Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Language of Confusion: When Language Divides By Zero

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?

Google Translate so I could hear how the Italians say “colonello.” Like it’s spelled, by the way.


  1. Colonel is definitely one of those weird words. Hated that it sounded like "kernel" Always reminded me of corn or popcorn when I was little.

  2. Dissimilation is the interesting concept and no doubt responsible for some of the confusion with the language. I've always wondered about lieutenant and the fact that in some places people say left-tenant.

  3. I agree! Teaching kids to read is kinda difficult. I can't explain to them why certain things are spelled the way they are. Lol. I must have done something right because they read well though :)

  4. Thanks for this. I always wondered about colonel, but never enough to look it up (just lazy, I guess).

  5. Well, thanks for the details!!! I never observed them!! (why??? I was sleeping in English classes!!! Ha Ha)

    Colonel => Kurnel??? Great!!

  6. I have no answers for this one, haha.
    What will our kids think of LOL speak?
    I don't know. Their language will probably be so corrupted by then, I won't even understand them.

  7. English has so many rules, but there's always an exception. Like ghot, you can pronounce that as fish. Words are interesting, but English makes some pronunciations so interesting!

  8. Probably the same thing I think of it now...

  9. Yes, English is a crazy sludgy language. So many dashes of French, along with some Middle English, a little Dutch, a pinch of Italian--it makes for a very muddy language to explain to third graders.
    I always learn something useful from you. Thanks.

  10. Interesting!


    Thanks. I'm so glad I don't use traditional ranks for my books' armies.

  11. How many of you, reading the blog, uttered the word Colonel without thinking of it?

    English... is a silly language, isn't it?

  12. One of my linguistics instructors says that she enjoys the retention of spellings with little resemblance to their pronunciations because it makes it easier to trace the ancestry of the word. Something I hadn't thought about before that.


Please validate me.