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10.11: Two Unusual Spellings of [m]: < mn > and < mb >

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Two Unusual Spellings of [m]: <mn> and <mb>

1. The sound [m] is spelled <mn> in six words:

\begin{align*}& \text{autumn} && \text{condemn} && \text{hymn} \\ & \text{column} && \text{damn} && \text{solemn.}\end{align*}

In all six words the <mn> is in the same place. Is it at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the word? at the end

2. All six of these words come from Latin:

English Word Latin Source
autumn autumnus
column columna
condemn condemnare
damn damnare
hymn hymnus
solemn solemnis

Was the <mn> in the beginning, end, or in the middle of the Latin source words? in the middle

The Latin words all had the <mn> in the middle, where it was easy to pronounce the [n], but in English the <mn> is at the end of the word, where it is hard to pronounce. So we just leave out the [n] and pronounce the <mn> as [m].

3. But when you add certain suffixes to these six words so the <mn> is in the middle as it is in Latin, you pronounce both the <m> and the <n>, so the <mn> is pronounced [mn]. Say each of the following words carefully to see how the <mn> is pronounced. Then analyze each of the words into its free stem word and suffix:

Words How is <mn> pronounced? Free Stem + suffix
autumnal [mn] autumn + al
columnist [mn] column + ist
condemnation [mn] condemn + ation
damnable [mn] damn + able
hymnal [mn] hymn+al
solemnity [mn] solemn + ity

4. The sound [m] is spelled <mb> in the following eleven words:

\begin{align*}& \text{bomb} && \text{crumb} && \text{limb} && \text{tomb} \\ & \text{climb} && \text{dumb} && \text{numb} && \text{womb} \\ & \text{comb} && \text{lamb} && \text{thumb}\end{align*}

In all eleven the <mb> comes at the end of the word. All eleven come from Latin or Old English words. Fill in the blanks so as to show which modern words came from each of the Latin or Old English originals:

Original Words Modern Words with <mb>
Latin, bombus bomb
Old English, climban climb
Old English, comb comb
Old English, cruma crumb
Old English, dumb dumb
Old English, lamb lamb
Old English, lim limb
Old English, niman numb
Old English, thuma thumb
Latin, tumba tomb
Old English, wamb womb

5. Sort the eleven English words into these three groups:

Words that come from ...
a Latin word with an <mb> an Old English word with an <mb>
bomb climb crumb
thumba comb limb
dumb numb
lamb thumb

6. Just as with <mn>, sometimes you can hear the \begin{align*}<\mathrm{b}>\end{align*} in <mb> if you add a suffix to the word so that the <mb> doesn't come right at the end. Put these words together and see how the <mb> is pronounced in the longer word you make:

Stem word + suffix = New Word How is <mb> pronounced in the new word?
bomb + ard = bombard [mb]
crumb + le = crumble [mb]

The word thumb is related to the word thimble. In thimble how is the <mb> pronounced? <mb>

7. It is hard to tell why people started putting \begin{align*}<\mathrm{b}>\end{align*}'s in the words crumb, limb, numb, and thumb. But sometimes when people see a pattern, they try to make other things fit that pattern. They may have noticed the other words that end in <mb> and decided that these four ought to be spelled the same.

Teaching Notes.

The general point here is that sometimes history can help us understand some unusual spellings. The general strategy is, first, to try to explain a spelling by way of the biggest rule possible, and then, failing that, to try to explain it by way of a smaller, more local rule, and failing that, to see what the history of the word has to tell us. The most common story behind unusual spellings like <mb> and <mn> is that old pronunciations have changed, becoming simpler, while the spellings haven't changed to reflect the new pronunciation. Sounds practically always change faster than do their spellings.

There is also a strong tendency in English to let the English spelling reflect the foreign origin of the word. This is especially true of words from Latin and Greek. So the <mn> in words like column and autumn helps identify them as Latin words, just as, say, the <rh> and the <y> in rhythm help identify it as Greek. As was pointed out earlier, a mature spelling system such as ours does more than spell sounds; it also spells meanings and histories.

The study of word histories, or etymology, can be a painless way into history for students – and even into geography – as they learn when and where the Romans and Greeks lived and the Spanish and French and Anglo-Saxons. Maps and homemade, or class-made, time lines can be very useful for identifying the locations and times of these people. Nearly every student with whom I've worked on such matters, from elementary to graduate school, finds etymology, at least in small doses,interesting and strangely engaging.

Unfortunately, most elementary dictionaries are not systematic in their treatment of etymologies. If that is the case with your classroom dictionaries, I'd recommend making available to the students a recent college-level dictionary, like the American Heritage or even a relatively non-threatening bigger dictionary, like the Random House Unabridged. If you have computers in your classroom, many good dictionaries, including the American Heritage and the unabridged Random House are available on CD-ROM.

Be sure your students know how to read the etymologies in whatever dictionaries they're using. The introduction to the dictionary will explain that. Don't be too worried about the fact that some pretty obscure languages will turn up from time to time in the etymology of even a common word. For instance, if you look up, say, barbecue, in the American Heritage, you find that it came from an American Spanish word, which came from Haitian Creole and ultimately from Taino. Take heart in the fact that dictionaries are usually very fastidious about defining all of the terms they use. So in the AHD you can find an entry for American Spanish (“Spanish as spoken in the Western Hemisphere”), and you can find Haitian Creole described at the entry for Haitian (“the French patois spoken by most Haitians,” [Patois is defined in its own entry as a regional dialect, usually subliterate and often French]), and at Taino you find that it is the language of the Arawak Indians of the West Indies. It seems likely that the word barbecue was introduced into our language by early sailors to the Caribbean, probably pirates. (In fact, and oddly, the word buccaneer comes from another Caribbean Indian word that meant “to barbecue.)

Beyond the history and geography, the study of etymology is also extremely useful for the speller because it can be so helpful in identifying the elements of which a word is composed.

Item 3. Notice that the simplification of <mn> to the sound [m] is another example of the kind of simplification and easing of pronunciation of which the assimilation in prefixes is also an example.

Items 3 and 6. The reason that adding a suffix to stems that end <mn> or <mb> can change the pronunciation from [m] to [mn] or [mb] is that adding the suffix creates a syllable boundary between the <m> and <n>. When a vowel follows two consonants,the tendency in English is for the first vowel to stay in the same syllable as the preceding vowel while the second vowel joins the syllable of the succeeding vowel. Thus, hymn is [him] with [m] = <mn>, but hymnal is [him\begin{align*}\cdot\end{align*}nəl], with [m] = <m> and [n] =<n>.

Item 4. Numb actually comes from the past participle of niman, “take, seize,” which had a \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*} in it, just as the past participle of, say, sing has a \begin{align*}<\mathrm{u}>\end{align*}, sung. Notice that in dummy, derived from dumb, the \begin{align*}<\mathrm{b}>\end{align*} has disappeared.

The following is an additional lesson, dealing with another spelling of [m], somewhat like <mb> and <mn>. Many people hear and pronounce, or at least believe that they hear and pronounce, the [l] sound indicated by the spelling in at least some of the six words below. Dictionaries usually show no [l] though sometimes they will show variants – for instance, calm as [kom] and [kolm]. Since this is at best a very minor spelling, the lesson is put here in the Teacher's Edition so you decide whether or not to bring this spelling to your students' attention.

Sometimes [m] is Spelled <lm>

1. There are six common words in which [m] is spelled <lm>:

\begin{align*}& \text{almond} && \text{alms} && \text{embalm} \\ & \text{palm} && \text{salmon} && \text{psalm}\end{align*}

Below we give you the Old English or Latin words that these six come from. See if you can figure out which of the six came from each of the original words listed below, and fill in the blanks:

Original Words Modern Words with <lm>
Latin, balsamum
Latin, psalmus
Latin, salmo
Latin, amandula
Latin, palma
Old English, ælmesse

2. Now sort the six modern words into these two groups:

Modern words with ...
<lm> in the original word no <lm> in the original word

3. In the original Old English and Latin words the <lm> used to be pronounced. But gradually people quit pronouncing the <l> in these words, so in them we can say that [m] is spelled <lm>.

Original Words Modern Words with <lm>
Latin, balsamum balm
Latin, psalmus psalm
Latin, salmo salmon
Latin, amandula almond
Latin, palma palm
Old English, ælmesse alms

2. Now sort the six modern words into these two groups:

Modern words with ...
<lm> in the original word no <lm> in the original word
psalm balm
salmon almond

Teaching Note. The <l> in almond appears to be due to the fact that people assumed that this was an Arabic word and thus had the initial <al> common to Arabic nouns: alcohol, algebra, alkali, etc.

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