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Why English Has Words With Silent Letters

Why do we have words with silent letters?

By
Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
August 21, 2015
Episode #478

Page 1 of 3

Words With Silent Letters

The English spelling system is famous for not making sense. The phonetic ideal of having each letter represent exactly one sound, and each sound represented by exactly one letter, is impossible when English has about 45 sounds, or phonemes, and only 26 letters to represent them. But more than that, any language that has been written for a long enough time will have spellings that haven’t caught up with modern pronunciations, because pronunciations change. 

English has been written for about 1,300 years, which is plenty of time for these mismatches to accumulate. One of the more frustrating signs of these spelling mismatches is English’s abundance of silent letters. With a conservative definition of silent letter, more than half of the letters of our alphabet are silent in at least some words. In alphabetical order, they are B, D, E, G, H, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, W, X, and Z. Today, we’ll find out the stories behind some of these silent letters. 

Silent E

We’re mostly going to talk about silent consonant letters, but we can’t talk about silent letters without acknowledging the most famous silent letter in English: silent E. Some silent letters appear in just a few words, but silent E appears so regularly that there’s even a spelling rule about it: A silent E at the end of a word makes the preceding vowel long. A long vowel sounds like its name, like the A in the word name, and a short vowel sounds weaker, like the A in the word car. [long, aye, short, ah]

According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, this rule has its origins in the early part of the Middle English period—in other words, in the 11th century. In those days, English used suffixes much more than it does now to show if a word was singular or plural or if it was being used as the subject of a sentence or an object. For example, hus [“hoose”], spelled H-U-S. meant just “house,” but huse [“HOOSE-uh”], spelled H-U-S-E, meant “to a house.” However, in the Middle English period, that final “uh” sound got dropped completely, so that whether the word was spelled H-U-S or H-U-S-E, it was pronounced “hoose.” 

Still, that didn’t stop people from writing that final E. As Crystal writes, “Although the final [uh] sound disappeared, the -e spelling remained, and it gradually came to be used to show that the preceding vowel was long. This is the origin of the modern spelling ‘rule’ about ‘silent e’ in such words as name and rose” (p. 42). 

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