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Silencing the ‘L’ in salmon

It is not unusual to hear speakers of English as a foreign language loudly pronouncing the many silent letters in English. Finns, coming from a phonetic language, often excel at sounding these silent letters. Living and teaching English in Finland, I have heard no better or worse example of this than the firmly sounded ‘L’ in salmon by a number of Finns, often with an otherwise good level of English.

When pointing out the silent ‘K' in knife or knee, I have found Finns to be quite receptive and soon quick to correct themselves. As for the ‘L’ in salmon, however, attempting to silence it has at times appeared a futile task. It is a deeply-rooted habit and Finns have occasionally questioned whether I, a native English teacher with two degrees in English, am misinformed or perhaps joking about the silent ‘L’. After all, Finns often point out, they learnt to pronounce the ‘L’ at school.

The realisation that their Finnish teacher of English may have not set the best example is swiftly followed by mild embarrassment as the student ponders the many years spent confidently saying /ˈsal+mɒn/ instead of /ˈsamən/.

This brings us to the second problem for Finns pronouncing salmon, which arises from the fact that the ‘o’ in salmon is an unstressed vowel sound. For Finns, this is particularly problematic as the schwa (the language term for an unstressed vowel sound) is entirely absent from the Finnish language. Consequently, the word is frequently sounded as /ˈsal+mɒn/, with the ‘o’ as in hot.

The correct way to say salmon:


The wrong (and very popular) way to say salmon:


Hear the word pronounced correctly….

The bigger picture

As English continues its growth as the world’s chosen language for doing business, pronouncing silent letters might in time even become the accepted way. Whatever native-speaking English cultures and authorities such as the Oxford English Dictionary might argue, English is under no one’s particular control, particularly when it comes to pronunciation. Indeed, by this measure, new silent letters are not exactly barred from entering the language. Presently, however, to say /ˈsal+mɒn/ is destined to sound rather comical, therefore, best avoided. If you’re Finnish and nervous about getting this right, order whitefish. The effortlessly silent ‘H’ will cause no trouble.

Where did the silent ‘L’ in salmon come from in the first place?

A little background….

It might amuse Finns to know that before the 15th century there never was an ‘L’ in salmon to worry about. In Middle English (1066-1500s ) the most likely spellings were either samon or samoun. Even the invading Normans in 1066 used the Old French saumon. The ‘L’ arrived much later and did not become an established part of English until the invention of the printing press (Guttenburg 1440) enabled the creation of the earliest English dictionaries in the 16th century. The compilers of these dictionaries faced an altogether messy language lacking commonly agreed ways to pronounce and spell. By importing the ‘L’ from the Latin salmo, a member of the salmonid family, the evolving language of English aspired, like the country itself, to greater status (ever popular in the land of Hyacinth Bucket). It was intended that the ‘L’ should, in fact, be sounded. Ordinary people, though, not owning a library, a dictionary, let alone possessing the ability to read or write, just kept on saying the word as they had been for centuries. Some early dictionaries even diplomatically suggested that it was acceptable to pronounce the word with or without sounding the ‘L’. But who reads dictionaries?

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