Why don’t we usually Pronounce the Letter B after an M?

Good question, I’m very glad you asked. There are about ten words in English that end in –mb, but have a silent B. Off the top of my head, I can think of:

  • Bomb
  • Thumb
  • Lamb
  • Plumb
  • Limb
  • Tomb
  • Womb
  • Climb
  • Dumb
  • Jamb
  • Comb
  • Crumb

As you can see, it’s a fairly common phenomenon, but what’s the story behind it?

As is often the case with silent letters, the story begins with Well, we actually used to pronounce it. Most of these words had quite different origins (tomb from Greek, climb from Old English, bomb from Italian and not entering the language until the 17th century), but were generally pronounced in a straightforward manner, with both M and B pronounced as you’d expect them to be. In the latter years of Middle English though, the language generally became simpler, probably due to the often competing and contrasting influences of French and German, which led to many confusing pronunciations and spellings. With consonant clusters then, often the sound of one of the consonants would be removed to simplify pronunciation, as different sounds clumped together sounded increasingly ugly in terms of the developing sounds of English. This is why we often don’t pronounce the N after an M, and I think this was due to the increasing influence of the less consonant-intensive French.

Pronouncing the B came to sound a little bit clumsy, as it might do to you now. Of course this is from an English perspective, as a very common error for English learners is to pronounce the B. It’s an understandable one too, because there’s no obvious reason why it shouldn’t be pronounced, and often Romance languages have similar words with an audible B, like bomba in Italian, or, ironically enough, bombe in French. Adding to the confusion is the fact that words with silent B’s often have related words which have retained the pronunciation of the B. Climb and clamber, for example, crumb and crumble, or limb and limber (though this particular link’s debatable).

If you think about it, English is full of many more silent letters, which often have become silent for similar reasons. I won’t bore you with the details about all of those now, because what I find interesting is how willing we are to change the pronunciation of words, but not their spelling. I think this is because throughout history, the written word has always seemed like a special, sacred thing. Partly because for a long time it was so rare. Most people didn’t know how to write, and didn’t have access to the necessary materials. Writing was therefore the preserve of those with economic, political, and/or religious power. As it was so exclusive, it surely gained a certain mystique. I think it also seemed magical because it allowed us to make the abstract concrete. Spoken language is great, but for most of our history we were unable to record it, and it was thus ephemeral, existing only for moments in the air. But to write meant to bring your thoughts permanently(ish) into the world. And how could you dare mess with something so amazing!?

Even today, though we English speakers use a wide variety of accents and pronunciations of many words, we’re still quite conservative about how we spell words. You can see that in the number of people who rail against abbreviations. And though I don’t mind things like txtspk too much, I still hate to see a misspelling in a publication. And while we might not think of the written words as something as magical as we used to, we still give it a lot of respect. Reading is still seen as a slightly la-de-da pastime, and we consider a written message more important than a verbal one. You wouldn’t accept a verbal contract to start a job, would you?

So while it might seem dumb that we spell certain words with a B but don’t pronounce it, I think it’s fairly logical, based on the ways we think and feel about language, so it gets a thumbs up from me.

29 thoughts on “Why don’t we usually Pronounce the Letter B after an M?

    • It’s one of the hardest things for learners, especially if they speak a language with a similar word, but where the letter isn’t silent. Like how in French you pronounce the “b” in “plombier” (plumber).

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  1. I was thinking that the “b” must change the pronunciation in some more subtle way. For example, “tomb” is pronounced differently to “tom”. But then “plumb” and “plum” are pronounced the same, so there is no logic!

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  2. The website Morewords.com lists 51 words ending with mb, but some of those are derived from more basic words. The 27 basic words are:
    aplomb (which is related to plumb)
    bomb
    catacomb (which is not derived from comb)
    chimb (a variation of chime – I first mentally pronounced it as equivalent to chimp)
    climb
    clomb (dialectual past tense of climb)
    comb
    coomb (comb or coombe, equivalent of cwm)
    corymb (a form of flower)
    coulomb
    crumb
    dithyramb
    dumb
    gamb (which Dictionary.com doesn’t list, but M-W defines as ‘leg shank —used chiefly in heraldry, variant: gambe’)
    hecatomb (a public sacrifice of 100 oxen to the gods, any great slaughter)
    iamb
    jamb
    lamb
    limb
    numb
    plumb
    rhomb (rhombus)
    rhumb
    succumb
    thumb
    tomb
    womb.

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  3. Thanks, Niall, I’ve just found out that I’ve been pronouncing all these words wrong, and nobody has ever told me so.

    So “lamb” is like “Lamm” in German, and “plumb” sounds the same as “plum” the fruit? And the right thing to say is “there was a bom (not a “bomb”) explosion downtown” but “the city was bombarded” (not “bomarded”)? And sometimes we all play “dum” but it still hurts when your boyfriend/girlfriend … does what … you?

    Yeah, you know what, I think I’ll still pronounce the words the way I have :until now, because this is just too much.

    And you can laugh all you like, I don’t care. It’s not my fault if your language is crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly, the “b” is always silent apart from a few exceptions like “bombard(ier).” I agree it’s crazy, and there are enough people out there who also pronounce the “b” that it won’t seem weird to do so 😊.

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