Knight versus Night

Have you ever wondered why we have silent k’s in words that begin “kn”? Words like knife, knight, knock, knob are all pronounced without the “k” sound at the beginning. In Old English, the k was not silent. Knight was pronounced “k’nite”, knob as “k’nob”, and so on. At some point people decided that this pronunciation was too difficult for English speakers and the k-sound was dropped. We think the switch happened sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries. In Shakespeare’s time, English speakers were still pronouncing the “k”.

(As an aside – in Old English the “k” was actually written as a “c” – knight was cniht, etc… There was a change in spelling due to the influence of Norman French spelling… but that is a discussion for a later date.)

(Another aside – some Scots still pronounce the silent “g” and “k” in these words. It’s a nasal-ish sound in their pronunciation.)

This happened with other consonant clusters as well. Some examples are: gn, hl, hn, hr, and hw. The “gn” remains in our current spellings (gnome, gnarled, gnash), but the others (hl – hlud = loud, hn – hnutu = nut, hr – hring = ring, hw – hwenne = when) have disappeared.

At this point it would be difficult to get rid of the “k” – how would we differentiate between (k)now and now? Would we pronounce them the same? Would we pronounce them differently but spell them the same? And what about (k)night and night? Those have the same pronunciation, and would even have the same spelling if we dropped the “k”. This could cause quite a confusion in phrases like, “it’s my lucky night!” What do you mean – man in shining armor, or hours of darkness?

It’s still a mystery exactly why this change happened. The most likely cause is that a few people began mispronouncing the word and the blunder spread, eventually replacing the original manner of speaking. Another hypothesis is that it’s the result of foreign influences. England was expanding its sovereignty around this time (16th-17th centuries) and encountering many new languages which it began to assimilate.

Other Germanic languages like German, Swedish, and Dutch kept the “k” and they still pronounce it. It’s hard to say why English speakers decided that the “k-n” sound was too difficult. Just another mystery of language.

I’m always open to questions if you want an explanation of an English (or other language) idiosyncrasy. I will also resume the discussion of the language and thought connection in the near future. Until then, happy speaking/reading/writing.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Fascinating! I love this! What about mnenomic?! m-nemonic??

  2. 2

    The /hw/ hasn’t completely disappeared from English. In many Southern American dialects, the wh-question words, whale, and others retain the /h/ phoneme with historical accuracy. I don’t know at wHich point the “h” and “w” graphs switched places in the orthography, though. Do you know, per chance?

  3. Maggie #

    Ah, thanks for the info 🙂

    Tricky question… I know it was sometime in the Middle Ages. “Whereabout” is from 1300 so it was probably before then. “Whatsoever” is from 1250; “somewhat” is from 1200. (I just got those from etymonline.) The switch happened to align the spelling with other switches – ch, ph, sh, th. More here –

  4. Alek Storm #

    Why the “k” disappeared from the “kn” consonant cluster isn’t “just another mystery of language”; it’s very simple. The /k/ sounds is a velar plosive, while /n/ is an alveolar nasal. They are produced, roughly, in opposite sides of the mouth. One of them had to go.

  5. 5

    What a perfectly scientific explanation.
    Keep your thinking hat always on.


  6. 6

    My teacher at Uni suggested that words ending in -ght were derived similarly from the german -cht (which makes sense for words like eight (acht) and night (nacht)) and the -ght would have also been pronounced.

    The h-wen appears to have been derived from quhen, quhere, quhile, quho, quheel … which are vaguely similar to quand, que, quo… quhen is found in old Scottish books.. and you can search for it in Google Books.

    My favourite diametrically opposite plosive word is Shawaqp – ‘carrot’ in a dying/dead language called Squamish. The final sound is a /k/ and a /p/ pronounced somehow at the same time.


  7. Christine A Miller #

    How about the fact that some names of Scandinavian origin DO pronounce the K in front of the N?

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