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Tell Me Why: Why are There Silent Letters in English?

Team StoryWeavers|February 25, 2022, 16:02 IST| 19

Welcome to BYJU’S ‘Tell Me Why’ where we explain to you the ‘why’ behind anything and everything that’s been on your mind! So go ahead and ask us a question that starts with ‘Tell Me Why’. We’ll pick the most intriguing questions and feature them along with an illustrated answer on The Learning Tree Blog.

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Today we are answering a very interesting question asked by class 6 student Eshan Sharma from Ajmer, Rajasthan. He wants to know:

Why does English have so many words with silent letters?

The rogue knight doubted that the asthmatic knave in knickers could climb the castle columns, but when their wrangle wrought chaos on the couple, the knight resigned with the knowledge that their tight-knit friendship wouldn’t succumb to dumb disputes.

Now if you were to pronounce every single letter you saw in that ridiculous sentence, it would sound a lot different than what you just read in your mind. And these aren’t even the hardest words to pronounce in the English language.

james franco snl GIF by Saturday Night Live

credit: Giphy

The English spelling system is famous for not making sense. In fact, about 60 percent of English words contain a silent letter. Why is there a letter ‘b’ in the word “doubt”? Why do we write “Island” and pronounce it as “I-land”? This conundrum continues for words like “knight”, “through”, “lasagna”, “debt” and many more. To say the least, it’s mind-boggling!

All this chaos and confusion begs the question: Why does the English language have silent letters in the first place?

Also Read: Origin Story: Why Do We Say Hello When Answering the Phone?

Origin of silent letters in English

Silent letters appeared in English as the result of two main factors. First, as the language propagated across regions and continents, varying accents and cultures modified the pronunciation.

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. This led to some letters being silent. 

Peanut Butter School GIF by Jif

But there is one more factor that resulted in these silent letters: ego. Some people with influence over how the English language would evolve added extra letters simply because they could. Many printers who operated printing presses in England came from the Netherlands and Germany. Because they had control over a language that was, at the time, still not standardized, they added extra letters to have them resemble words from their home countries. In a similar way, scholars added the silent “b” to “doubt” to educate the (what they assumed was) oblivious public on the word’s derivation from the Latin “dubitare.” In reality, all they did was turn “dout” into “doubt” when no one asked for an unnecessary consonant!

Also Read: The Origin Story of the word ‘OK’

Progressive change in pronunciation

Historically, “Old English” 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, diverse groups of people with an assortment of accents modified the pronunciation of certain words.

Batman Love GIF by No Hate Speech Movement Deutschland

yeah… and pronunciations too.

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!

Also Read: Learn Any Topic Faster Using The Amazing Feynman Technique

Influences of other languages

Talk Talking GIF by Wikipedia

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.

Also Read: Why do human beings speak so many languages?

As a means of differentiation or emphasis

Your Means Your Season 4 GIF by Friends

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 learning 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!

Read more stories like these here!

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About the Author


Raza has been writing since 2008, be it fiction, poetry, or articles on science, politics, and history. He believes that words can change the world, and he uses them to inspire and empower people through his writing. When he is not working, he is watching nature documentaries or playing with his cats.

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Comments



Sahasra

February 26, 2022

Where will the space end and how many planets are in the space


Ridhima

February 26, 2022

Thank u I found out a lot about silent letter 😍


Ridhima

February 26, 2022

Thank u I found out a lot about silent letter 😍 really helpful


Jhansi Rani

February 26, 2022

Interesting topic in English


Prajakta Jamgade

February 26, 2022

Silent letters appeared in English language because of the two main factors on the basis of Religion and Continent .60% letters are use as silent letters in words. For example – Honour , Honest , Honorable etc……


Ayush Singh

February 26, 2022

Often silent letters in English are actually diacritic letters. This means that rather than being pronounced, they change the pronunciation of another syllable. Compare the words ‘fin’ and ‘fine’. The ‘e’ isn’t pronounced, but it changes the pronunciation of the vowel by lengthening it.


Ichcha Dubey

February 26, 2022

Why when we say tsunami then t is on silent


Barnik

February 27, 2022

Hello


Raginee yadav

February 27, 2022

I want to learn English in very good way


Shruti Kumari

February 27, 2022

Where universe end and start


Alveera mujawar

February 28, 2022

Q1 why does our skin colour change?
Q2 how to focus on studies?
Q3 does a black hole in space is a time machine ?
Q4 why the Chinese language is so hard ?
Q5 which thing can be alive till earth destroy?


Aaniyah

February 28, 2022

I was really curious to know about this one, that if we make the letters silent then why do we add that.


Hanshika saini

March 1, 2022

1) If you could travel to any year in a time machine, what year would you choose and why ?


Niraj kumar

March 1, 2022

Good


Kavya Shri D tantry

March 1, 2022

Thank you for interesting topic 🥰🥰


Fayaz

March 1, 2022

I had got information about english grammar
Thank you team byjus


Sujitha padmanaban

March 6, 2022

Why our hair is black in colour?


V.Merlin Rachel

March 15, 2022

How was the days of a week calculated?Can you please explain?
Thankyou


ANJALI CHAUHAN

March 26, 2022

Why do we dream?
By the way that information is amazing to know.


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