Why English Has Words With Silent Letters

Why do we have words with silent letters?

Neal Whitman, read by Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #478

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). 

Changing Rules

Many silent consonant letters represent consonants that were actually pronounced at one time, but fell victim to changing phonotactic rules. 

What’s a phonotactic rule? It’s a rule that describes the way sounds can be arranged in the words of a language. For example, one phonotactic rule of present-day English is that you don’t have a long U sound before the ng sound. So although ring, rang, and rung are all good English words, roong is not only not an English word; it’s not even a possible English word. 

One phonotactic rule that changed has to do with where you can have an H sound. Say the word hug. It begins with the H sound, right? Now say the word huge. What sound does it begin with? H again? Well, yes and no. It’s true that we hear it as an H, but it’s not the same kind of H that we have in hug. That H is made by just letting air flow past your vocal cords, down in your neck. The H in huge, though, is made by raising the body of your tongue up close to your palate, and forcing air through that constriction. 

In present-day English, we only pronounce H at the beginnings of words, but in Old English, the H pronounced with your tongue close to your palate could also appear in the middle of a word or at the end. It was spelled as an H in Old English, and as a GH in Middle English, and even after English speakers stopped pronouncing those palatal H’s, the spelling remained. We know it today as the silent GH in words such as thought, (k)night, and through.

Phonotactic rules also deal with consonant clusters, and in English, these rules are pretty picky. With 23 consonant sounds, more than 500 consonant clusters are possible, but English uses only about 40, and some of those appear only in proper nouns, such as Gwen, or in borrowed words like schlep and sriracha. But in the past, English used to have quite a few more consonant clusters than it does now. One cluster that has disappeared is KN, which gives us the silent K in words such as knife, knee, and knowledge. Knife, for example, used to be pronounced “ka-NEEF.” Another long-lost cluster is WR, which has given way to the silent W in words such as wrong, wreath, and wrestle. Yet another consonant cluster that English doesn’t have anymore is GN, which is the source of the silent G in words such as gnaw, gnat, and gnarly. 

Greek Borrowings

The word gnome also comes to mind when you think of silent G, but that’s not from Old English. It’s from Greek, which brings us to another source of silent letters. Classical Greek allowed several other consonant clusters that violate modern English phonotactic rules. As a result, Greek borrowings that begin with these clusters get simplified by losing that first consonant. In addition to the GN cluster of gnome and Gnostic, Greek had several clusters beginning with P. The cluster PN appears in pneumonia, and PS in words such as psalm and psychiatry. The cluster PT shows up in the root pter-, which means “wing,” in words such as pterodactyl.

This word root pter- brings us to the phenomenon of silent letters that are magically revealed in the right phonetic situations. Notice that we pronounce that P with no problem at all when it has a vowel before it, in words such as helicopter and Lepidoptera, the scientific name for the order of butterflies. What’s happened is that the PT cluster has been split apart. The P ends up at the end of a syllable—cop or dop, to be specific—and the T ends up at the beginning of the syllable ter. The same thing happens with the Greek root mnem-, meaning “mind.” The M is silent in mnemonic, but in the word amnesia, it gets pronounced as the end of the syllable am

All the clusters we’ve talked about so far come at the beginning of a word, but there are also phonotactic rules about clusters coming at the end of a word. The word hymn, as in a hymn that you sing in church, has a silent N at the end of it, but like the disappearing-reappearing P and M, it gets revealed in the right phonetic environment—in this case, when it’s followed by a vowel in the word hymnal.

Latin provides a few of these now-you-hear-them-now-you-don’t N’s, too, in words such as condemn and condemnation. In the original Latin and Greek, these words had suffixes following those consonant clusters, but those suffixes got deleted when these words entered English, leaving a phonotactically unacceptable cluster at the ends of the words, thus giving us the silent N at the end. 

French Borrowings

Some letters are silent in English words because we borrowed the words from another language, and they’re silent in that language, too. I’m looking at you, French. How many of you, like me, went for years hearing the word rendezvous spoken, and not realizing it was the same word as ren-DEZZ-vuss that you’d read in books? The rendez and the vous have a silent Z and silent S, respectively, because that’s how they’re pronounced in French. The same goes for the silent P and silent T in coup d’état, and the silent D and silent X in Grand Prix. Why does French have so many silent final consonant letters? Just as in English, the spellings have been fixed for a long time, and have not changed with the language’s pronunciation. As for why French speakers stopped pronouncing those final consonants in so many words, that’s a question for the historical linguists. In case you’re curious, though, the name for the deletion of sounds from the end of a word is apocope [a-POCK-a-pee]. 

By the way, watch out when you’re pronouncing French words, because not all of its final consonant letters are silent. Furthermore, if a French word ends with a consonant followed by an E, you do pronounce that consonant. So a complete meal at a restaurant that is served at a fixed price is a “pree feex” meal, because prix is spelled P-R-I-X, while fixe is spelled F-I-X-E. It’s not a “pree fee” meal, as I’ve heard some servers call it. And the finishing touch on a job is the coup de grace (“koo d’grahs”), because grace is spelled G-R-A-C-E. It’s not a coup de gras (“koo d’grah”), which literally means a “strike of fat.”

Misguided Spelling Reform

The last group of silent letters we’ll talk about came from some misguided spelling reforms. We’ve been talking about how silent letters can result from not removing a letter that represents a sound that isn’t pronounced. However, in some cases, a silent letter has come from putting in a letter for a sound that isn’t pronounced! 

Now why would anyone do such a thing? As is often the case, someone had good intentions. In his book The Fight for English (2006), David Crystal explains that during the Renaissance, some spelling reformers thought it would be a good idea to insert letters to make a word’s origin clear. This is where the silent B in debt came from. At the time, the word was spelled without a B, but reformers began to insert it, to show its relation to the Latin source debitum. Crystal writes that this tinkering also resulted in the silent S in island, because the reformers were sure that this word came from the Latin word for island, insula. The joke was on them, though, because it didn’t! 

Crystal concludes, “There are many more such cases. Some people nowadays find it hard to understand why there are so many ‘silent letters’ of this kind in English. It is because other people thought they were helping” (29). 

Other Silent Letters

There are many other silent letters with stories that didn’t make it into today’s episode. The main thing to take away is that usually, there is a good historical reason for a silent letter. Spelling reforms have often been proposed, and sometimes they’ve even been executed; for an example, read about Noah Webster in The Grammar Devotional or in episode 336. Even if we reformed spelling again now, we wouldn’t solve the problem. In another 100 years, English pronunciations will have changed again.

That segment was written by Neal Whitman, who has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at literalminded.wordpress.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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