solder (and a bit about calm)

I've had requests from Andy J and (long ago) Doug Sundseth to cover this one. Here's an excerpt from Andy's recent email on the topic:

I watch a lot of Youtube videos which feature people who self-describe as makers (part DIYers and part semi-professional craftsmen and women). I have noticed that also without exception those based in the USA and Canada pronounce the word solder as sodder, whereas we BrE speakers would invariably sound the L in both the noun and the verb solder.
The North American variation seems at odds with the similar phonic construction in soldier or for example folder which, to my ear based on film and TV utterances, seem to be pronounced in a largely similar way to BrE, ie the L is sounded.

Before I go into the history of the word, I want to do a little bit of "here's how a linguist thinks".  Andy's got(ten) us started along the right lines here, in that (a) he talks about variation, rather than deviation, and (b) he looks for broader patterns. It's important to look for the broader patterns because we know that:
  • Where spelling clashes with pronunciation (that is, where spelling is not phonetic), the spelling often gives clues for finding an earlier pronunciation.
  • Linguistic sound changes are very often regular. That is to say, they apply across all words that would be susceptible to that change. 
(A bit on how linguists write: putting a letter between / / means I'm using the International Phonetic Alphabet —or a simplified version of it in this case— and talking about sounds. Where I'm talking about spelling, I'm using italics.)

We can illustrate those two points with the /r/ after vowels. In my inland northern American accent, I would pronounce the -er in solder with an /r/. In my spouse's London accent, he would pronounce it as an unstressed vowel /ə/ —no /r/.  That difference carries on to every word that ends in -er (and every other r that follows a vowel, actually). If we look at that spelling and those pronunciations, we are well justified in thinking that earlier English pronounced the /r/ there, and the English of southern England later stopped pronouncing it. Otherwise, why would all those r's be there in the spelling? And indeed, that's the case.

Pic from (AmE) Jewelry Making Daily
But in this case, as Andy notes, there is no evidence of a regular sound change. Most Americans don't pronounce an /l/ in solder, but if there had been a sound change that got rid of /l/ after a vowel or before a /d/, then Americans should pronounce folder as "fodder" and soldier as "sodyer", and Americans just don't do that.

In the absence of evidence for a regular sound change, we have two possibilities:
  1. the /l/ is not an original part of the pronunciation, but people started pronouncing an /l/ because they saw it there in the spelling. This happens often enough that we have a name for this kind of sound change: spelling pronunciation.
  2. the /l/ is an original part of the pronunciation, but for some idiosyncratic reason, someone started pronouncing it without the /l/ and that caught on. That can happen too.
So our question is: which of those is it?  (And does it have to be just one of those?) Here's where we have to look at the evidence from the past.

The OED gives the following historical spellings of the word (the numbers indicate the centuries in which you see those spellings):
α. ME soudur, ME soudure, soudour, sowdur, sowdowre; ME soudre, ME–15 souder, ME–16 (18 dialect) sowder (ME sowdere, 15 soweder); 18 dialect sowther. β. ME sawdur, sawdyr, 15 sawyer; ME sawd(e)re, 15 sawder (16 sawter), 15–16 saudre, 16 sauder. γ. 15–17 soder (16 soader, sodar), 16– sodder; 15 sother, 16 soather. δ. ME souldour, 15–16 soulder (15 sowl-). ε. 16 soldure, 16– solder
I've highlighted the five paths that the spelling seems to follow (indicated by the Greek letters). Why five paths? Because language is a moveable, social thing. The word shows up in English in the period when English was getting a lot of vocabulary from France (after the Norman Invasion and all that). But words don't have to just show up once. And once they do show up, they don't stay the same.And when they change, they can change in different ways in different places.

The Old French word that solder comes from is represented in the OED etymology as:
< Old French soud-, saud-, soldure (compare Italian saldatura ), < souder , etc.,
Three of the paths are  L-less (and these are the paths for which the OED has more examples—so the L-less spellings were more widespread. That's because it came into English without an /l/ sound because it mostly didn't have one in French. The Italian comparison word that has an L tells us that there's a fair chance that the French came from a Latin word with an /l/, which the French subsequently lost. And that's indeed what we find: the Latin etymon is solidare 'to make solid'. Both French and Italian dropped the Latin word's second syllable, but French did it by losing a consonant and Italian by losing a vowel.

So what about the two L-ful paths? There are (again) two possibilities (plus the possibility that it is both of these to different degrees/in different places):
  1. Maybe some of the people who brought the word to England did pronounce an /l/ in it, and so the spelling reflected that. Note the soldure spelling that existed in Old French.
  2. Maybe some scribes started inserting an L because they knew the word came from Latin and they wanted to hono(u)r its Latin roots. 
If the answer is (1), then it is possible that the minority pronunciation was what came to be standard in the spelling, and eventually that pronunciation became standard across England.  Maybe the word travel(l)ed to the US between those two standardi{s/z}ation events.

But (2) is more likely, judging from the clear history of sentimentality for Latin affecting English spelling. Here's an article by Arika Okrent on weirdly spelt words, and indeed she includes solder in the same category as debt and receipt, as victims of re-Latini{s/z}ing in the 15th and 16th centuries. The L got added into the spelling, and then later, people started pronouncing it as a spelling pronunciation.

We've seen a similar story for herb: the spelling got Latini{s/z}ed, and the English (eventually) went for a spelling pronunciation, but Americans carried on with the old pronunciation.

When did the spelling-pronunciation shift happen? After America had had its English from England (mostly).  The OED notes that Smart's 1840 pronouncing dictionary (from England) included only the /l/-less pronunciation, but it looks like this was very much a 'live' problem in the 18th and 19th centuries (when Englsih had been burbling along in America for over 100 years). The 1824 edition of Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary said this:


Click to embiggen
If you can't read that: the key point is that Johnson's dictionary of 1755 preferred spelling it without the L, but the L spelling was already well established. It acknowledges differences in opinion about the pronunciation among orthoepists [pronunciation prescribers] and that the L-less pronunciation was used by workmen, but "workmen ought to take their pronunciation from scholars and not scholars from workmen".  (Ah, social class in England...)

Solder does seem to be exactly the kind of thing whose spelling would revert to older form in AmE, so it's a little surpising we don't spell it sodder.  Noah Webster did try to change it. At solder in his 1828 dictionary there is a cross-reference to soder, which reads:


click to embiggen

It's no wonder soder didn't catch on, since it looks like it should have the same first syllable as soda. If only Webster had doubled the d.

While I've been known (to myself) to misspell it as sodder, that spelling hasn't had much traction in AmE, and neither has Webster's, as can be seen in numbers from the Corpus of Historical American English. (The Soders in the 2000s here are all someone's name.)


Interestingly, for those who find such things interesting, the addition of L to an L-less French borrowing is also why we have an L in salmon (French saumon, Latin salmo(n)), but there's been no big movements toward(s) pronouncing that L in English. This just goes to show that spelling pronunciation changes are not regular changes.

And I expect someone will have calm on their mind now. That one's pronounced with no /l/ in England but some Americans do have an /l/ in it. The vowels differ in these cases, but then most of our vowels differ, don't they? I believe my own calm varies from pronunciation to pronunciation (and probably did so even before I moved to the UK). Calm differs from solder in that it came into English from French with its L. However, it looks like not everyone was pronouncing it, since there are some caume/cawme spellings in the 1500s and 1600s.

This seems to be a case of the /l/ being lost because it's in a phonetically complicated place—between two other sonorous elements. An /l/ after a vowel/at the end of a syllable is pronounced differently than one at the front, and that back-of-the-syllable "dark /l/" often does strange things, especially in combination with other consonants. You can see (or hear) in Irish and Scottish English the evidence that /l/+consonant combinations often feel a bit unnatural. Those Englishes often sort out /l/+consonant by inserting a vowel between the consonants, which "un-darkens" the /l/.  Filmfi-lum, Colm Co-lum (you can hear that at 1:50 in this Derry Girls clip, and any excuse to watch Derry Girls should not be snubbed). English English (and French before it, it seems) has sorted this out by just not pronouncing the /l/. Whether some Americans have added it back in as a spelling pronunciaiton, or whether the /l/ came over as the original pronunciation and stayed, I'm not sure.

I've been careful to say "England" and not "BrE" in this post, since we're talking about pronunciations and they can vary more than spellings.  I've only gone with the pronunciations in the OED, so your mileage may vary. It would be interesting in particular to hear about Scottish and Irish pronunciations in the comments, since they do interesting things with /l/+consonant combinations. But also please let me know if you know of variations within England or elsewhere.

P.S.  Yes, the vowels are different too. Vowels change very easily, so that wasn't as interesting to me here. A consonant change is more of a mystery! BrE solder rhymes with folder and AmE rhymes with fodder. YouGlish is a great resource for hearing words pronounced. You can set it for AmE or BrE, and then use the 'forward' button to skip to the next pronunciation.

31 comments

  1. calm, balm, palm, half, calf - They kept springing to mind as I read. Heard Rachel Maddow pronouncing the /l/ in calm last week, and it sounded so strange. Ham radio operators are well acquainted with 'solder'! It's quite useful in electronics. -Jan

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    1. Funny, I'm watching Batwoman at the moment, and I only know of Rachel Maddow as the voice on the radio on that show.

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  2. Thanks,Lynne, for that truly comprehensive explanation.

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  3. My wife (born 1943 in North Carolina) says calm with a distinct /l/ and minimal, but present, epenthesis. This may be a sign of Scotch-Irish influence on the region, as both Scottish Gaelic and Irish (and following them, but less consistently, Scots, Scottish English, and Hiberno-English) insert an epenthetic into certain syllable-final consonant clusters whose first consonant is /l/, /r/, /n/, or /m/.

    The exact set of second consonants that exhibit this is language/dialect dependent, but generally we can say that labial and dorsal consonants usually trigger it in ScG, and coronal and dorsal consonants in Irish. The word for 'bull' is tarbh in both languages, which is phonemically /tarv/ in both, but Irish renders the /v/ as [u] without epenthesis, whereas ScG goes for epenthetic [a~ɐ]. But there are many exceptions: Glaschu 'Glasgow' often has epenthesis despite lacking the conditioning factors. There are two general features that suppress epenthesis: a long vowel or diphthong in the syllable and a voiceless/fortis stop as second element.

    OED note: In spelling-variant lists like this one, dates like 14, 15, ... 19 mean 'the 1400s', 'the 1500s', ... 'the 1900s'. However, dates like 2, 3, ... 9 mean 'the 12th century', 'the 13th century', ... 'the 19th century', and 1 means 'before the 12th century'. This can be very confusing; it's hard to realize that a spelling marked 5 in one entry is contemporaneous with a spelling marked 14 in a related entry. Fortunately, the date types are not mixed with the exception of 20, which has no single-digit form. Revised entries do not attempt to assign centuries to Old or Middle English forms.

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  4. I (southern BrE, elderly) would pronounce the "l" in solder, but would use a long "o", like soda. My grandmothers (both born in the 1890s) probably would have said "soda", had they had occasion to use the word, which I do not remember their doing. Certainly they said "goff" for "golf", and one of them said "code" for "cold", even when she didn't have one. Come to that, my father said "goff", and I tend to....

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    1. Yes, that vowel is generally true of the /l/ pronunciations. I was concentrating on the consonants because all the vowels will vary and are hard to describe!

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  5. How can the l in solder not be pronounced? Without thinking too much I can't think of another similar word in Australian English where the l would be dropped aside from salmon. In trying to pronounce the word as soder, it just sounds like an abbreviation of sodomite.

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    1. Youglish is good for hearing pronunciations: https://youglish.com/pronounce/solder/english/us?

      I can tell you, it's never made me think of 'sodomite'.

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    2. Whereas it was the first thing I thought of when I read the original post last night.

      Is the insult "sod" not used in the US? Another abbreviation of "sodomite".

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    3. And I've just watched that video. If that had been played in my classroom back in the sixties, the pupils would have giggled at that.

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    4. American living in England here. I don't think I've ever heard another American use "sod" as an insult. It's a usage I was vaguely familiar with from UK TV/films even before moving here, but until reading your post I had never realized there was a connection with "sodomite".

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    5. Thanks for the clip. Very interesting.

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  6. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. I grew up pronouncing solder as sowder, with the first syllable rhyming with cow. I would also pronounce soldier as sojjer, and I did frequently hear sodyer, in both case with the first syllable rhyming with soap. I am aware that my nieces and nephews often pronounce things differently from me, but Scotland has a fair bit of regional variation, albeit less so than England.

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  7. This is fascinating. I have done a fair bit of soldering in my work in electronics, but I have never discussed it with an American, nor is it a topic that comes up much on TV & Film, so I never knew Americans pronounced it differently. And now I am curious: if omitting the 'l' sound results in a misspelling of 'sodder', does that mean it rhymes with 'fodder'? IN BrE we have a longer 'o' in 'solder' (like adding '-er' to the end of 'sold', making it rhyme with 'colder') - so I am wondering if the American 'solder' sounds more like 'soder' (rhyming with 'loader')? And one final question, if it does rhyme with 'fodder', would the American 'sodder' sound to British ears like 'sahder'?
    On 'l'-dropping, I know a few people with local accents in the New Forest area of England who have a tendency to drop the 'l' in words like 'sold' (-> 'sowed'), 'old' (-> 'owed') and 'cold' (-> 'code'); in these same people there is also a mild vestige of west-country rhoticism.

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    1. Rhymes with 'fodder'. Enough people are asking about this, I'll put a note in the post.

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  8. I had always imagined that the "l" in solder was analogous to the "t" in often; that scholars in the 18thC had inserted a silent letter to indicate the etymology of the word and that a minority had proceeded to pronounce the word as it was now spelled.
    Am I mistaken?
    I do find it strange that no one thought to pronounce the "s" in island or the "h" in hour, or the "b" in doubt; yet many (most?) people pronounce a "t" in often. I had imagined the world "solder" was the same.

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    1. A quick look at online dictionaries reveals that the pronunciation of 'often' without the 't' is always given first when both are mentioned.

      'Owd' and 'cowd' for 'old' and 'cold' are used in the (English) East Midlands too.

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  9. The L in "salve" is always sounded in BrE but seldom in AmE.

    The L in "soldier" was also formerly silent but now sounded everywhere.

    "Colm" is an Irish [Gaelic] name and always disyllabic in that language [derived from Latin columba "dove"]. The phonotactic issues of liquid/nasal clusters are similar to English but the standard resolution is different in Irish. Consequently, there are many speakers of Irish English with monosyllabic "film" and disyllabic "Colm".

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    1. With the name Malcolm, I find that many people can't spell it (Malcom, Malcomb, Malcome). I know it's derived from Colm, but I've never pronounced it Malcolum or heard anyone use that pronunciation. Servant of St Columba and a Scottish clan.

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  10. Lynn, do you not see "spelt" as BrE? I have never seen it that way in American writing.

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    1. I don't know about Lynn, but I remember learning spelt alongside spelled in school (similarly spilt and a handful of other words with regularized -ed past tenses) and it still has some currency in spoken American English as well, though not nearly as common as the -ed variant.

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  11. "And I expect someone will have calm on their mind now. That one's pronounced with no /l/ in England but some Americans do have an /l/ in it."

    Some Americans? This may be yet another instance where I'm deluding myself about how I pronounce a word and how I hear it when others pronounce it, but I'm hardpressed to imagine many Americans (at least those in the north; the south may be a different story) pronouncing calm without the /l/.

    Also, I believe my grandfather (born in central Pennsylvania in 1900) pronounced film as fil-um -- though I was never sure whether it was merely a (self-consciously) homey affectation.



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    1. No, I'm from Colorado and I have calm with no /l/. My accent is certainly not southern, but perhaps it isn't northern either. I have a pronunciation identical to com, as in dot com.

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    2. Agree, dijek. I'm a life-long Southern Californian.

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    3. Guess I've got to com down.

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  12. In Wiltshire you hear "calm", "psalm", "Calne" with a short A, and the L sounded.
    In Devon "old" and "cold" are often pronounced "ode" and "code".

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  13. So, how does this relate to "almond"? I seem to remember hearing that Brits don't pronounce the "l" here (saying something like "ahmund"), whereas I think most Americans do, which is the exact opposite of "solder," right? I personally do not have the cot-caught merger, so "solder" and "almond" don't have the same vowel for me (having the "cot" and "caught" vowels, respectively), but I think Americans with the cot-caught merger would have the same vowel in "solder" and "almond."

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    1. Almond, in southern England at any rate, is normally pronounced "Ah-mond", with a long "a". I have heard "al-mond" with a short "a", to rhyme with "pal", but only ironically. Like saying "nugget" for "nougat" (normally pronounced "noo-gah").

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    2. The caught/cot merger is definitely a Western thing. In California, you can hear three pronunciations of "almond." I would generally say the first syllable as "all," but in much of the Central Valley (where most of the world's almonds are grown) the first syllable might be "am." And many people here also say "Ahm." It's hard for me to tell whether I pronounce those words with the same vowel. I think the dark "l" affects the vowel somewhat, or they would be the same.

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  14. BrEnglish speaker in early 70s, I'd pronounce the 'o' in solder as in sew and so. At a guess from the OED entries, I'd suspect pre-modern English pronunciations that omitted the 'l' would not have said 'sodder' but pronounced it as either 'sooda' or 'soda' pronouncing or not pronouncing the 'r' depending on whether they were otherwise rhotic speakers or not.

    As has been said, I can confirm that in local speech in the west of England, in words like 'palm', 'balm', almond' and Calne, the 'l' is pronounced, but it's more of a swallowed sound than an RP 'l'. In RP, it isn't.

    I'd normally write 'spelt' and 'spilt', as in dwelt, because to me those are the standard spellings and that is how they are pronounced. Spelling them with an 'ed' would look wrong, particularly as they aren't pronounced that way.

    I don't pronounce a 't' in 'often'.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)