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Why so silent?

by Mellissa Martinez

At some point in elementary school, we encounter the very sneaky silent letter. We learn that although ‘knight’ sounds identical to ‘night,’ it actually begins with a ‘k.’ The same goes for ‘knob,’ ‘know’ and ‘knife.’ Teachers explain that ‘doubt’ and ‘comb’ have a hidden ‘b,’ while ‘hour’ and ‘honor’ start with ‘h.’ The curious kid who seeks an explanation is often faced with the following answer: That’s just the way it’s spelled.

It doesn’t take long to realize that those hidden b’s and k’s are just the tip of the iceberg. As adults, we must contend with the likes of  ‘condemn,’ ‘rhubarb,’ and ‘apropos.’  Consider ‘wrestle,’ where only 4 of the 7 letters are actually pronounced, and what about ‘pneumonia’ and ‘pterodactyl’? Where do these silent stumpers come from?

The answer lies in history. In the 5th century AD, when Germans settled in Celtic-speaking England, they were headed for a lot of turmoil. The emerging language, English, would be influenced by close contact with other languages for many centuries to follow. English speakers endured invasion by Latin-speaking Romans, followed by Norse-speaking Vikings and eventually the French. In fact, there was a time when French was deemed the official language of England. Thus, it’s no surprise that English is a hodgepodge of German, Norse, Celtic, Latin and French borrowings.

Many silent letters came directly from French or Latin, where they were already silent. French gave us the silent ‘h’ of ‘hour,’ ‘heir,’ and ‘honest’ and ‘s’ of ‘apropos,’ ‘debris,’ ‘bourgeois’ and even ‘Illinois.’ This 1809 territory was named for the Algonquian people who called themselves Ilinouek, meaning ‘ordinary speaker.’ In the 17th century, the French spelling, ‘Illinois,’ was imposed, initially pronounced Ilnwe. Latin gave us silent letters in words like ‘pneumonia,’ ‘psalm,’ ‘rhubarb,’ and ‘pterodactyl.’ These combinations of ‘pn,’ ‘pt,’ and ‘rh’ came from Ancient Greek where such consonant clusters are commonplace. They were pronounced so faintly in Latin that they were perceived as silent to the English adopter.

Others among our silent letters were not silent when they came into English. In Old English, all words that began with kn-, such as ‘knight,’ ‘knife,’ ‘knead,’ ‘knee,’ ‘knit,’ ‘knock,’ ‘knot,’ ‘know’ and ‘knuckle,’ were originally pronounced k’n, as in k’nee, k’nit, and k’nock. This pronunciation is still common in languages like German, Dutch and Swedish. Consider Modern German knie, ‘knee,’ pronounced “k’nee.” This sound combination can also be heard in the Hebrew word Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, which is derived from Hebrew kanas, ‘he gathered.’

As English evolved, the existing sounds of our language shaped the way that people pronounced borrowed words.  In the 17th century, English-speakers no longer felt comfortable pronouncing the hard k’n combination. It didn’t exist in other English words, so why should it exist in k’night and k’nife? Slowly, speakers phased out the ‘k.’ The spelling remained, but the sound didn’t, leaving us with a silent letter. The same thing happened with the ‘l’ of ‘half,’ ‘calf,’ ‘balm,’ ‘palm,’ ‘folk’ and ‘yolk.’ Even today, as language evolves, one can note certain letters becoming silent. Consider the ‘d’ in compound nouns ‘handsome’ and ‘landscape.’ Many people ignore them altogether. Eventually, the ‘d’ will fall into the category of silent letter, much as it has in ‘Wednesday,’ from Old English Wodnesdæg.

All languages build their words from a finite set of sound units. Each language has constraints on how these sounds can be arranged to form syllables. Linguists call these permissible sounds phonotactic constraints. There are no words in English, for example, that begin with ‘bm’ or ‘dn.’ We are also more likely to have clusters of ‘pla’ or ‘fni’ rather than ‘lpa’ or ‘nfi.’ It is awkward for us to pronounce ‘kn,’ ‘gn,’ ‘hl,’ ‘hr,’ and ‘hw.’ If a word is borrowed from a language that has these sounds, we slowly transform the word to fit our sound system.

An example of this phenomenon can be seen in Japanese with English loanwords. The constraints in Japanese specify that all consonant sounds must be separated by a vowel sound. When the word ‘Christmas’ was borrowed, speakers transformed the word to fit their system. The Japanese pronunciation, kurisumasu, is unrecognizable in English.

Some silent letters emerged with the invention of the printing press.  Before this time, it wasn’t necessary for everyone to agree on absolute spellings of words. Consider this line from Canterbury Tales, written in the 14th century, where Chaucer spells ‘busy’ two different ways: “Nowher so besy a man as he…And het he semed bisier than he was.” When books went to print, spelling decisions were largely left up to the people running the press. Given that many did not speak English as a first language, they often relied on the rules of their own language. It is believed, for example, that the word ‘ghost’ was originally spelled ‘gost.’ The Dutch added the ‘h’ because of the ‘h’ in Dutch.

As if we didn’t have enough silent letters, some were added arbitrarily in the 18th century, in an effort to spruce up our language. Scholars believed we had become lazy by leaving out the letters that tied words to their Latin origins, so b’s were added to dette, doute and sutill, giving a nod to their classical origins, debitum, dubitum and subtilis. No doubt, we owe a debt of gratitude for these subtle changes imposed by the word police of yesteryear. With this in mind, I’ll sign off with a sigh.

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