Why Do So Many Words Have Silent Letters?

March 13, 2018


Well, as for the English language, it might be easier to explain punctuation and why a comma precedes the word "which" and not the word "that". If you are a student of linguistics, you might be familiar with historic shifts in the English language. However, if you are teenager that sends text messages sixteen hours a day, you likely don't care. As for the truth of the matter, spelling, grammar and punctuation have been evolving forever and there is no indication that it will not continue to do so, especially in an age of digital communications. Although the English language was spread around the world (literally) between the late 16th to early 18th centuries, the truth is people speak differently in different parts of the same country, eh?

From a historic perspective, vowel shifts that influence how words and/or silent letters are enunciated are nothing new. We can start with the "Great Vowel Shift" that occurred in the homeland of the English language during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. The GVS was a massive sound change that affected how the long vowels would be pronounced in the mouth. Danish professor, Otto Jespersen, dedicated a lifetime to the academic study of the English language and is considered to be the first person to identify the Great Vowel Shift. Jespersen was a proponent of phonosemanticism and in his writings on sociolinguistics stated that there is no denying there are words we feel instinctively adequate to express the ideas for which they stand. Thus, knight is burdened with a silent k to distinguish it from the English word night.

Sometimes silent letters are actually diacritic and are not pronounced but change the pronunciation of another syllable. For example, the word "fin" and "fine" have different meaning and are pronounced differently although the added letter e is not pronounced as such. Instead, there is a lengthening of the other vowel. Silent letters can also provide insight into the meaning of the word, such as vineyard (easily associated with a yard of vines) as opposed to the phonetic spelling 'vinyard'. Homophones like be and bee use different spellings to aid in reading of the written words. In some cases, the English language borrowed both the spelling and pronunciation of words, such as hour and honest both of French origin and pronounced with a silent h.

Moreover, the list goes on and on. Many linguists will forever insist on the strict interpretation of the academic rules of any language; but even those distinctions are somewhat blurred today with the discovery that some of the rules being taught were never recorded. So, there is a fine line between myth and reality for complex issues like silent letters.

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