Why Don’t We Pronounce the ‘k’ in Knife???

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Spelling would be so much easier if we either pronounced the ‘k’ in words like ‘knife’, ‘knob’, ‘knit’ and ‘know’ or if the ‘k’ was just omitted.  So, why do we have an unpronounced ‘k’ in these words?  A little history, may help not only explain this anomaly but help students with remembering the correct spelling of these words.

Before the 15th century (in Old English), the ‘k’ was actually pronounced.  In this era, you would have said, “I k-now the k-night will k-nock on the k-nave’s door with his k-nife before entering.”  Even during Shakespeare’s time, the ‘k’ was still pronounced.

However, beginning in the 15th century, during the period of Middle English, speakers gradually stopped pronouncing the ‘k’.  It is not conclusively known why this occurred.  However, some researchers believe it was due to the influence of Latin and French during this period, as these languages did not include the ‘kn’ cluster.  This resulted in the ‘k’ being mispronounced or not pronounced and gradually eliminated.  Interestingly, other Germanic languages such as German, Swedish, and Dutch still pronounce the ‘k’ in words containing the ‘kn’ cluster.  In addition, some Scots also still pronounce the ‘k’ but more as a nasal type sound.

A similar change also occurred with other consonant clusters such as ‘gn’ as in ‘gnome’, ‘sign’, and ‘gnat’.  However, changes to the pronunciation of other consonant clusters led to a change in spelling such a ‘hl’ in ‘hlud’ became ‘loud’, ‘hn’ in ‘hnutu’ became ‘nut’, ‘hr’ in ‘hring’ became ‘ring’ and ‘hw’ in ‘hwenne’ became ‘when’.

The change to the ‘kn’ pronunciation resulted in such homophones such as ‘know-no’, ‘knot-not’, ‘knit-nit’, ‘knead-need’, ‘new-new’ and knight-night.

Next time you are teaching a ‘kn’ word, encourage your students to pronounce the word in Old English.

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