Why Is Colonel Pronounced Kernel?

(Last Updated On: June 1, 2018)

It’s not really any secret – English can be a tough, strange language at times. It is a language full of contradictions. Why is there no apple or pine in pineapple, or ham in hamburger? There are also many rules, and conversely, many exceptions to them. I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ – but what about ‘science’ or ‘weird’ or ‘seize’? And then there are all the homographs. A bandage is wound around a wound.

Confused yet?

If English spelling wasn’t hard enough, the pronunciation of certain words only adds to the confusion. Take the word ‘colonel’, for example. Despite having no ‘r’ in the word, in English, it is pronounced just like ‘kernel’. How does this even happen?

The Italian Colonnello

The English word colonel stems from the Italian word colonnello, which was first used around the 15th century, during the Italian Renaissance. Colonnello derives from the Italian word for ‘column’, which is columna. A colonnello, then, was the commander of a column of soldiers. Colonnello was one of many words from Italy that began to spread across Europe during this time period.

Eventually, colonnello was adopted by the French. However, when translating the word to their own language, colonnello became coronel. Why? In linguistics, this process is called dissemination. It occurs when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, and people change one of the instances to something else. In this case, the first ‘l’ was changed to ‘r’.

From France to Britain

Over time, the French word coronel made its way over to Britain. The English accent further transformed the word, overshadowing the second ‘o’, and emphasizing the ‘r’. The word eventually came to be pronounced similar to ‘kernel’ in Britain.

The Italian word colonnello was not forgetten though. By the late 16th century, scholars in Britain began producing translations of old Italian treatises. The original spelling of the word began to influence how the word was spelled in both Britain and France.

Eventually, France would switch from their coronel spelling back to ‘colonel’, which was more in line with the original Italian word. The French would even alter their pronunciation. The British weren’t so eager to switch though. While they reverted to the same spelling as the French, they kept their pronunciation with the ‘r’ sound.

Their rebellious spirit lived on, and today English speakers pronounce ‘colonel’ as ‘kernel’. Just one of many examples of why English is a crazy language.

About the Author:

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.