Why Do We Have Silent Letters in English?

Why Do We Have Silent Letters in English?
Silent letters. What’s the deal with them? Why do we have silent letters in English? What are examples of silent letters in English words? We’ll look at these questions and more in this post.

The English Language

The English language boasts over 360 million native speakers around the world, putting it third on the list behind only Chinese and Spanish. Of course, that only takes into account people who speak it as their first language. Add in all the people who speak English in addition to their native language, and that number jumps to nearly half a billion.

Native English speakers should take a moment every now and then to be thankful that English has (so far) taken over as the standard global language. It may not last forever, but for now it is a pleasant benefit for English speakers to be able to travel to so many places in the world where people can speak at least some of our home language. That simply doesn’t happen very often if your native language is Chinese or Hindu or Russian.

However, even though English has become extraordinarily widespread, that does not mean it is a simple language to learn. In fact, it is definitely a complex language to master. One of the reasons learning to speak, understand, and write English at a high level is so difficult is our excessive use of silent letters.

So, why do we have silent letters in English in the first place?

Why Do We Have Silent Letters in English?

One of the primary reasons English can be such a tough language to learn is that many words are not necessarily pronounced phonetically. This is different than languages like Spanish which, outside of some regional variations, most words are pronounced exactly the way they are spelled. There are certainly some difficult aspects to learning Spanish, like noun genders and the multiple verb conjugations, but at least having to memorize silent letters isn’t one of them.

The strangest part, though, is that this wasn’t always the case. Apparently, up until the Middle Ages most of these letters that are now silent were actually pronounced. The “k” in “knife”, or the “e” at the end of, well, “knife”. But between the 15th and 18th centuries, the English language evolved rather rapidly through something known as “The Great Vowel Shift”, during which pronunciations gradually changed, leading to, in particular, the “e” becoming silent, but needing to remain part of the spelling in order to differentiate between words. Which is why today the “e” is considered diacritic, which means that although it is not pronounced, it changes the pronunciation of other letters within that word. And don’t even get started on why there are two different pronunciations for “g” and “c”.

The Influence of Foreign Languages and More

Another factor in why English has silent letters stems from the importing of words from other languages. For example, “psychology” and all its variations are Greek, and “tsunami” is Japanese.

The third, and probably most interesting, reason the number of silent letters proliferated in English was the will of influential people. Scholars unilaterally added silent letters here and there to differentiate words or to show the connection with their Latin roots. Printing press operators, many of whom were from Germany and the Netherlands, occasionally added letters to make words more closely resemble those they were familiar with, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by mistake. The combination of all these varied factors was hardened by the passage of time, eventually giving us the complicated, often inexplicable, English language we have today. Look no further than the following absurd sentence to get a glimpse of how ridiculous it can get, and just how daunting the task of any non-native English speaker.

“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.”
Reader’s Digest

If that isn’t enough to convince you, have a read through a list of the most difficult English words to pronounce, or test yourself with a little quiz, and see how you do.

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