A scene from the recent Tarantino movie Django Unchained has Django spelling his name then commenting “The D is silent”. But is it really? While not as explosive a question as the use of the N-word in the movie, this statement is surprisingly complicated in terms of phonological theory…and therefore worth a blog post.
Etymology and French Spelling
The most famous bearer of the name is Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist NOT of African-American or African heritage, but of Franco-Romany (“Gypsy”) heritage. Specifically, he was a Romany living in France (and that will influence how the name is spelled).
According to a New Yorker profile, the name “Django” (apparently meaning “I rise”) was the secret Romany name given to him for use among his tribe. His official name of “Jean Reinhardt” was his official name for the French government. The use of the two names made tracking individual Romany men that much trickier….
Note that the etter combination of “Dj” is the French way of spelling the English “J” sound. If Reinhardt had been from a group of Romany living outside of France, his name may have been spelled as “Jango” (no D). But that doesn’t mean that the “D” is silent.
Modern French happens to be missing both the “J” (/ǰ/ in Americanist transcription) and the “CH” (/č/) sounds. Their “J” is actually “ZH” or (/ž/ or /ʒ/), while “CH” is now “SH” or (/š/ or /ʃ/). When then need to spell the English versions, they add a /d/ to the J or /t/ to the CH. Hence French maps include the country of TCHAD (Chad) and the Indonesian capital of DJAKARTA (Jakarta).
Why? Because English CH,J are actually affricates transcribed as /tʃ, dʒ/ in IPA (or sometimes (/tš, dž/) signifying that they are complex sounds. The English “J” is said to be a /d/, but with a “zh” /ʒ/ release.
Try pronouncing both a “D” /d/ and a “J” /dʒ/ and you will find that your tongue is in the same position for both. Only the release of the tongue tip is different. The same is true for “T” /t/ and “CH” /tʃ/.
So, in conclusion: In French, the D is NOT silent.
Is the D silent in English?
Interestingly, though most English speakers do not realize the similarity of D and J until they learn phonetics. For English speakers the sound D /d/ and J /dʒ/ are distinct sounds. Further, the sound “J” is seen as a single sound (hence the Americanist transcription /ǰ/ as one symbol instead of two.
The same is also true in many languages of India, most of which write “D/J” and “T/CH” as four distinct consonants. For instance, Sanskrit “D” is द (more or less) and “J” is ज (while “T” is त and “CH” is च). There are even aspirated versions for all four sounds. From a phonological point of view, the affricates in Sanskrit act as if they were plain single stops, not complex sounds.
This is an example of an interesting phenomenon in which a phonetic signal can be interpreted in multiple ways depending on the language of the listener. For languages in which “CH,J” are phonemes , I suspect that the intuition is that they are single sounds as in the Americanist /ǰ,č/ and NOT as complex sounds. The stop component is there phonetically for sure, but the mental interpretation is different.
So, in conclusion: In English, the D MAY BE silent.