Silent letters in English

Silent letters

It is certainly not impossible to learn English, but our language has certain quirks that often pose problems for learners ; this is true for native speakers when they begin to speak English, as well as those studying it as a foreign language. A young native speaker of English may well mispronounce a word the first time they see it written form, and often this is a result of a silent letter i.e. the letter appears in the written word, but it should not be voiced.

What are common silent letters in English?

How many silent letters are there in the English language ? The letters b, c, g, h, k, l, p,t, and w all make an unvoiced appearance in English vocabulary. Let’s take a quick look at where they appear and the reasons why.

B – is not pronounced at the end of these words : bomb, climb, comb, crumb, lamb, limb. In fact, it is even quite difficult to include the “b” sound. So why is it there ? Well, the word “bomb” came from the Italian “bomba“, where we can clearly hear the b sound. As the word began to be adapted into English , the letter b survived in the written form of the word “bomb”, whilst in the spoken form, we have eliminated its sound. This is the often the reason for those silent b’s at the end of a word.The lexeme originated from a different language and was shortened in its spoken form, although the written form conserved an extra unspoken letter.

B and C– That rogue letter b also appears in debt, doubt and subtle, but we do not include the b sound when we say these words. However, the reason for this is that they were, in fact, added to the original spelling in the Middle Ages. At this time, scholars began to examine Latin texts and the etymology of language. The three words in question are rooted in Old French, without a letter b in sight, but these academics realised that the origin of these words were debitum , dubitare and subtilis, respectively, and therefore thought that the Latin root should be recognised within the spelling. This is also the case with the letter c in the words indict and scissors.

G – There are words such as gnash, gnat, gnome, where the letter g is never pronounced. These are often archaic spellings from the time when the letter g was actually pronounced at the beginning of the word. What is more, if an English word ends in a combination of gn, then the letter g is silent. This includes sign, design, foreign, reign, sovereign. Silent g also occurs in words like bought, light, night, right, thought. There is an explanation for this, as in Old English, the letter h was pronounced even when it was placed halfway through a word. In Middle English, this h was spelt as a gh when it came before a vowel, and although the h sound is no longer voiced, the spelling with its redundant unvoiced letters has survived.

Kknee. knickers, knife, knowledge and more. Why is the letter k there ? Similar to silent g at the beginning of a word, the letter k was actually pronounced in Old and Middle English but has evolved into a silent letter in the English we speak nowadays.

L – for example, could, should, would, half, salmon, talk, yolk . Non-native English language students, particularly those whose maternal language is phonetic, often mispronounce these words by including an l sound. However, in English the letter l can be silent after the vowels a, o and u. But definitely not a rule you can apply across the board.

P – When the letter p is silent, it is what we call a dummy letter. Similar to silent g and k at the beginning of a word, vocabulary items with a silent p at the start are generally cognates, that is to say, words that have been borrowed from other languages and often reflect the original spelling in the other language, even though we do not actually pronounce the English version of the word in exactly the same way. The p sometimes can be towards the end of the word .Examples include corps, coup, phlebitis, psychotic – the first two from French , the third from Latin and the fourth from Greek. And to complicate matters further, the word receipt has a silent p due to those literary scholars of the past who added the p back into the spelling to show its Latin roots.

T – some spellings consistently produce a silent T in English. The endings – ften , sten, stle generally have a silent t – think about soften, soften, listen , moisten, castle, whistle. And words borrowed from French ending in t imitate French pronunciation – ballet. gourmet, ricochet – and thus the letter t does not sound at the end.

W – why is the w not pronounced in answer or sword and why is it there at all in words like write, wrong, or wrinkle ? Answer and sword are another case of spellings not keeping up with pronunciation. The w was originally vocalised in Old English but was dropped over time, whilst persisting in the written word. The family of words begining with wr has its roots in Old German, and the w stopped being pronounced from 1450 onwards.

This is just a brief look at some of the issues with silent letters in English. It is by no means comprehensive and unfortunately the rule is that there are no rules when it comes to English pronunciation. Modern English is basically a hotch-potch of words from all those different regions who invaded the British Isles in the past, plus lexicology from the now defunct Anglo-Saxon language. This wide range of influences has without doubt, supplied the English language with a rich and immense vocabulary, and a fair sprinkling of silent letters from archaic spellings, which often mislead those learning to speak English.

3 thoughts on “Silent letters in English

  1. I’ve often wondered what English-speaking kids might learn if they didn’t have to memorize years’ worth of spelling. It wasn’t until I studied Spanish that I understood that some languages spell their words the way they say them (with a very few gray areas).

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    1. Hi Ellen, thanks for your comment. As an English as a second language teacher, I constantly hear my Spanish students including (or trying to, when it’s actually impossible) those pesky silent letters in their speech. Perfectly understandable though, as they are just, often unconsciously, transferring the rules of spoken Spanish, which is phonetic.

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