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Friday, December 15, 2017

How do you pronounce CLAMBER?

Hey Ma! I clamb the tree!!

Kittens love to clamber up trees (...and curtains). 

But... do they "CLAMburr" or do they "CLAMMER"?

First of all, let us look at the word from which "clamber" derives: "climb". Although the b was pronounced back in Anglo-Saxon times, it started being dropped by the time of the Norman Conquest, and by the 1500s it had become silent. As a result, we even sensibly spelled the word "clime" for about two centuries. But, as usual with English spelling, less sensible heads prevailed, we reinstated the silent b, and we ended up with our modern spelling.

When the past tense of "climb" was "clamb"

"Climb" has not always been the regular verb it is today: 
present: climb
simple past: climbed
past participle: has climbed
Instead, from the earliest times, the past tense was 
clamb, clumb, or clomb

and the past participle
  clumb or clomb

For some people, these forms survived into the 1800s, and according to the OED, in Scottish English this verb is to this day conjugated
 clim, clam, clum
I love it!

Starting in about 1300, though, a new regular past tense and past participle, "clim(b)ed", crept into the language, and was pretty well established by the Renaissance.

How "clamb" gave us "clamber"

But that old irregular past tense "clam(b)" is at the origin of "clamber", a word which cropped up in the 1400s.  By that time, the b was not being pronounced in "climb" (or the past tense "clamb"), so neither was it pronounced in "clamber",  which was in fact more likely to be spelled "clammer" well into the 17th century. 

But just as "climb" got its b back, so too "clamber" acquired a b in its spelling. But unlike "climb", "clamber" also acquired a b in the pronunciation, probably because almost all other English words ending in -mber have a pronounced b

Why some North Americans say CLAMMER

This introduction of a b into the pronunciation, however, happened after English colonists took the CLAMMER pronunciation with them to America. In North America, this older, b-less pronunciation of "clamber" survived. This survival of older vocabulary and pronunciation on this side of the pond frequently explains differences between North American and British English.

All the same, according to a survey I did, CLAMMER, though still healthy, especially in the US, is much less common than the b-full pronunciation. Here are the results:

US: CLAMburr: 113  CLAMMER: 46
Canada:  CLAMburr: 83  CLAMMER: 12

No one outside North America said CLAMMER. 

As you can see, although CLAMMER is the minority pronunciation in both countries, CLAMMER is more common in the US than in Canada.  For all that, a Montrealer told me she had never heard anyone saying CLAMburr. (Meanwhile a Vancouverite told me she had never heard CLAMMER!) 

All this has nothing to do with "clamour/clamor", which is a completely different word, borrowed from French in the 1400s and ultimately from Latin clāmōr (a call, shout, cry). As should be evident from the explanation above, people who pronounce "clamber" as a homophone of "clamour" are not simply confusing these very semantically different words. And those who suggest that it's wrong to pronounce it CLAMMER because then it and "clamour" would be homophones are simply ignoring the literally hundreds of homophones we have in English which rarely present an obstacle to understanding (great for punning, though).

When I worked on the entry for "clamber" in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a colleague and I were each convinced that the other's pronunciation was WRONG. Or at the very least RIDICULOUS. I said CLAMburr, he said CLAMMER. Both pronunciations ended up in the dictionary, and he and I still talk to one another. (But CLAMburr is listed first, ha!) 

All the same, one of the things you learn (or should learn) when working on a dictionary is that you have to be humble about variants other than your own (and that in fact you might not have even known about previously).  Because CLAMMER is the minority variant, some of my poll respondents who used it apologized for doing so, accusing themselves of "lazy" speech. Others who didn't use it dismissed it out of hand as "a mistake". But as you can see from the above, there are usually legitimate historical reasons for variants such as these. Just look at the fascinating facts about the English language you can unearth if your reaction is "I wonder WHY?" rather than "Well, that's just WRONG because I don't say it that way".

How do YOU pronounce "clamber" (and what variety of English do you speak)?

For the silent b in lamb, click here:

For the silent b in crumb, click here

Want to learn more fun facts about the language like this? I'm offering my Rollicking Story of the English Language course again in the New Year! You can sign up for the whole 8-week course or just drop in for the lecture(s) of your choice (so long as you book in advance). More info here:

Photo credit: Koen Eijkelenboom on Unsplash


  1. CLAMMer. My mother was from West Texas, my father from western Pennsylvania. Started school in Ottawa, then lived in Oregon, West Texas, and Washington State. I learned to pronounce clamber from my mother, whose parents were Cherokee and Irish.

  2. I'm from Calgary, and I only heard the CLAMburr version for the first time last week (over the internet, not from a Calgary local). I was worried I was wrong, but I guess my pronunciation is legit too. I don't know how I've never heard the pronounced /b/ version before though.

    1. well, it's not that common a word, and to a certain extent our brain tunes out variant pronunciations until something makes us pay attention to them.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.