Why Can't We Get Rid of Silent Letters?

Friday, October 113 min read

One of the trickiest road blocks to mastering the English language is the conundrum of silent letters. They take words that sound simple enough and turn them into a confusing mess to spell, especially inducing anxiety when it comes time to read them aloud.

Considering how the English language and its vernacular have evolved over the centuries, you might wonder why silent letters haven't been dropped yet.

Learning Some Linguist Terms

There truly is a rhyme and reason for many of these silent letters, but we're going to need to put on our linguist hats for a moment. A speaker does not pronounce every individual letter as its own syllable; instead, letters are combined to indicate different sounds and pronunciations. And, yes, some of these letters end up silent.

A digraph is two letters combined to represent a phoneme, aka a single sound or syllable. When these digraphs are working together, they're called "auxiliary." But we can break it down even more, into exocentric and endocentric.

An exocentric digraph is when the sound is different than either of the two letters. "Ch" is an auxiliary exocentric digraph because the "chuh" sound they produce together is different than what "c" or "h" would produce on their own. With exocentric digraphs, neither letter is considered silent. The "ph" in "physical" and the "gh" in "enough" are also considered exocentric. They are not silent, because the "f" pronunciation is different than the letters spelled.

An endographic digraph is when the pronounced sound is the same as one of its letters. Doubled letters, such as in "bubble," are considered endographic. "Cackle" uses the endographic digraph "ck," pronounced with a hard "k." "Gu" appears in words such as "guard" and "vogue" with a hard "g" sound.

Auxiliary letter digraphs are a gray area when it comes to silent letters. You don't pronounce each letter, but the presence does give you pronunciation guidance.

If a digraph involves letters that don't do anything for the pronunciation, they're not auxiliary, but they are dummy letters — either "inert" or "empty." Dummy letters serve no purpose for pronunciation and have no relation to their neighbors. "Inert" means that a letter is not pronounced in one version of the word, but it IS pronounced in a cognate word (meaning it comes from the same root). In the word "sign," the "g" is an inert silent letter, but it springs into action for "signature."

"Empty" letters are the ones that are never pronounced. They're the ones that likely trip up folks who are learning English and children starting to read. The "k" in "knife," the "w" in "answer," the "b" in "subtle," the "s" in "island" — these are empty letters.

Pronunciation Evolution

Clear as mud, right? Why do these various forms of silent letters even exist?

Turns out, especially in the case of auxiliary letters, silent letters weren’t always so silent. In the case of "knife" and "knight," they have a Germanic origin and the "k" was pronounced. But as Middle English evolved, the "k" was dropped, quite simply because it was clunky to say.

Linguists can also tell you about the Great Vowel Shift. Over time, pronunciation changed but spelling didn’t catch up.

Silent dummy letters often signal word origins and cultural influences. Ned Halley, in his book Dictionary of Modern English Grammar, wrote:

As the influence of the Classical world was revived in the 15th century, scholars of English desired to remind their readers that most of the words in the language originated in Latin and Greek.
To show off their knowledge that ‘doubt’, then spelled 'dout' because it came into medieval English via French doute, derived originally from Latin dubitare they added the b — and it stuck.
In its way, it was a nationalistic gesture, reasserting the Classical origins of English over Dutch, French, German, and Norse influences of the intervening millennium since Roman influence waned in Britain from the fifth century and Anglo-Saxon languages began to infiltrate.

So, those in positions of power (read: printing presses) added in extra letters to words just because they could. In a time when language was far from standardized, this was a fairly easy feat to accomplish.

As language continues to evolve, maybe we’ll see the same with spelling. Similar to the "Great Vowel Shift," let’s hope we see a "Letter Dropping Era" so the learners and readers of tomorrow don’t have to ask why silent letters exist any time they misspell a word like "knife."

Photo credit: AaronAmat/ iStock

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