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.

By paulinell

I am an EFL teacher, examiner, Spanish to English translator and English-stuff is my blog on English history, culture and language.

8 replies on “Silent letters in English”

Thanks for your question Charlotte! There are people (much cleverer than me) who have studied this issue in depth, using both language expertise and old English documents, especially those that talk about spelling and pronunciation. There are quite a few interesting Youtube videos on old English, and it’s amazing to hear someone speaking it as it is more or less incomprehensibe to us nowadays.

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Thank you very much for letting me know about the YouTube videos you have come across. I remember seeing a page written in old English on television and I couldn’t make any sense of it at all! The handwriting wasn’t very clear but I think that even if I had been able to make out all the letters I still wouldn’t have understood what the author was saying. It would be interesting to know if experts ever disagree about how words were pronounced in the past. I remember one of my teachers saying that historians often disagree about things like when, why or even whether something happened and that sometimes new evidence comes to light that supports one theory and undermines another. I wonder if linguists ever disagree about the meaning or pronunciation of old words. I guess it is possible that some words were pronounced differently by different people, a bit like words like “paracetamol” today. I think I read somewhere that in the past there was much more variation in spellings so perhaps there was also considerable variation in how words were pronounced?


A very good question Charlotte. You are absolutely right that historians often have to piece the evidence together as they don’t have the full story, and this can lead to different interpretations of the same event. I learnt recently that linguists gleaned a great deal of knowledge about Middle English pronunciation from a document called the Ormulum written in the 12th century. It seems it was written to standardise spelling and help priests with their pronunciation in Middle English (as some of them probably spoke more in Anglo-Norman). The Ormulum was fundamental in helping experts reconstruct the pronunciation of Middle English. However, local dialects could still slightly change the way a word was pronounced, in the same way as today.

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It was so kind of you to reply to my comment! I had never heard of the Ormulum but it certainly sounds fascinating – a real linguistic treasure trove. I would love to know how much variation there used to be between dialects and accents in different parts of the country. I have always wondered whether people from other countries can tell the difference in accent between, say, people from the North East and people from the South West. To me someone from Liverpool sounds completely different from someone from London but I’ve heard people from abroad talk about “the British accent”. I wonder if the supposed British accent is really just the accent in a particular part of England, or if there are actually a lot of similarities between all the different regional accents in this country and (for example) the North East accent has much more in common with the other accents in England/Britain than it does with the Australian accent or the American accent. I think that I can distinguish between the New York accent and the accent of people from the Deep South but I’m sure that someone from America would discern lots of differences that I just wouldn’t hear! I wonder if non-native English speakers find some British accents easier to understand than others?


Thank you for helping me understand why there are so many silent letters in English! I just wondered if I could ask you about old pronunciations of words like “gnome”. I was thinking that because we only have written text to go on it might be quite hard for us to know how people in the Middle Ages pronounced words. Do you think it is possible for us to know for sure how words were pronounced in the past or do we just have to make educated guesses?

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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).


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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