It is no secret that languages change over time, and English is no exception to this. Since Anglo-Saxon times, many of the sounds of English have either changed or been completely lost. While these changes aren’t necessarily a bad thing, the spelling has not always been modified to account for them. Most silent letters, for instance, can be traced to a sound loss without a corresponding change in spelling. This loss can be word-internal, word-initial or word-final, and we shall examine all of these cases in the following paragraphs.
Although silent letters probably annoy most students of English, learning about them helps to see that there’s usually (though not always) a logical reason for them. A comprehensive treatment of silent letters in English would require an entire book, so I will set forth only the most common cases below.
1. Final -e
A silent e found in word-final position is by far the most common silent letter in English. It is found in nouns, adjectives and verbs. There are several reasons for this spelling convention, the first being apocope, which is just a fancy term for word-final sound loss.
Basically, the final e in words such as make was actually pronounced in earlier forms of English. By the 14th century, this e had undergone apocope, but it continued to be used as a diacritic that modified the preceding vowel. For example, the words bid and bide are pronounced /bɪd/ and /baɪd/ respectively.
We know that the vowel in bide is the diphthong /aɪ/ because of the silent e at the end of the word. When a student sees an e at the end of the word, the preceding vowel can often be assumed to be long. The following examples should give you an idea:
/ɪ/ becomes /aɪ/ as in bid and bide.
/æ/ becomes /eɪ/ as in fat and fate
/ʌ/ becomes /u:/ as in tub and tube
/a/ becomes /əʊ/ as in rod and rode
/ɛ/ becomes /i:/ as in met and mete
While this is usually the reason for the silent e, a few others are worth mentioning. A second diacritic use occurs in cases where a letter has two different phonetic values. For example, the letter c has the values /k/ and /s/. Consider the words zinc and since. The first c has the value /k/ and the second (the one with the silent e) has the value /s/. This same rule applies to the letter g, which has the values /g/ and /dʒ/, the second of these being indicated by a silent e.
2. Cluster reduction
At some point during the Middle English period, certain word-initial and word-final combinations of consonants were simplified through a process called cluster reduction. An example of this is seen in the word knife, which is pronounced /naɪf/. The details of this are beyond the scope of this article, but the idea is that languages have constraints as to where certain sounds are allowed to occur in a syllable.
In Spanish, for example, combinations such as sk in words like skim can’t begin a syllable. A Spanish speaker will therefore add an e to the beginning to break up the cluster. The word then ends up more like [es’kim], with each of the two consonants sk now belonging to a different syllable. English has these same constraints. The most common are k or g followed by n, in which case the cluster is broken up by dropping the first letter. Also common is m followed by b in word-final position. Words such as dumb are therefore pronounced without the final consonant (in this case /dʌm/).
3. Other examples of sound loss and silent letters
A final example of silent letters caused by sound change is the complete loss of the phoneme /x/ in English (the sound of the ch in “Bach”). This sound was represented by the digraph gh in words such as night. When /x/ was completely lost, the gh either turned into /f/ in words such as draught (British spelling), or became silent in words such as night. While silent gh might seem pointless, it tells us how the word was pronounced in the past, which is fascinating!
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