Silent letter


Silent letter

In an alphabetic writing system, a silent letter is a letter that, in a particular word, does not correspond to any sound in the word's pronunciation. Silent letters create problems for both native and non-native speakers of a language, as they make it more difficult to guess the spellings of spoken words. Phonetic transcriptions that better depict pronunciation and which note changes due to grammar and proximity of other words require a symbol to show that the letter is mute. Handwritten notes use a circle with a line through it and the sound is called "zero"; it resembles the symbol for the "empty set", but must not be confused with the Danish and Norwegian letter Ø. In printed or computer graphic presentation using the IPA system, the symbol is used.

Contents

English

One of the noted difficulties of English spelling is a high number of silent letters. Carney distinguishes different kinds of "silent" letter, which present differing degrees of difficulty to readers and writers:

  • Auxiliary letters which, with another letter, constitute digraphs, i.e. two letters combined which represent a single phoneme. These may further be categorized as
    • "exocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is different from that of either of its constituent letters. These are rarely considered "silent". There are examples
      • where the phoneme has no standard single-letter representation, as with consonants ⟨ng⟩ for /ŋ/ as in sing, ⟨th⟩ for /θ/ as in thin or /ð/ as in then, and ⟨sh⟩ for /ʃ/ as in show, and diphthongs ⟨ou⟩ in out or ⟨oi⟩ in point. These are the default spellings for the relevant sounds and present no special difficulty for readers or writers.
      • where standard single-letter representation uses another letter, as with ⟨gh⟩ in enough or ⟨ph⟩ in physical instead of ⟨f⟩. These are irregular for writers but may be less difficult for readers.
    • "endocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is the same as that of one of its constituent letters. These include
      • most double consonants, as ⟨bb⟩ in clubbed; though not geminate consonants, as ⟨ss⟩ in misspell. Doubling due to suffixation or inflection is regular; otherwise it may present difficulty to writers (e.g. accommodate is often misspelt) but not to readers.
      • the discontiguous digraphs whose second element is "magic e", e.g. ⟨a_e⟩ in rate (cf. rat), ⟨i_e⟩ in fine (cf. fin). This is the regular way to represent "long" vowels in the last syllable of a morpheme.
      • others such as ⟨ck⟩ (which is in effect the "doubled" form of ⟨k⟩), ⟨gu⟩ as in guard, vogue; ⟨ea⟩ as in bread, heavy, etc. These are difficult for writers and sometimes for readers.
  • Dummy letters with no relation to neighbouring letters and no correspondence in pronunciation:
    • Some are inert letters, which are sounded in a cognate word: e.g. ⟨n⟩ in damn (cf. damnation); ⟨g⟩ in phlegm (cf. phlegmatic); ⟨a⟩ in practically (cf. practical). If the cognate is obvious, it may aid writers in spelling, but mislead readers in pronunciation.
    • The rest are empty letters which never have a sound, e.g. ⟨w⟩ in answer, ⟨h⟩ in Sarah, ⟨s⟩ in island, ⟨b⟩ in subtle, the ⟨t⟩ in ballet. These present the greatest difficulty to writers and often to readers.

The distinction between "endocentric" digraphs and empty letters is somewhat arbitrary. For example, in such words as little and bottle one might view ⟨le⟩ as an "endocentric" digraph for /əl/, or view ⟨e⟩ as an empty letter; similarly with ⟨bu⟩ or ⟨u⟩ in buy and build.

Not all silent letters are completely redundant:

  • Silent letters can distinguish between homophones, e.g. in/inn; be/bee; lent/leant. This is an aid to readers already familiar with both words.
  • Silent letters may give an insight into the meaning or origin of a word, e.g. vineyard suggests vines more than the phonetic *vinyard would.
  • The final ⟨fe⟩ in giraffe gives a clue to the second-syllable stress, where *giraf might suggest initial-stress.

Silent letters arise in several ways:

  • Sound changes occurring without a spelling change. The digraph ⟨gh⟩ was pronounced [x] in Middle English in such words as light.
  • Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by ⟨r⟩ and ⟨rh⟩ in Latin, but merged to the same [r] in English. Similarly with ⟨f⟩ / ⟨ph⟩, the latter from Greek phi.
  • Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters e.g. silent ⟨th⟩ in asthma, silent ⟨t⟩ in Christmas. Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial ⟨ps⟩ in psychology and ⟨mn⟩ in mnemonic.
  • Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling. The ⟨b⟩ in debt and doubt was inserted to reflect Latin cognates like debit and dubitable.

Since accent and pronunciation differ, letters may be silent for some speakers but not others. In non-rhotic accents, ⟨r⟩ is silent in such words as hard, feathered; in h dropping accents, ⟨h⟩ is silent. A speaker may pronounce ⟨t⟩ in often or tsunami or neither or both.

French

Silent letters are common in French. Ignoring auxiliary letters that create digraphs (such as ⟨ch⟩, ⟨gn⟩, ⟨ph⟩, ⟨au⟩, ⟨eu⟩, ⟨ei⟩, and ⟨ou⟩, and ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩ as signals for nasalized vowels), they include almost every possible letter except ⟨a⟩, ⟨j⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨q⟩, ⟨v⟩, and ⟨y⟩. In french most of the time the last letter of a word is not pronounced or silent.

Vowels

Final ⟨e⟩ is silent or at least (in poetry and song) a nearly-silent schwa /ə/; it allows the preservation of a preceding consonant, often allowing the preservation of a grammatical distinction between masculine and feminine forms in writing (vert, verte (green); the ⟨t⟩ is pronounced in the latter but not the former) or preventing an awkward ending of a word ending in a consonant and a liquid (peuple, sucre). After ⟨é⟩, ⟨i⟩, or ⟨u⟩, a final ⟨e⟩ (but not ⟨é⟩) is silent. The spelling ⟨eau⟩ is pronounced just the same as that for ⟨au⟩ and is entirely an etymological distinction, so in that context, the ⟨e⟩ is silent.

After ⟨g⟩ or ⟨q⟩, ⟨u⟩ is almost always silent.

Consonants

The letter ⟨h⟩ is always silent, except in the digraphs ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨ph⟩. Numerous doubled consonants exist; French does not distinguish doubled consonants from single consonants in pronunciation as does Italian. A marked distinction exists between a single and doubled ⟨s⟩: doubled ⟨ss⟩ is always voiceless [s], while an intervocalic single ⟨s⟩ is voiced [z].

The nasal consonants ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩ when final or preceding a consonant ordinarily nasalize a preceding vowel but are not themselves pronounced (faim, tomber, vin, vendre). Initial and intervocalic ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩, even before a final silent ⟨e⟩, are pronounced: aimer, jaune.

Most final consonants are silent, usual exceptions to be found with the letters ⟨c⟩, ⟨f⟩, ⟨l⟩, and ⟨r⟩ (the English word careful is mnemonic for this set). But even this rule has its exceptions: final ⟨r⟩ in the infinitive of all first conjugation (but not second, third, or fourth conjugation) verbs is effectively silent, although it forces a pronunciation of the preceding ⟨e⟩ as if it were ⟨é⟩. Final ⟨l⟩ is silent after ⟨i⟩ even in a diphthong (oeuil, appareil, travail). The third-person plural verb ending -ent is always silent.

Final consonants that might be silent in other contexts (finally or before another consonant) may seem to reappear in pronunciation in liaison: ils ont [ilz‿ɔ̃] "they have", as opposed to ils vont [il vɔ̃] "they go"; liaison is the retention (between words in certain syntactic relationships) of a historical sound otherwise lost, and often has grammatical or lexical significance.

Spanish

Despite being rather phonemic, Spanish orthography retains some silent letters:

  • ⟨h⟩ is silent outside of the digraph ⟨ch⟩.
  • The digraph ⟨qu⟩, used to represent [k] before the front vowels ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩, has a silent ⟨u⟩
  • ⟨gu⟩ for /ɡ/ has the same silent ⟨u⟩ before ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩. When the ⟨u⟩ is not silent it must be marked with a trema: ⟨ü⟩. Before ⟨a⟩ and ⟨o⟩, the ⟨u⟩ is not silent.
  • Alien consonant clusters may be simplified in pronunciation, but retain the silent letters: psicología [sikoloˈxia]

See also

References


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