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The Nature of Words
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The Nature of Words

by Laurel Stoddard, CET


Our language is a nation of immigrants every bit as much as our country is. A recent musing was to wonder why we pronounce the W in "sweet," "swear," "swim," "swarm," even "sward," yet not in "sword." Then there's the question of why "suite" has a W sound and "suit" doesn't.

The reason for the silence of the W in "sword" is not obvious to me. Its etymological heritage goes back to the 10th century, coming to us by way of the Old English sweord, related to the Dutch zwaard and the German Schwert, from Old Norse sverth. I Googled the question of the silent W, and one suggestion was simply that people got lazy and quit pronouncing the W, and that caught on.

The word "suite" arises from the Old French siute, apparently as a metathetic variant; i.e., somebody started transposing letters, and that became the preferred pronunciation, somewhere in the latter part of the 17th century.

The word "suit" found its home in the English language in the latter part of the 13th century, coming from Middle English siute, sute, suite by way of Anglo French, related to the Old French sivre, to follow, hence the phrase "follow suit."

While "suit" and "suite" have similar roots, the paths of their pronunciation diverged somewhere hundreds of years ago.

Of course, each of us has only to take a look back into our own genealogy to see the progression of spelling and pronunciation of surnames to get some sense of how fluid is the language we attempt to pin down precisely on the page every day.

Laurel came of age in a small town in north Texas and ventured fewer than 30 miles, though worlds away, to attend a small Presbyterian liberal arts college, from whence she obtained a bachelor's degree in biology. Her first literary accomplishment was a letter, at the age of 5, to request that her parents allow her and her sister to open early just one volume of the encyclopedias that were awaiting Christmas morning. She remains passionate about words. Owner of On the Record Reporting & Transcription, she has worked in the industry since 1984.



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