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My impression is that the concept of a silent "n" is quite common in many different languages/linguistic families . What is the reason that the "silent n" is so common in language as opposed to other sounds? Also, can someone bring examples of languages other than those related to English which have this phenomenon (particularly Semitic languages)?

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    Could you give us some examples? – fdb Sep 27 '15 at 9:13
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    Yes, what do you mean? I can only think of a few rare examples in English, mostly after "m" like "damn," "hymn," "column." Is this what you mean? – brass tacks Sep 27 '15 at 10:04
  • Yes, those are examples. So are autumn, solemn. I'm sure there are more words. (I can't think of one without a m before the n). – Reb Chaim HaQoton Sep 27 '15 at 11:25
  • I think this is specific to those languages that have preserved a particular writing system for long enough that language change has produced a mismatch between writing and the actual language. Very few of the world's languages have had a writing system in common use for long enough that this can happen, so I suggest that the kind of situation you describe is actually very rare, and the particular situation ('silent' <n>) is extremely rare. – Gaston Ümlaut Sep 28 '15 at 6:06
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The phenomenon is called Consonant Clusters. They exist in quite a few languages, including the ancient ones. With the course of language's evolution, contraction may occur, effectively changing the phonetic value of these clusters.

English

Reduction of /mb/ and /mn/. Where the final cluster /mn/ occurred, this was reduced to /m/, as in column, autumn, damn, solemn. — Wikipedia

The same Wikipedia article also refers many other consonant clusters of English and rules of their (modern) pronunciation.

There are also academic works on the subject:

  • Heinz J. Giegerich (1992) researches consonant clusters in terms of generative phonology;
  • Peter Roach (2002) — a more traditional structural analysis of possible phoneme combinations;

Note that the phonological value of consonant clusters may vary even within the same language, across its various dialects.

Other languages

As consonant clusters exist in many languages, they may appear contracted in different ways.

Greek language has variety of consonant clusters and quite a complicated set of rules of their contraction. Most notable one is maybe ντ = /d/:

  • Ντέμης /Demis/, an equivalent of men's name Dennis;
  • Αντωνης /Adonis/, an equivalent of men's name Anthony;
  • αντεννα /adena/ "antenna";

You may find a comprehensive list of Greek consonant clusters here.

Thai also has consonant clusters and they are often reduced in informal speech. Most notably, [kr], [kl], [kʰr], and [kʰl] are retracted to [k] and [kʰ], correspondingly:

  • ครับ [kʰráp], an affirmative/polite particle, is often pronounced [kʰáp].

Summary. The consonant clusters exist in many languages. They may appear contracted (reduced) in various manners within the language or its dialects. Each language has its own laws of phonetic harmony, and such contraction occurs according to these laws.
There's no common rule, except the statement that the phenomenon exists.

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    Historically, consonant clusters do change, and there are some common phenomena, but every history is different. Latin /kl/ changed to Spanish ll (clavis, llave 'key'), and internal dual-stop clusters geminated in Italian (factum, fatto 'done'), for instance, but these didn't happen in the other language. Cluster reduction is a big part of fast speech rules, and those in turn provide most of the input for people learning the language as children, so they get more and more standard with every generation. And more and more arbitrary, too. – jlawler Sep 27 '15 at 15:27
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Final consonant cluster reduction happened in English, and most of the '-mn-' examples mentioned in the above comments did not survive into modern Spanish or French either (unless they were re-borrowed from Latin), although they lost /m/ instead of /n/. It's possible that process had already started when the words were entering English.

Specifically for deletion of the sound /n/, there is the example of the n-apocope in Germanic dialects.

Specifically for Semitic languages it seems unlikely there would be very similar processes, due to importance of triconsonantal roots.

See also: Korean dialects

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    It depends what you mean by "similar processes". In Hebrew, the niph'al (which usually has a passive meaning) takes an initial /n/ (eg nikhtav "was written" from ktv). But in the imperfect (the future, in Modern Hebrew), which is formed with prefixes, this /n/' is assimilated to most following consonants; so yikkatev "will be written" (< yinkatev, with the geminate realised in Modern Hebrew as an unlenited plosive) . – Colin Fine Sep 27 '15 at 21:33
  • I think we can agree this is not at all similar to the /n/ in autumn (where the root is affected, and the sound is lost in the base form), but in fact what the OP @reb-chaim-haqoton wants to know. – Adam Bittlingmayer Sep 28 '15 at 8:44

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