The Mystique of Double Consonants

Double consonants can be confusing in English because often they are pronounced exactly the same as single consonants. In this regard, it would perhaps be much easier for those who are writing in English were like Italian, which has double consonants, although the consonants are lengthened when they are doubled. Hence, speakers can hear the doubling. Curiously, although the doubling of English consonants cannot usually be heard, often doubling (or lack thereof) can affect the pronunciation of the preceding vowel. For instance, "a" is pronounced differently in "scarring" and "scaring," even though the "r" is pronounced identically in both words.

Spanish tends not to have double consonants except in the case of "r" and "l." "rr" is treated as a separate letter of the Spanish alphabet, pronounced as a longer, more strongly trilled version of the singular "r." Furthermore, "ll" is pronounced entirely differently from "l," with the former sounding very similar to "y" and the latter sounding similar to the English "l." Consonants that are doubled in French, Portuguese in German tend to sound the same as the singular counterparts, with the notable exception of "s," which often sounds like an English "z" in the singular and an English "s" in the plural.

There are so-called rules that govern the doubling of English consonants in verb stems when followed by "-ing" or "-ed." For instance, one-syllable words ending in a "consonant-vowel-consonant" sequence (such as "rub" or "stun") undergo doubling ("rubbed," "stunned"). In two-syllable words, if the stress is on the second syllable, then the consonant in which the root ends is also doubled ("admit">"admitting"). The rules are described in greater detail here.

But this is not the whole story, as there are dialectal variations. For instance, "final -l is always doubled after one vowel in stressed and unstressed syllables in (Commonwealth) English but usually only in stressed syllables in American English". Hence, while most, if not all, dialects of English have "rebel">"rebelled," American English has "travel">"traveled" and Commonwealth English has "travel">"travelled." To confuse matters, American English occasionally doubles "l" in roots where Commonwealth English does not. Thus, American English has "skillful," 'enroll," and "fulfill," while Commonwealth English has "skilful," "enrol," and "fulfil" (although "skill" remains "skill" in most, if not all dialects).

With all of this orthographical chaos, it should come as no surprise, then, that "misspell" is commonly misspelled as "mispell" even by native English speakers!

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I happened to be in the throes of a terrible Scrabble binge, playing promiscuously with friends and strangers online. Once a fever catches you in Scrabble, it's hard to shake.