The Real Reason Some English Words Have Silent Letters

There are legitimate explanations for why words like pterodactyl and tsunami exist.

close up of young woman holding finger on lipsPhoto: TIKO ARAMYAN/SHUTTERSTOCK

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.

Now if you were to pronounce every single letter you saw in that ridiculous sentence, it would sound a lot different than what you just read in your mind.

The English language is notorious for its use of silent letters, which is one of the reasons these are the hardest English words to pronounce. In fact, about 60 per cent of English words contain a silent letter. But these often distressing words weren’t intended to be so confusing.

In many cases, these silent letters actually were pronounced, like when “knight” sounded like “kniht” or “bite” sounded like “beetuh.” In the Middle Ages, the English language was rocked by the Great Vowel Shift, a major phonetic change that affected how long vowels were spoken. These changes took place over the course of several centuries and eventually led to modern English pronunciations with little or no changes in spelling.

Some of these changes are marked by the notorious silent “e,” which makes “rid” an entirely different word than “ride.” This usage makes “e” a diacritic letter, one that is unpronounced but changes the pronunciation of another syllable. (Here’s why IKEA products have such weird names.)

Other words with silent letters are borrowed from other languages. For instance, “tsunami” is actually a Japanese word, and “psychology” comes from the Greek words “psyche” (meaning spirit or soul) and “logica” (meaning the study of something). However, the consonant combinations “ts” and “ps” aren’t used to start words in English, so the first letters became silent so it would meet the language’s phonological rules. (These 19 words are spelled the same forwards and backwards.)

But there is one more factor that resulted in these silent letters: ego. Some people with influence over how the English language would evolve added extra letters simply because they could. Many printers who operated printing presses in England came from the Netherlands and Germany. Because they had control over a language that was, at the time, still not standardized, they added extra letters to have them resemble words from their home countries. In a similar way, scholars added the silent “b” to “doubt” to educate the (what they assumed was) oblivious public on the word’s derivation from the Latin “dubitare.” In reality, all they did was turn “dout” into “doubt” when no one asked for an unnecessary consonant.

While silent letters may seem useless at times, it’s almost impossible to ignore them because they play such a prominent role in the English language. Luckily, we found some grammatical loopholes that can make your life easier.

Check out the 17 Words Even Smart People Mispronounce!

[Sources: The Independent, Mental Floss]

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest