Silent letters came into the English language through progressive changes in pronunciation, foreign linguistic influences, and as guides for pronunciation.
Have you ever tried to spell complex words in English? It’s not the easiest thing to do. In fact, there are many competitions and grand prizes for those people who manage to get the spellings right. One of the primary reasons for such complexity in the English language is the existence of silent letters.
According to the Kent Jones Education Committee, Esperanto Society of Chicago, an estimated 60% of English spelling contains silent letters. That’s a lot to digest. For a non-native speaker, it can feel mind-boggling! Even if you were to learn every single letter and its corresponding sound, you might still find it difficult to spell out dictated words or pronounce a written text correctly. This begs the question… why does the English language include silent letters in the first place?
Origin of Silent Letters in English
Silent letters appeared in English as the result of three main factors. First, as the language propagated across regions and continents, varying accents and cultures modified the pronunciation of certain words and specific clusters of consonants. At least one of the consonants in such a cluster was relegated to become a silent letter. Second, the expansion of the English Empire led to the “borrowing” of many words from a variety of languages. These words tended to retain their original spellings, or in cases when a corresponding letter did not exist, imperfect substitutes were used. These imperfect substitutes were an amalgamation of existing English letters, but were pronounced very differently. This led to some letters in these amalgamations being silent. Finally, there have been instances where silent letters were specifically introduced as aids to differentiate between two homophones or to provide guidance on the pronunciation of certain words.
Progressive Change in Pronunciation
Historically, “Old English” orthography was about 90% phonemic, i.e., the words were pronounced exactly as they were spelt. For instance, the ‘k’ in words like ‘knife’, ‘knight’, ‘know’ and ‘knock’ was pronounced until the 16th century! The same is true for the ‘t’ in words like ‘often’, ‘soften’ and ‘castle’ as well as the ‘l’ in ‘palm’, calm’ or ‘almond’. As the adoption of English grew across the globe, especially during the Renaissance, diverse groups of people with an assortment of accents modified the pronunciation of certain words.
As a result, some particularly difficult words ended up losing certain elements of their pronunciation. Specifically, clusters of consonants proved quite a challenge. However, the spelling of these words remained standardized, and therefore they came to be spelt with “silent” letters. More recently, the explicit pronunciation of the ‘d’ in ‘sandwich’ and ‘handkerchief’ has been lost. We’ve even relegated the ‘t’ in ‘Christmas’ to the silent letters bench!
Other Linguistic Influences
With the rapid expansion of the English empire across the globe, the English language “borrowed” words from several different languages. These miscellaneous linguistic influences led to significant variations in terms of spelling. Often, the borrowed words retained the spelling from their original languages. For instance, the word ‘quiche’ is spelt in that specific way because it was borrowed directly from French.
At times, there have been words with sounds that simply didn’t have any corresponding letter in the English language. The Greek letter ‘rho’ was represented by ‘r’ or ‘rh’ in Latin and was often merged as a simple ‘r’ in English. ‘Psi’ from Greek has found space in the English language as an amalgamation of ‘p’ and ‘s’, such as in the word ‘psychology’. Sometimes, certain letters were included in words just to reflect their Latin origins, such as the silent ‘b’ in ‘debt’ and ‘doubt’, which come from Latin words like ‘debit’ and ‘dubitable’.
According to Kessler & Treiman, several of these borrowed words have led people to call English orthography “a pathological mishmash of correspondences randomly accrued over the past thousand years.”
As a Means of Differentiation or Emphasis
We find instances in the English language where silent letters were specifically added to words so they could be distinguished on paper from other similar sounding words (homophones). The extra ‘n’ in the word ‘inn’ serves the purpose of differentiating it from the preposition ‘in’. Similarly, we have the case of ‘bee’ and ‘be’. In certain situations, letters provided guidance regarding which consonants in the word a reader must emphasize. For example, the ‘fe’ in ‘giraffe’ hints at an emphasis on the latter half of the word, more than the beginning. The word ‘ride’ could have just as easily been written without the ‘e’ at the end, but that ‘e’ guides the reader to elongate the ‘i’ and thereby distinguish it from the way we pronounce the word ‘rid’.
In conclusion, silent letters may prove to be a significant hurdle for someone hoping to become adept at reading the English language. However, these letters do have their benefits. Some provide an interesting origin story about the corresponding word they came from, while others lend a helping hand in navigating the rough and rule-bending seas of English pronunciation!