Why Are There Silent Letters in English?

The English language is famous for having rules that don't make sense, and the rules of spelling and pronunciation are a big reason. Some letters are pronounced, some aren't, and there's no real system for figuring out when to pronounce and when not to. In fact, more than half of the letters in our alphabet (B, D, E, G, H, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, W, X, and Z) are silent in some words. And that's a conservative estimate.

Silent letters confuse English language learners of all ages, and native speakers can't even explain why they're there. It's time that we get to the bottom of this spelling and pronunciation mystery.

Ghosts of Other Languages

The English language has been written down for more than a thousand years, which means it's had plenty of time to borrow and twist around words from other languages. For example, consider Greek words like "psychology" and Japanese words like "tsunami." Because English doesn't have the Greek letter ψ (psi) or the Japanese character 津 (tsu), we have to improvise with our own alphabet and spell them out the best we can. But we don't generally use "ps" or "ts" sounds to start words in English, so instead, many people skip pronouncing them.

Other words are cognates, or linguistic relatives, of words from other languages. Knight, with its silent "k" and silent "gh," is related to the German and Dutch word "knecht," which is pronounced so fully that it almost sounds like "connect." When in doubt, a good dictionary or etymology reference can help you figure out which words have roots in German, Latin, Greek, or Japanese, which can tell you which letters might be silent.

The E Is Silent

Here's something that will impress at dinner parties: Certain letters in English are "diacritic," which means they change the pronunciation of other letters even though they aren't supposed to be pronounced themselves. Think about the difference between "fat" and "fate" or "hat" and "hate" or "don" and "done." The "e" on these words is silent, but it does impact both pronunciation and meaning.

Many of these words also come from other languages. In those languages, these words often have diacritic marks that change their pronunciation and help to distinguish between meanings (think about the "n" in "señor" or the "e" in "cliché"). In English, we just use silent letters to change pronunciation and meaning.

Wildcard Words

But some spellings? They were just made up. During the Renaissance, some so-called "English reformers" decided to change the spellings of some words as a nod to their fancy Latin origins. For example, the word "debt" comes from the Latin word "debitum," but the English version didn't have that silent "b" until the reformers got ahold of it. Same goes for the silent "s" in "island," since the Latin word for island is "insula." But that was just wishful thinking; "island" actually comes from the Old English "iegland." Oops!

Wish as we might, there's no simple rule to explain silent letters in the English language. It can be fun, however, to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and learn all the linguistic tidbits behind our strange pronunciations. We've borrowed a little here and adopted a little there, and now we have a rich tapestry of language with odd pronunciations. English learners, we're sorry.

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Dive even deeper into the history of this mixed-up language in "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English" by John McWhorter. The audiobook is free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk July 26, 2019

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