I was listening the other day to “Reply All,” a podcast about the Internet, and P.J. Vogt, the reporter/host, had occasion to say the word often. I was pretty confident that I knew how he was going to pronounce it. After all, Vogt is young (I would judge in his early 30s), and speaks with vocal fry, list lilt, uptalk, and, generally, a pronounced Ira Glass-esque lack of slickness.
In other words, I knew he would say off-ten, pronouncing the t.
And he did.
A good deal of history is embedded in his choice. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that the word often became commonly used (supplanting oft) only in the 15th century, and that in the 16th and 17th, it was sometimes said with the t voiced, sometimes not. Queen Elizabeth I said offen (the dictionary doesn’t say how it knows this), and that pronunciation became the accepted one. In the blog Daily Writing Tips, Maeve Maddox quotes John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, published in 1791: “in often and soften the t is silent.”
John Keats seemed to be assuming such a pronunciation in lines he wrote for a draft of Endymion (1818):
”... O foolish rhyme! / What mighty power is in thee that so often / Thou strivest rugged syllables to soften ... “
(My colleague Charles Robinson, a Romantics scholar, cautions, “I would agree that he probably pronounced often without the t — but you cannot prove it from the rhyme. Remember, there are partial and sight and near rhymes — so even if he did pronounce it off-ten, it would still ‘rhyme’ with soffen.”)
But the t version would soon revive. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “With the rise of public education and literacy and, consequently, people’s awareness of spelling in the 19th century, sounds that had become silent sometimes were restored, as is the case with the t in often.”
The dictionary is noncommittal about the shift, but in the 20th century, usage commentators often got exercised about off-ten. H.W. Fowler wrote in Modern English Usage (1926) that the t-voiced version was “practised by two oddly consorted classes — the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours’ … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Alan S.C. Ross’s “Linguistic Class-Indicators in Present-Day English,” the 1954 essay that coined the terms “U” (upper-class) and “non-U” (everyone else), put off-ten decidedly in the non-U camp.
Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1957) quotes a contemporary edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary as calling the t-pronunciation “vulgar.” He adds: “It is certainly unnecessary and is usually due to an affectation of refinement.”
There is a regional as well as a class element to this, at least in the United States. The Dictionary of American Regional English quotes a 1928 issue of American Speech: “The Ozarker nearly always pronounces the t in often.” And DARE also cites the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (1989) as reporting 453 informants who said the t as opposed to 290 who did not.
Data on pronunciation, as opposed to writing, are hard to come by, but I did my best. I listened on YouTube to 12 versions of the opening line of “On the Street Where You Live” — “I have often walked on this street before.” It was offen in both the My Fair Lady original cast album and the movie soundtrack, and in the renditions by Vic Damone, Etta Jones, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole, Harry Connick Jr., Dean Martin, and Willie Nelson (whose version is my favorite). Only Tom Jones (a Welshman), Nancy Wilson (African-American, born in Ohio), and Smokey Robinson (African-American, born in Detroit) sang off-ten.
“Birches” by Robert Frost, has the lines:"Often you must have seen them/Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning/After a rain.” Frost says offen.
As I suggested at the outset, it’s my sense that in recent years, young people have become partial to off-ten. The language blogger Jan Freeman agrees and offers anecdotal support:
I’ve been interested in this one since my daughter, brought up as an OFF-en speaker, went to college at the University of Michigan and came back saying OFF-ten. I don’t think it’s a regional thing — I grew up two hours south of Ann Arbor, and I don’t remember OFF-ten even as a variant. It must have been something she picked up from friends.
To at least pseudo-scientifically test this proposition, I met individually with the undergraduates in the class I’m currently teaching and asked them to read aloud the sentence, “Experience has shown that first impressions are often lasting ones.” Eight said off-ten and five said offen. (Obviously, their pronunciation may have been affected by seeing the t on the piece paper in front of them, or by self-consciousness.)
Whence the appeal of this pronunciation? All I know is that it seems of a piece with the popularity of amongst, whomever, saying “a person that” instead of “a person who,” pronouncing either as eye-ther, and the spellings grey and advisor. These are all changes in previously accepted usage that seem more formal, British, and/or fancier, and (in off-ten and the first three examples) are slightly longer. I leave to greater minds than mine the question of why these qualities are desirable.
In any case, in keeping with these trends, the question of how to pronounce often may soon cease to matter. Just as it replaced oft back in the day, it is being supplanted — if my students’ work can be trusted — by an amongst-ish antique word. That’s right, I’m talking oftentimes.