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Silent Ls
by Lionel E. Deimel

 

LA couple of months ago, my church choir was singing an arrangement of “Balm in Gilead.” I noticed that a friend of mine and fellow bass was pronouncing the L in “balm.” I pointed out that the L was silent, as in “palm.” Apparently, he pronounced the L in that word also, however.

When I started thinking about it, I realized that a number of words have silent Ls. Some of them are very common, such as “talk,” “walk,” “half,” and “calf.” These words are virtually never mispronounced. Less common words with silent Ls are often mispronounced. Among these are “almond,” “folk,” “calm,” and “balk.” TheseL mispronunciations are mostly a curious product of literacy; people see the words in print and, since Ls are not usually silent, assume the Ls are supposed to be pronounced, even if they have heard the words pronounced correctly.

Not being a linguist, I have no scholarly explanation for all these silent Ls, but there seems to be no single historical pattern to explain the phenomenon. LSome words have apparently always contained the letter. For example, “yolk” derives from the Middle English yolke and the Old English geolca, which is related to geolu (yellow). The word lost the L sound but retained the letter in its spelling. Other words have stranger histories. “Colonel,” must surely represent one of the more bizarre cases, having an L that is not pronounced and lacking an R that is. The word ultimately derives from the Latin for column, columna. English, however, got the word from Old French, from which it was first imported as coronel.

L

Here’s my list of words I’ve been able to identify that contain silent Ls, as well as a few notes about them. I’ve grouped words to show spelling similarities, though words in the same group may not have silent Ls for the same reason. Readers are invited to add to this list.

More than one reader has complained that my list includes words that, although they are not pronounced with the characteristic L sound, have pronunciations “influenced” by the presence of an L. For example, the L in “calve” does not act as though it is absent; the words “calve” and “cave” are not homonyms. The point is well-taken, but I would argue that speaking of the “influence” of a silent L presumes that English spelling is more systematically phonetic than it is in actuality. In the list that follows, all I claim is that the words in the list, at least sometimes, are pronounced without a characteristic L sound.

  DeKalb Silent L follows A and is followed by B. The county in Georgia is pronounced this way. The county in Illinois, on the other hand, is pronounced with the L.  
calf
half (also halfback, half-baked, etc.)
Ralph
Silent L follows A and is followed by F or the F-sounding PH. “Ralph” is pronounced with an L in the U.S. In the U.K., however, the name is pronounced "Rayf," as in Ralph Vaughn Williams.
balk
chalk
falcon (also falconer, falconet, etc.)
malkin
stalk
talk
walk (also cakewalk, sidewalk, etc.)
Silent L follows A and is followed by K or a K sound. I personally pronounce “falcon” with an L, but several dictionaries show at least one pronunciation lacking an L sound. The chiefly British “malkin” may be pronounced with or without an L.
Falkland Same pattern as above. Apparently, pronunciations with and without a silent L are considered acceptable. Names are likely to be less consistent in pronunciation because they so easily can be influenced by as few as one person. The L is pronounced in “Salk,” for example.
almond
alms
balm (and balmy)
calm
embalm
Malmesbury
malmsey
palm (also palmy and palmlike)
palmary
palmate (and palmation)
palmer (and Palmer)
palmerworm
palmist (and palmistry)
Palmolive
psalm (also psalmist and psalmody)
qualm
salmon (also salmonoid and salmonberry)
Silent L follows A and is followed by M. William of Malmesbury was a twelfth-century English monk. Perhaps “salmon” deserves a separate listing. Interestingly, “salmonella,” pronounced with the L, is derived from the name of Daniel E. Salmon, who, presumably, pronounced his name with an L. Although “palm”—the tree or the part of the hand—is invariably pronounced without an L sound by the literate, related words, such as “palmate,” are often, though not necessarily, pronounced with an L sound. The brand name “Palmolive” was chosen for a soap made with palm and olive oils. “Psalm,” by the way, can be a noun or a verb.
  Chelmsford Silent L follows E and is followed by M. Chelmsford is a town in Essex (in England) and another in Massachusetts. Apparently, each may be pronounced with or without an L sound, though I suspect that, in the U.K., the L is seldom heard. The Essex town, which dates from Roman times, has changed its name over the years, but the E-L-M sequence has been fairly constant.  
calve
halve
salve
Silent L follows A and is followed by V. But other words with similar spelling do not have a silent L: salvation, solve, valve. “Halve” has the homonym “have.”
baulk
caulk
Faulkner
haulm
Silent L follows A-U and is followed by K. (“Baulk” is a variant of “balk,” of course.)
solder Silent L follows O and is followed by D. But we also have: bolder, colder, holder, and molder. Like “colonel,” this word has an odd history, in which the L was dropped, then added back.
folk
folksy
Norfolk
Polk
polka
polka dot
Suffolk
yolk
Silent L follows O and is followed by K. Polk, of course, was an American President. “Polka” can be pronounced with the L silent or not. The L in “polka dot,” however, is always silent.
Chisholm
Cholmondeley
holm
Holmbridge
Holme
Holmfirth
Holmes
Malcolm
Olmsted
Stockholm
Silent L follows O and is followed by M. Many readers will be unfamiliar with the British name “Cholmondeley,” pronounced, inexplicably, Chum-ley. (This 12-letter name has five silent letters, two of them vowels.) “Holm” is not often used in the U.S. It is of Scandinavian origin and refers to an island in a river. This is, of course, related to “Stockholm.” Non-silent Ls are acceptable both in “holm” and “Stockholm.” “Holmbridge,” “Holme,” and “Holmfirth” are all names of English towns on the River Holme, presumably names of Viking origin.
Lincoln Silent L follows O and is followed by N.
colonel Silent L between two Os. I doubt there is another word that follows this pattern.
could
should
would
Silent L follows O-U and is followed by D.
  yarmulke This word, denoting a Jewish skullcap, has a Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, and Turkic origin. It occurs often enough in English speech to be considered part of the English language, but I know of no other English word following a similar orthographic pattern. Dictionaries offer several alternative pronunciations for this word, but it is often pronounced with a silent L.  
  Wrocław (Wroclaw) Wrocław (Breslau in German) is a city of more than half a million people in southwestern Poland. It has, at times, been part of Germany, Bohemia, Austria, and Prussia. The name is pronounced something like “vrotswaf” or “vrotslav,” neither of which seems very natural from an American viewpoint. I suspect that Poland has other place names with a non-sounded L. (Thanks to Julia Sommer for pointing out “Wrocław,” a name I would have been unlikely to find on my own.)  


 

— LED, 3/26/2003, last revised 6/1/2013

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