Silent Letters

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Silent letters in English

Silent letters in English are difficult for non-native speakers (and natives!) because they create a disparity between how we spell a word in English and how we pronounce a word in English.

Many of the silent letters in English are simply left over from Old English and Middle English – the pronunciation has changed over time but the spelling has remained the same.

 

Triggers for silent letters

Silent letters can come at the start, middle or end of a word. However, there are often triggers from other letters and combinations of letter that tell you a different letter is probably silent.

For example, if a ‘p’ comes before an ‘s’ at the start of a word, it will be silent. Similarly, the ending ‘e’ at the end of a short word will often be silent and will serve to elongate the vowel.

Problems when speaking and writing

Silent letters present a tricky area of English orthography and English phonology. When an EFL student has only heard a word and tries to write it, they might leave the letter out because they don’t hear it spoken.

Similarly, a student that has seen a word written down might try to pronounce a silent letter when speaking.

silence

Some letters in English have no linguistic function at all. Often, these silent letters in English have stayed in the written form simply due to historical reasons.

For example, the old Norman ‘e’ ending still exists at the end of short words in English, such a in the word ‘name’, even though the voicing of the end ‘e’ was dropped during the Great Vowel Shift of the 16th and 17th century.

 

Silent letters can be useful

Although seemingly confusing or simply irritating, silent letters can be useful in English orthography. This is because they can change the meaning and spelling of a word that would otherwise be the same.

For example, ‘sin’ and ‘sign’ (with the silent ‘g’) or ‘mat’ and ‘mate’ (with the silent ‘e’) both have silent letters but without them, the words would be indistinguishable from each other.

Common silent letters in English:

A

The letter ‘a’ in the letter combination ‘cally’ is often silent. For example: ‘heroically’, ‘romantically’, ‘practically’, ‘logically’, ‘magically’.

Although the ‘cally’ letter combination looks as though it should take up two syllables, it is actually only one syllable becasue the ‘a’ is silent’.

So the word ‘romantically’ has four syllables and is pronounced ‘romanticly’ and the word ‘logically’ has three syllables and is pronounced ‘logicly’.

B

The letter ‘b’ is silent at the end of a word after the letter ‘m’. For example: ‘comb’, ‘limb’, ‘climb, ‘numb’, lamb’, ‘dumb’ and ‘thumb’

The letter ‘b’ is also silent when it comes before the ‘t’ in: ‘debt’, ‘doubt’ and ‘subtle’

D

The letter ‘d’ is silent in these words: ‘handsome’, ‘Wednesday’, ‘handkerchief’ and ‘sandwich

The letter ‘d’ is also silent when it comes before the letter ‘g’ in: ’edge’, ‘hedge’, ‘pledge’, ‘bridge’, ‘trudge’ and ‘fudge’

 
E

The letter ‘e’ is silent at the end of many words. This is often the case if the word is one syllable and has a vowel as the second letter.

Instead of sounding an ‘e’ sound, the ‘e’ at the end of a short word usually serves to elongate the vowel. This silent ‘e’ is sometimes called the ‘magic e’.

For example: ‘name’, ‘tame’, ‘lame’, ‘game’, ‘fame’, ‘came’, ‘take’, ‘same’, ‘gate’, ‘mate’, ‘hate’, ‘late’, ‘like’, ‘spike’, ‘spite’, ‘twine’,  ‘force’, ‘truce’

Below is a video from the 80s featuring the ‘Magic E’ – many native English speakers will remember this from their school days! This video clip shows how adding the letter ‘e’ changes the short ‘i’ vowel sound to a long ‘i’ (‘eye’) vowel sound.

The letter ‘e’ is rarely pronounced at the end of a word unless it is of foreign derivation. For example: ‘café’, ‘matinee’ or ‘blase’.

However, even many French derived words still have a silent ‘e’, for example: ‘encore’, ‘facade’ and ‘mirage’, although these all have two syllables unlike the English words that use the ‘magic e’.

Most English words change their vowel sound from a short, clipped vowel to a long vowel that sounds like the alphabet name. For example, by adding the letter ‘e’ (magic e):

‘a’ becomes ‘ay’ (‘mat’ becomes ‘mate’,)

‘e’ becomes ‘ee’ (‘pet’ becomes ‘Pete’)

‘i’ becomes ‘eye’ (‘kit’ becomes ‘kite’)

‘o’ becomes ‘oh’ (‘hop’ becomes ‘hope’)

‘u’ becomes ‘you’ (‘cut’ becomes ‘cute’)

The silent ‘e’ ending also turns a hard ‘g’ into a soft ‘j’ sound. For example, ‘stag’ becomes ‘stage’, ‘rag’ becomes ‘rage’ and ‘hug’ becomes ‘huge’

Below is another more modern ‘Magic E’ song, featuring more instances where you can use a silent ‘e’ at the end of the word to turn a short vowel sound into a long vowel sound – and create a whole new word:

 

G

The ‘g’ is silent when it comes after a vowel. For example: ‘sign’, ‘feign’, ‘foreign’, ‘daughter’, ‘sigh’, ‘light’, ‘high’, gnaw’, ‘gnat’, ‘gnome’, ‘reign’, through’, ‘though’, ‘slough’

The letters combination ‘gh’ often has an ‘f’ sound. For example:
‘tough’, ‘enough’, ‘laugh’, ‘rough’, ‘cough

H

The letter ‘h’ is silent in these words: ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘whether’, ‘hour’, ‘honest’, ‘honour’, ‘ghost’, ‘ghastly’, ‘chorus’, ‘choir’, ‘rhythm

K

The letter ‘k’ is often silent before the letter ‘n’. This is a common occurrence at the beginning of a word. For example: ‘knife’, ‘knight’, ‘kneel’, ‘knee’, ‘know’ and ‘knot’

 

L

The letter ‘l’ is often silent if it is the penultimate letter of a word and comes after ‘a’, ‘e’ or ‘u’. For example: ‘half’, ‘calf’, ‘talk’, ‘yolk’, ‘folk’, ‘walk’, ‘balm’, ‘would’ and ‘should’

N

The letter ’n’ is silent if it comes after the letter ‘m’. For example: ‘solemn’, ‘autumn’, ‘column’, ‘condemn’, damn’ and ‘hymn’

P

The letter ‘p’ is silent at the start of words when it comes before ‘s’ or ‘n’:
‘pneumonia’, ‘psalm’, ‘pseudonym’,‘psychology’ and ‘psychic’

The letter ‘p’ is also silent in: ‘receipt’

The letter combination ‘ph’ is often pronounced as an ‘f’. For example:
‘telegraph’, ‘telephone’, ‘alphabet’, ‘aphrodisiac’, ‘elephant’, ‘paragraph’, ‘phonetic’

S

The letter ‘s’ is silent before the letter ‘l’. For example: ‘island’, ‘isle’, ‘aisle’

Silent Letters in English Joke - Silence of the Lambs

T

The letter ‘t’ is often silent before the letter ‘s’. For example: ‘Christmas’, ‘whistle’, ‘castle’, fasten’, ‘chasten’, ‘hasten’, thistle’.

The letter ‘t’ is also silent at the end of words of a foreign extraction. For example: ‘ballet’, ‘rapport’, ‘gourmet’

U

The letter ‘u’ is silent when it comes after ‘g’. For example: ‘guess’, ‘guest’, ‘guard’, ‘guitar’, guise’ and ‘guilt’

W

The letter ‘w’ is silent when it comes at the start of a word and before then letter ‘r’. For example: ‘wrap’, ‘wring’, ‘wrong’, ‘wrangle’, ‘wrestle’ and ‘wrist’

The letter ‘w’ is also silent in these words: ‘answer’, ‘sword’, ‘who’, ‘whose’, ‘two, ‘whole’, ‘write’

X

The letter’ ‘x’ is often pronounced like a ‘z’ if it comes at the start of a word. For example:

‘xylophone’, ‘xenon’, ‘xenophobic’, ‘Xavier’

Which silent letters cause you the most problems?

Do you think English orthography should be changed to better reflect the pronunciation of modern English?

Let us know how you feel about silent letters in the comments!

 

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