Today, I’d like to talk about a word that has bothered me ever since I was a child. That word is colonel, which is inexplicably pronounced “kurnel.”
There are parts of the English language that I’ve found an interesting development—silent letters, dual pronunciations (soft c versus hard c), the fact that pronounced has an o but pronunciation doesn’t, that –tion is pronounced “shun.” But none of those compare to the fact that “olo” sounds like “ur.” The whole thing reminds me the time my friend Roman once insisted his name was pronounced ‘Frank.’
So why does this word fly in the face of common sense? Let’s find out.
First of all, word first showed up in English in the 1540s as coronell, from the Middle French coronel. This word is from Italian (ooh! Something different!), where the word is colonnella—column. Before you get too confused, colonnella is from compagna colonella, little column company. The commander of a column (or company) of soldiers.
When it was adapted to the French, the syllables underwent a modification called “dissimilation,” where a sound (like colo-) becomes less like a neighboring sound (-nella). Instead of colonella there was coronel, and from there it’s easy to see how cor-nel became cur-nel.
The question is: why did the spelling not evolve? It just didn’t. I think colonel is a great example of the somewhat arbitrary nature of spelling. We kept the dissimilated French pronunciation, but went further back to the Italian for the spelling. Because we wanted to.
Maybe it’s not that strange. In four hundred years, what do you think our descendants will think of LOL speak?
SourcesGoogle Translate so I could hear how the Italians say “colonello.” Like it’s spelled, by the way.