Thursday, March 17, 2011

Silent Letters in English

English is reputed to be among the most difficult second languages to acquire, and although my position is a biased one, I’m sure it’s true. It’s not so much because of the grammar, which is actually pretty simple — though it does have quite a profusion of irregular forms. I think the main obstacle is the spelling and pronunciation, which is far from regular. Just consider the inconsistencies in “the tough coughs as he ploughs the dough” (courtesy of Dr. Seuss), in which the same cluster of letters is pronounced in four different ways!

The main reason for these inconsistencies is that English is an amalgam of so many other linguistic influences, ranging across the whole Indo-European spectrum, with a staggering number of foreign borrowings from virtually every language family on Earth. If America is the so-called melting pot, then the English language is its fondue fork, dipping into the pot and drawing out whatever words it finds useful, sometimes modifying their spelling, sometimes their pronunciation, sometimes neither, and sometimes both! No wonder ESL students have difficulty.

English is particularly famous for its silent letters. Many languages have some of these. French is also notorious for them, but in French, they tend to be much more regular; in English, they are anything but! As a fun exercise, I’ve tried to think up words in which each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet is silent. There are only one or two letters for which I couldn’t find an example (or possibly as many as five, depending on how strict you are). That’s pretty good, eh? (Or pretty bad, if you are learning the language.) In any case, more than twenty of the letters in the English alphabet can be silent, which is pretty incredible whther you deem it good or bad.

Wherever I could, I’ve also tried to show the same letter silent in more than one position in a word (i.e., initially, medially, and/or terminally). Some of these are words of foreign borrowing, though I’ve tried to limit them. Such borrowings are inevitable with English, but feel free to disqualify them if you prefer a stricter game. Also, comments on the silent letters in other languages are welcome!

A: Cocoa, Bread, Practically [and innumerable adverbs of the same sort]

B: Debt, subtle, doubt, climb, plumb, thumb, lamb, subpoena

C: Indict, muscle, chthonic, victual, czar, science, yacht, scissors

D: Handkerchief, bundt, Wednesday, djinn

E: Every, evening, vegetable, walked, talked [I don’t count the terminal e in words like fate, because it governs the pronunciation of the earlier vowel.]

F: Halfpenny

G: Phlegm, gnu, gnome, eight, align, foreign, diaphragm

H: Honest, hour, eight, exhibit

I: Business, parliament

J: Marijuana

K: Knee, knife, knot

L: Half, salmon, calf, yolk, talk, would

M: Mnemonic

N: Autumn, damn, hymn, column

O: Subpoena, Leopard, Country

P: Corps, coup, cupboard, pneumonia, ptomaine, pterodactyl, pseudo, psychic, psalm, receipt

Q: Lacquer, racquet [not the best examples; anyone have anything better?]

R: February [by some], forecastle [I don’t count non-rhotic accents, in which r is routinely silent, since this is not my own accent. Can anyone think of any others?]

S: Island, corps, aisle, debris, hors d’oeuvre, viscount, demesne

T: Ballet, tsunami [by some], thistle, rapport, ricochet, listen, castle, soften, whistle

U: buoy [by some], biscuit, victual [I disqualify u when following g and q; in those cases, it governs the pronunciation of the consonant.]

V: — [anyone?]

W: Write, wrist, answer, sword, two, whole, who

X: Faux, Sioux

Y: Key [maybe; what do you think?]

Z: Rendezvous, laissez-faire, chez [exclusively French; can anyone think of something else?]

And for even more fun, there are some words which, through the continued erosion of their pronunciation, now boast multiple silent letters in English. Examples: corps, boatswain, blancmange, forecastle — or is it actually forecastle?! Can anyone think of a word with three or more silent letters in it?


  1. sl[o]u[gh] - an area of soft, muddy ground; swamp or swamplike region.

  2. In August I attended a drum and bugle corps competition. After the final performance, while the judges' scores were being tabulated, a spokesman and the mascot for the local professional basketball team, which was among the competition's sponsors, came out to promote the team and slingshot T-shirts into the audience, aiming for fans of the various competitors. "Where are the fans of the Santa Clara Vanguard corps?" he would ask. "Who's here for the Bluecoats corps?"

    Except that he kept pronouncing it corpse.

  3. V seems to turn up in some poems in places where it's hard to believe the poet intended it to be (distinctly) pronounced. For example: 'Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam / Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.' (Shelley, 'Hellas'.) 'Heaven' here occupies a single beat.

  4. Gary Schmidt3/17/2011 7:55 PM

    "If America is the so-called melting pot, then the English language is its fondue fork." Nice! :)

    How about the "ugh" in "thoughts" as a triptych of silent letters?

  5. My dictionary tells me that "forecastle" is pronounced /ˈfəʊk.sᵊl/ (or /ˈfoʊk.sᵊl/ in AmE).

    I assume surnames and place names don't count, because there you have plenty of silent clusters, like "Alverdiscott" /ˈɒlskɒt/ where the silent five letters in the middle are a name by themselves! "Lefebvrist" would be a case of silent /b/ or /v/, depending on who's saying it.

  6. I'm not sure that you can count Marijuana, as it's a distintly Spanish word. Like Juan, and Jalapenos, etc. The "J" isn't really silent, it's just making a very faint "H" sound as per the Spanish language, and is particularly faint when English-Speakers pronounce "Marijuana".

  7. What a wonderful post! I never thought about how many silent letters there are in English. I'm so glad it's my native language. I can't imagine learning as a second language. I pity my more ESL students.

  8. Thanks, all, for the comments. Gary, nice to see you stopping by again! Hlaford, yes, I excluded proper names, but one could choose to include them. They erode even more strangely and rapidly than do other words, as you note in your examples.

    Lillput90, marijuana is a word of Spanish origin, yes, but it’s ubiquitous in English these days, where the j is almost never pronounced. Even in Spanish, it seems there is an alternate form, marihuana, and the Spanish h is definitely silent. But to get a silent j, one has to resort to a foreign loanword. Another choice might be the Dutch word rijsttafel, which has since made its way into English. There, the j is not pronounced, but I would probably exclude it from my list anyway, because its part of the diphthong in the first syllable.

  9. Actually, "marihuana" (silent "h") is the standard form in Spanish. There is an alternate form "mariguana" recorded in the DRAE, but I've never heard it in use. The form "marijuana" seems to be peculiar to English; it's not found in Spanish in the CORDE until the 60's, whereas "marihuana" is first recorded there in 1896. It's been suggested that in comes from Náhuatl; see (where an attestation of "marihuana" in Mexico from 1850-60 is mentioned).

    Funny to see that English adopted the Spanish pronunciation but changed the spelling, creating the silent "j" (though the 1989 OED gives only /mærɪ'hwɑːnə/, showing that the /h/ must have been standard at the beginning; Cambridge 2006 gives /mærɪ'wɑːnə/).

  10. Thanks for the correction, Hlaford. As you can see, Spanish isn’t really my forte. :)

  11. I think several of these are cheating. If a word like `chez' is still sounded exactly as they are in their languages of origin I think it really is questionable to use them as examples of English pronunciation. If they'd been Englished in any way it might be fair enough, but I don't think they have (unlike `marijuana', for example, where whatever the aspirate sound was represented by, it's mostly gone now). Some are just typographical: in `subpoena', the second vowel is really `œ', which is what's pronounced; but people's typewriters didn't have ligatured vowels on them so the spelling was expanded out (or whatever the actual explanation of the change is). The pronunciation, though, hasn't changed since it was being spelt with the diphthong as a single character.

    Then there's the all-important "(by some)" qualifier. You could expand that quite a way if you start talking with a British accent. I, for example, would actually sound the letters you reckon silent in all of:
    (I'm not sure I'm right to do so, but I do, and it's one of those words where so few people have heard it they're not sure either so they don't correct you...)
    Wednesday (edge case, this one, as RP of the word is actually "Wendsday" despite spelling)
    (when used as adjective, anyway)

    Now OK, you may well like to argue that RP (Received Pronunciation, or BBC English as it's otherwise known, in case that confuses anyone) is a retrospective and ultimately academic exercise expressly designed to make spoken usage more like spelling; fair enough, it was/is. But given as it succeeded, for a while at least, its usages are still usage...

    (Forgive lack of OpenID authentication; Blogger is having one of those days where it eats OpenID comments.)

  12. Hi, Jonathan. Thanks for your considered comments!

    I think several of these are cheating.

    How can it be cheating when the rules are mine? ;) I’m not suggesting a word like chez is representative of English pronunciation — far from it! — but because the word has been adopted into English, it is an example of the problems of pronunciation in English. Like it or not, chez is now an English word. Not all loanwords have been Englished, as you point out, but so? Some have, some haven’t — this inconsistency actually makes English harder to learn, which was a large part of my point.

    Some are just typographical: in ‘subpoena’, the second vowel is really ‘œ’, which is what’s pronounced

    You’re right about the spelling, but not the pronunciation. Nobody I know pronounces the œ in subpoena in the original way. Are you saying you do? In fact, originally, as you may know, the Latin œ represented the Greek diphthong οι. So, how exactly do you pronounce subpoena? With /œ/, /ø/, /o+e/, or something else?

    Then there's the all-important "(by some)" qualifier. You could expand that quite a way if you start talking with a British accent. I, for example, would actually sound the letters you reckon silent

    Yes, of course. You would also not pronounce a lot of r’s that I would pronounce. By the way, I noted February as “by some” because I pronounce both r’s myself — though I don’t know anybody else who does. Do you? Some of your other pronunciations seem anomalous to me. Is the g in gnu typically pronounced in RP? And the p in receipt? If so, it’s news to me (though I admit that gnu comes up in conversation only slightly more often than chthonic :).

  13. You have 'yacht' with a silent 'c', but it's the whole 'ch' that's silent there!

  14. True enough, anon. Likewise, I have eight with a silent g, but it’s the whole gh that is silent. These two sounds, though now silent, were originally sounded in their antecedent forms. If I were being more precise, from the standpoint of phonology, I should have referred to a silent ch and a silent gh, but I felt there was no need for such precision in a fun exercise such as this one. But yes, actually, you are right. :)

  15. Sorry to leave the thread hanging; I wrote one long reply, but Blogger ate it in a fit of pique and I didn't then have time to reconstruct it. You are probably right, Jason, that some of my pronunciations are possibly recherché; you have words up there that I doubt I'd ever heard anyone use before I fixed my own pronunciation from the spelling, and where that experience is common enough that most people aren't sure enough to contradict. I feel that I ought to know whether `gnu' is really pronounced with the `g' in UK English, because I've seen enough documentaries with the things but I wonder if they all chickened out and called them wildebeest. There is, you see, an old song called `The Gnu' by Flanders and Swann, which you may even know, which is on dozens of children's anthologies in the UK, and will be most people's first meeting with the word. It makes great play of the pronunciation, and it may therefore be that it would now sound `wrong' to the average documentary viewer to be confronted with the right pronunciation... all the same, I do pronounce both r's in February and the p in receipt, though the latter is vestigial and can easily be snuck in.

    As for subpoena, I pronounce that—and this is one I learnt off US television, I'm fairly sure—with the same vowel as phœnix or fœtus, that is `ee'. I suppose it's arguable that doesn't count.

    Here is an unrelated question that I was asked by a colleague the other day and was embarrassingly unable to answer. What is the origin of the word `dog'? Why does English have something that is like neither `canis' nor `hund'? (And is there *any* feasible connection with the fact that Catalan replaced `can' with `gos' for the same meaning somewhen in the early modern period?) Does anyone know this? The Oxford OED appears not to, but then that bit hasn't been revised yet...

  16. No need to be embarrassed about that one; “dog” has prompted tricky and somewhat contentious etymologies for years.

    It wouldn’t be directly related to the Catalan substitution you mentioned. I’m not familiar with that myself, but it can be ruled out by date. English dog antedates the Early Modern period by many centuries.

    It’s found in Middle English as dogge (cf. Ancrene Wisse), so it had entered common usage by the early 13th century; Chaucer and others used it often in the 14th and beyond.

    It is actually attested in Old English much earlier than this — but only once — as docgena (genitive plural of a lost nominative form, *docga), glossing Latin canorum (in the Old English glosses of Prudentius’s Peristephanon, cf. Glossen zu Prudentius, 1872).

    The usual theories are that this etymon was borrowed into English from the Low German side of the Stammbaum. Of course, that’s just kicking the can a little further down the road, since it’s unclear how it originated there. And even if it came to English from Old Low Franconian or Old Frisian, we have no explanation for why a word attested only once before the 13th century should have suddenly taken off as it did. It didn’t push hound (cognate to Latin canis) out of the language altogether, but it did overtake it — and relatively quickly, in the philological sense.

  17. As a UK English speaker I find it physically difficult to pronounce both Rs in February; as a Librarian (retired) I wax wroth whenever anyone fails to pronounce both Rs in 'Library' (I can say that!)

    (I'm actu-a-lly Saranna from LOTR Plaza but may not have understood the legal ways to post a comment on here............)

  18. Hi, Saranna. You can post anonymously, as you have done, or you can do so through Google, LiveJournal, WordPress, OpenID, or any of several other methods. Anyway, you got the comment onto the post, and that’s the main thing. :)

    I agree about “library”. Here in the US, failing to pronounce both r’s is considered a sign of either baby- or yokel-talk. (And in fact, there’s a further distinguishing factor between these two: whether the first syllable is pronounced with or without a diphthong!)

  19. Thanks Jason - I would be happy to appear here as myself, but I should have explained more clearly - confusticate these wordses - that I don't know how to post 'through' anything except a letter-box (or possibly mail-box depending where I am vis-a-vis [silent S] the Atlantic Ocean at the point of posting). Can anyone advise me, I would probably understand Google best. Please bear with one who was, after all, born in the first half of the last century. Gosh this blogging is fun, it's quite catching is it not? RE: liberry, I see it printed thus in the works of Stephen King, and not necessarily in the speech of the worst of charatcers, not at all.

  20. Of course! If you want to try using Google, then you first need a Google account. Assuming you have one, just go to Google and sign in (upper right-hand corner). If you don’t already have one, you can create one now. Once you’ve signed into Google, come back here, and underneath the “Post a Comment” text box, you should see a dropdown list, captioned “Comment as:”. It may already have your Google account selected, but if not, choose it from the list. From that point on, your comment should appear properly “signed”. Does all that make sense? :)

  21. I am already signed in so let's give it a go....

  22. Damn - would rather not have had a lower-case s but there you go, it's better than anonymity.
    Hi guys I'm Sue or Saranna, depending on whether you are into LOTR fanatics plaza or not..........