Comfortably Numb

Yesterday, I picked up a bargain at a Record & CD Fair: an old vinyl copy of Pink Floyd‘s The Wall for 38. Considering it’s a double album, that’s not such a bad deal. The second-most famous song on the album is probably “Comfortably Numb.” Listening to it last night reminded me of how odd that word comfortably sounds…

And comfortable too, of course. Looking at it, you’d think it had four syllables, and that’s what most English learners assume. They also might pronounce that last syllable identically to the word table.

But if you’re a native English speaker, chances are that you pronounce the word much more quickly than it looks, probably with a mere three syllables. Cumfturbly, or cumftuhbly, if you have a non-rhotic accent. English words not quite sounding how you expect them to based on thir spelling is nothing new, but this is an interesting case, because the spelling of comfortable is so straightforward. It’s four simple syllables, with no combinations of letters which could be ambiguous. Why does it sound so different from how it looks then?

The simple answer is, the way most of us pronounce it is shorter and easier than pronouncing it phonetically. Try pronouncing each syllable: you’ll get sick of the word before you get to the end. And imagine trying to sing I have become com-for-ta-bly numb. But pronouncing it with three syllables rolls off the tongue much more easily.

A lot of that is also probably due to it matching the everyday sounds of English speech throughout history. Comfortable is derived from Latin and entered the English language from French. In both languages, long, deliberately-pronounced words are quite commonplace, and match the rhythms of the language (confortable in French, for example, has four easily-distinguished syllables). Such a long word was never quite a, well, comfortable fit for the Germanic tongues of English speakers though, and we naturally shortened it over time.

Easy for us to do, but not so easy for learners to learn the pronunciation, particularly if they’re learning mainly by reading. Just another reason to learn English by listening to Pink Floyd then!

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