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.
To ask your question, fill-up the form here:
Today we are answering a very interesting question asked by class 6 student Eshan Sharma from Ajmer, Rajasthan. He wants to know:
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.
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?
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.
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’
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.
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!
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?
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!
1. What is the purpose of silent letters?
Silent letters can distinguish between homophones, ex: in/inn; be/bee. This is to aid readers already familiar with both words. Silent letters may give an insight into the meaning or origin of a word. Ex: 'vineyard' suggests the presence of vines more than the phonetic 'vinyard' would.
2. Why is the k silent in knife?
It is not conclusively known why this occurred. However, some researchers believe it was due to the influence of Latin and French during this period, as these languages did not include the 'kn' cluster. This resulted in the 'k' being mispronounced or not pronounced and gradually eliminated.
3. Why H is silent in honest?
H is silent in many English words, for various reasons. The words hour and honest come from French, and in these cases English took over the French pronunciation as well as the word. Not all such words that have come into English from French still have a silent h, however.
4. Why P is silent in pneumonia?
The word Pneumonia is borrowed from Greek. In Greek, the initial P is pronounced but in old English, a cluster of consonant was not common leading to the omission of first letter when pronounced. In English, words beginning with Pn and Ps have their first letter P silent when pronounced.
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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