Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Silent Letters

1. Introduction
There are a lot of silent letters in English. This is because although the pronunciation of
some words has changed over the last two or three hundred years the spelling has
stayed the same.

There aren't many hard and fast rules, it's more a matter of learning which letters are
silent in certain combinations of letters.

2. History
Sadly we are trapped in an archaic system which causes great confusion to all learners, both native and non-native.

Here’s a glance into the history, thanks to Rod Mitchell’s contributions to the discussion:  Hi everyone. Could anybody help with why some English language letters are silent? For example: walk by Bb Spoghmay:

There are two main reasons (among others).
1. spurious letters put into words due to either mistaken association, or a mistaken desire to show etymological origin.

"Island" is an example of the first. In older English it was "iland", "i" meaning "island" (it is the same as the -ey in place names like Orkney, Sheppey, Jersey, Guernsey), and "land" being the word "land".  For "island", earlier "iland", the "s" was put in because someone thought that the origin was actually the Old French word "isle" (now "├«le" in Modern French).

"Doubt" and "debt" are examples of the second. In older English these were written "doute" and "dette", and were from Old French (in Modern French they are still written "doute" and "dette"). The word "doute" is from Latin "dubita". During the Renaissance, when the realisation that Latin was the ancestor of French, Italian and so on, someone decided it would make English either more elegant - and perhaps easier to read - if the "b" was restored (this happened for a little time in older French as well, "doubte" did appear now and then). "Dette", likewise, was from Latin "debita" (things that are owed).

2. The main reason is language change, and the spelling system not keeping up with that.

English was first written down using the Latin alphabet around 1400 years ago. The alphabet then was "phonetic". Literacy was wide spread, except among the peasantry. In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought Norman French in as the upper class language, and while Old English stayed on a legal par with Norman French until William the Conqueror's death, in reality it lost its place as all the English "public servants", bishops and so on were replaced by Normans.

For a couple of centuries few people read or wrote English, though literacy in English was much more widespread than we assume. When people started to read and write in English, in general it was done using Norman French phonics, with some carry-over from Old English phonics.

The result was a reasonably phonetic spelling system, all be it with lots of variation according to local accent, dialect and a host of other things. We can assume that in 1300-1400, when writing in English spread like wildfire, that words were written as they were pronounced, including the bulk of the silent letters of modern English.

What then happened was that the writing of English became more and more "fixed", in particular between 1500-1600, though with nothing like the rigidity we have nowadays.

In the meantime, English, like all languages, evolved. Most of the changes that happened after the "fixing" of English spelling were not reflected in the spelling. That is to say, the words we write on the whole represent the pronunciation of English of around 700 years ago.

So, final -e in words like "ride" used to be pronounced - as a schwa. "gh" used to be pronounced (and sometimes written) as the "ch" in German "auch". The K- in "kn" (know, knee, etc.) also used to be pronounced, which is why we still pronounce it in "acknowledge". The "e" in words like "liked" also used to be pronounced (as schwa), as it still is in words like "crooked" and "wicked".

In the case of words such as "talk", "walk", "baulk" and "would", a change that has been happening in English (and happened in French, Dutch, Portuguese and many other languages) is the change of syllable final "l" to dark "l" then to a "w" like sound in some dialects of English. For example, "well" is pronounced "weww" in Cockney English. "Brasil" in Portuguese is pronounced "Braziww", and in French the change is so old that even the "w" sound has disappeared (e.g. Old French "batel" "boat" has become modern French "bateau").

In Dutch, English words like "gold" have a "u" instead of the "l" ("gold" in Dutch is "goud").

The one word in English that comes to mind immediately where the "l" has disappeared is "won't" (= "will not"). In the vast majority of cases, even though the "l" has disappeared in pronunciation (as in "walk", "talk", "baulk", "would" and "should"), we keep the "l" in writing. This retention in "should" and "would" has led to the putting of "l" in "could", where it does not belong. In older English this was spelt "coude" (and the "e" was pronounced).

The "w" in "write", "wrong", "wrench" and so on used to be pronounced, like the "k" in "knee" and the rest; however, one class of word initial "silent" letters are to be found in foreign words (from Greek, etc.) which have combinations that are impossible in English phonology. These include "psychology" and "pterodactyl". We don't pronounce the first letter of such Greek words, even though in Greek they are pronounced as written.
3. Silent letters from A to Z (The list is not exhaustive, please)

A - artistically, logically, musically, romantically, stoically
B - comb, climb, debt, plumber, tomb, subtle, dumb, bomb, doubt, , numb, subpoena, thumb,   
C - acquire, acquit, blackguard, connecticut, czar, muscle, scissors, victual
CH - yacht
D - handkerchief, Wednesday (commonly said Wens-day)
E - plaque. vegetable (veg'tab'I), bridge, clothes, Wednesday (commonly said Wens-
      day). When on the end of a word, it changes the pronunciation of the word, but the -e is
F - halfpenny
G - align, alight, champagne, diaphragm, foreign, gnash, gnat, gnaw, high, light, reign,
GH - right, drought, eight, weigh, etc.
H - choir, exhaust, hour, honour, honest, herb, rhyme, rhythm, thyme, Thailand 
I - business, parliament
K - blackguard.
KN -words, the k is silent: know, knot, knee, knife, knight, knock.
L - calm, folk, salmon, talk, walk, could, should, would, folk, half, calf.
M - mnemonic.
N - autumn, chimney, column, damn, damn, government, solemn.
O- colonel, sophomore, opossum
P - corps, coup, cupboard, pneumonia, psalm, raspberry, receipt, coup
Q - (NONE)
R - butter, finger, surprise 
S - aisle, island, debris, isle, patios, viscount.
T - beret, Chevrolet, depot, listen, whistle, wrestle, trestle, mortgage, apostle
      (When talking fast, the ‘t’ is very lightly pronounced in words like Christmas, mountain
        and little)
TH - asthma, isthmus, north, Easter
W - who, whole, write, wrong,  two, sword, wrist, answer
X - faux
Y - (NONE)
Z - rendezvous

Silent letters can be heard depending on a person’s accent.

In the thread referred to in the ‘History’, Katerina Xafis makes this observation:
Apparently, L-vocalisation (ie the replacement of 'l' sound with a vowel sound or semi-vowel sound) in words such as 'walk' has occurred in all Englishes except in Irish English. But strictly speaking, the sound 'l' has been replaced with a semi-vowel or vowel sound (as Rod so well explained), so it is not really 'silent', which is what I think James is referring to. 

Another example is 'calm' with various ways of pronouncing it --- I have heard some Am speakers pronounce the 'l'.

Rod Mitchell recommends reading ‘Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling’ by David Crystal.