English is not an easy language–something those who are actively learning English right now are likely intimately familiar with. Of the many dumb things in the English language, having silent a silent “K” is probably up there with frustrating things to keep track of. Especially when “know” and “now” are two different words with very different meanings. So why is “K” silent sometimes?
You’ve probably heard before that, a really long time ago, the “kn” letter combination did not have a silent “K.” Then you stopped thinking about it and figured times change, so why should we bother with obsolete language rules?
Well you clicked on this post, so clearly you are bothering on some level.
So Old English. It’s a thing, and in Old English, both “kn” and “gn” had their letters pronounced. No silent “G” either. Old English is exactly what the name implies–it’s the oldest recorded version of the modern English language we know of, and was primarily spoken during the Middle Ages. Down the linguistic evolutionary chain, Old English is related to other Germanic languages.
Why are we pulling in Germanic languages? Well it’s because cognates are a thing, which is when words sound similar between languages. For example English and Spanish have quite a few cognates and perfect cognates. “Alcohol” is written the same in both languages, though pronounced slightly differently. Almost as close as you can get between how English and Spanish phonetics work–making “alcohol” a perfect cognate.
Cognates between Old English and Germanic languages use the non-silent “K.” Which is a really long way of saying the “kn” expression in modern English is probably rooted in Germanic languages that were related to Old English.
Why Did “K” Become Silent?
Well as Old English is no longer spoken now, there are also versions of English in between Old English and what English-speakers use now that are no longer in phase. One of them was Middle English, used (probably) between the years 1150 to the early 1500s.
Middle English dumped or simplified a lot of features used in Old English–the pronounced “K” in the “kn” expression was included among them.
During the Middle English period, we saw the Norman Conquest, which was basically the Old French occupying England. You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that this had a pretty big influence on Middle English. Which it did, as many aspects of Norman French were folded into the language’s grammatical structure, as well as everyone’s cultural vernacular.
See if you know which English words come from Old Norse here.