. said,

    April 4, 2010 @ 11:07 pm

    Pronounce it "Piss Ecology"!

  23. latinist said,

    April 6, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    Acilius and onymous: I hope you're also careful to aspirate the chi sound in the middle of the word.

    (I thought I was being clever here, but now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure that that sound is normally aspirated in English, yes? Maybe I should have insisted on a hard "g" at the end, instead.)

  24. Randy said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Reference Private Zydeco:

    "ghoti" is pronounced "fish".

    "gh" from laugh, "ti" from option. "o" from women.

    I think it's an example from G.B. Shaw's attempts to rationalize spelling.

  25. Randy said,

    April 9, 2010 @ 12:14 pm

    and then I followed the links.

    Just ignore me.

  26. Non-sequitur, just before bedtime... said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 3:30 am

    @Randy – Proceeding to do no such thing. : )

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