Silent Letters in English Words
Silent Letters in English Words
Many languages contain words with silent letters, or letters that aren’t pronounced when the word is spoken, but English has more silent letters than almost any other language. More than half of all English words contain silent letters, at least when you include digraphs, or two letters that make up a single sound. This can be confusing for people learning the language, because words are often pronounced differently than they are spelt.
English has been evolving and changing for more than one thousand years, and during this time the language has incorporated many units of sound from different languages. In Spanish, the letter ‘o’ is usually pronounced the same way, but in English the ‘o’ is pronounced differently in words such as ‘fox,’ ‘for,’ ‘ton,’ ‘rose,’ and ‘today.’ In some cases, you just have to memorise the correct pronunciation, but in others a silent letter is provided as a clue to how the word sounds. For example, in the word ‘rose,’ the letter ‘e’ is silent. When the last three letters of a word are a vowel, a consonant, and then the letter ‘e,’ it’s a clue that the ‘e’ is silent and the vowel is long. Take the word ‘stone,’ for example, in which the ‘e’ is silent and the ‘o’ is long, or the word ‘ride,’ in which the ‘e’ is silent and the ‘i’ is long. In this case, the silent letter is actually a pronunciation aid.
In total, English has between forty and fifty different phonemes, but only twenty-six letters with which to represent them. This leads to some bizarre spellings, often with silent letters, that are actually meant to help you pronounce the word. Take doubled consonants, for example. In the word ‘sobbed,’ the additional ‘b’ is silent, but it is a clue that the preceding ‘o’ is short. The same is true of words such as ‘bitter,’ and ‘ragged.’ In other words, vowels are doubled. In the word ‘soon,’ the additional ‘o’ is silent, but it is a clue that the vowel sound is long, instead of short. The same holds true with words such as ‘doomed,’ and ‘queen.’
In the distant past, English was almost completely phonetic, which means that words were pronounced the same way they were spelt. However, as time passed people begin to pronounce words differently, without bothering to change the spelling. In Old English, the ‘gh’ in words such as ‘might,’ and ‘light,’ was actually pronounced, as was the ‘k’ in words such as ‘knight,’ and ‘knife.’ Over time, people dropped some of the phonemes in order to make pronunciation quicker and easier. The same is happening today with words such as ‘arctic.’ In some dialects, the first ‘c’ is pronounced, and in others it is not. Changes in pronunciation account for many of the silent letters in the English language.
Other silent letters have their roots in foreign languages. When English borrows words, the foreign spelling is often kept, but the foreign pronunciation proves too difficult for English speakers. This is what happened with Greek words such as ‘psychology,’ where the ‘p’ is silent, and ‘chthonic,’ where the first ‘h’ is silent. In other cases, English has copied French spelling conventions. English was heavily influenced by French during the Middle Ages, and words such as ‘hour,’ where the ‘h’ is silent, and ‘vogue,’ where the ‘ue’ is silent, use typical French spellings.
Still, other words contain a silent letter because they are shorter forms of words in which the silent letter is pronounced. ‘Damn,’ is derived from the word ‘damnation,’ in which the ‘n’ is pronounced, and ‘phlegm,’ is derived from the word ‘phlegmatic,’ in which the ‘g’ is pronounced. In other cases, a silent letter is added in order to provide a clue to the meaning, such as the ‘b’ in ‘debt,’ which suggests a relation with the Latin word ‘debit.’
Today, less than half of English words are pronounced exactly the way they are spelt. It takes a lot of perseverance before newcomers to the language are confident with English pronunciation, but it can be helpful to keep some of the more common rules in mind. Double consonants are often a clue that the preceding vowel is short, and doubled vowels are often a clue that the sound is long, while an ‘e’ at the end of a word is almost always silent. Other words just need to be memorised, but practice will make perfect.