"kn" in "knee"

  • buddingtranslator

    Senior Member
    English, England
    That's a very good question and one that I had never previously considered. Perhaps the silent k originates from Anglo-saxon times? Also, could the k be placed there in order to differentiate between written words, for example know and now.

    I would be interested if anyone knew the answer to this.

    BT
     

    ps139

    Senior Member
    NYC
    USA, English
    I'm subscribing because I would like to know too. :)

    The following may be related, may not be:

    KN of know is there because of the Greek or Roman roots of the word. Greek "gnosis" .. and I'm not sure what the Latin is, but we see it's descendents "conocer" and "conoscere" (Sp. & It.). My guess is that when this word first came into English, the K was pronounced... have no idea when it dropped out though. I believe knee reflects probably the same phenomenon, but that is pure conjecture.
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    I don't know the exact date the "k" in words like knee and knife became silent, but I do know that they were pronounced in Middle English, Chaucer's time (1343–1400).
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    I'm subscribing because I would like to know too. :)

    The following may be related, may not be:

    KN of know is there because of the Greek or Roman roots of the word. Greek "gnosis" .. and I'm not sure what the Latin is, but we see it's descendents "conocer" and "conoscere" (Sp. & It.). My guess is that when this word first came into English, the K was pronounced... have no idea when it dropped out though. I believe knee reflects probably the same phenomenon, but that is pure conjecture.
    The origin goes back to common Indo-european roots.

    English knee and Latin genu have the same Indo-european roots. The German cognate is Knie.

    Compare English know and Latin cognoscere.
    The k sound is preserved in can, cunning, ken, and in acknowledge.
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,
    Exactly when did the "k" in "kn" words like "knee", "knead" etc. become silent?​

    I tried to look up a few things.
    All scholars agree that kn- was pronounced in Old English times up to the Middle English period. Most sources agree that Chaucer would have pronounced 'knee' with the initial 'k', as pointed out by rsweet already. In the Early Modern English period, roughly 1500-1650/1700, the cluster kn-/gn- disappeared / started to disappear. When 'exactly' seems to be a matter of debate.

    This pdf-file might give us an indication:
    Shakespeare did make a pun relating “knight” to “night,” which strongly suggests that it may have been silent by his time.
    Alas, the paper doesn't give more information on the play (or poem). Maybe this one.
    But it is this kind of circumstantial evidence that could give a clue. Shakespeare could only make this joke, if it was widely enough known among the public. The explanation of RandomHouse WotD, however, doesn't seem to agree with this dating.
    [It's just a guess, but I think Sir John Cheke's text "Our tongue clear and pure" (1561) and his (very partial) translation of the Bible is worth checking out. Alas, I cannot find either text. Cheke was one of the people who wanted to get rid of "various silent letters" in writing. If you or somebody else could find those texts and could sort out which "various silent letters" he exactly meant, then you can narrow down the period for the disappearing of the k in kn-.]

    What's not a matter of debate is that such processes can start very early (this pronunciation guide on Middle English tells us to pronounce kn- in word initial position 'very softly', which could be an indication that the author of that guide already believes the kn- started to 'fade away'), and very slowly. It has to spread over a large area, some dialects must have kept the kn- sound longer than others (up till modern days??).

    Groetjes,

    Frank
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins records that 'knickers' was coined as a word in 1882. A writer in the magazine Queen in 1882 wrote 'flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat'.

    I would hazzard a weak guess that the k may have been pronounced at that time or the spelling may have been changed with the introduction of the new word.

    .,,
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,
    The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins records that 'knickers' was coined as a word in 1882. A writer in the magazine Queen in 1882 wrote 'flannel knickers in preference to flannel petticoat'.
    I would hazzard a weak guess that the k may have been pronounced at that time or the spelling may have been changed with the introduction of the new word.
    It could also be a matter of analogy.
    'Knicker' goes back to the Low German name Knickerbocker. In Low German the kn- is pronounced. I think the early 19th century is a bit late anyway.
    Another example that seems to indicate the loss of k- happened (or at least started in what would become 'standard English') centuries before can be found here: knob (14th C) and nob (17th C).

    Groetjes,

    Frank
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    Otto Jespersen's A Modern English Grammar On Historical Principles. (Part 1: sounds and spellings) (1909) quite firmly states that the loss of k before n "began late in the 17th century". He also mentions a dictionary of 1679 which gives as homonyms knave / nave, knight / night, knead / need.

    It contradicts the Shakespearian (+1616) pun on knight / night mentioned in a previous mail, but it's also a bit weird to me that the mentioning of a source is taken as the starting date of such a phenomenon. I think the 1679 source indicates that by then the loss was widely accepted, not that it started in those years.

    Groetjes,

    Frank
     

    panjandrum

    Occasional Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    The OED has an entry for kn- which includes:
    In English, the k is now silent, alike in educated speech and in most of the dialects; but it was pronounced apparently till about middle of the 17th c. In the later 17th and early 18th c., writers on pronunciation give the value of the combination as = hn, tn, dn or simple n.
     

    Frank06

    Senior Member
    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Hi,

    It's nice to have a look at all those various sources and compare them :).
    Panjandrum's mail inspired me to have a look at the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1966-1969):
    kn-
    reduced in standard Eng. to n, which was finally established XVIII, though current earlier.
    Groetjes,

    Frank
     
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