Feel free to jump on any part you want:
- uses of silent letters
- examples of origins of words
- silent B
- silent C
- silent D
- silent E
- silent G
- silent GH
- silent H
- silent K
- silent L
- silent N
- silent P
- silent PH
- silent S
- silent T
- silent U
- silent W
We all know that English is not an easy language to learn. It can even prove to be difficult and confusing for students who have a background of two or more languages!
For many students, however, it is the pronunciation that causes most of the problems.
It is evident that there are some very common pronunciation issues that people face when learning English as a second language. This isn’t such a bad thing, as it means we know exactly which areas to target to make these difficulties easier to overcome.
One prominent obstacle can be silent letters.
I hear you asking:
- Why are there silent letters in English?
- What use are they if we don’t pronounce them?
- Why aren’t the words spelt like they are spoken?
- What are the rules for silent letters in English?
These are all very good questions!
You may think that silent letters can’t be all that important if they’re not pronounced, but as a matter of fact, they make a HUGE difference to the meaning of words, and sometimes, they even have the power to change their pronunciation!
If you look into the history of this language, you will see that about 90% of English used to be phonemic (this means that the words sounded the same as they looked). There were hardly any silent letters at all, but this soon began to change around the 15th century. Many words from other languages were introduced into English, to make it look more Latin or French. This caused problems as the new words didn’t follow the same rules of grammar as English! That is why, even though the spelling was already fixed for those words, some letters became silent.
The Latin alphabet was also adapted into the English language, and so there are only 26 letters to represent approximately 41 different significant sounds. For this reason, an attempt to use combinations of letters to represent sounds was introduced, thus ensuring that all the major sounds in English were covered.
This does make silent letters quite interesting, as you can see the history of each word in the way it is spelt, and track its origins!
As time passed, pronunciation continued to change, but the old spelling was preserved by the printing press, which came to England around the Middle English period. That’s why there are words that end in a silent ‘e’, or have other silent letters in the middle, such as ‘fright’.
Now, modern day English is only 40% phonemic!
Now I bet you’re thinking – “I hate spelling! This will make learning English even harder!” I can assure you; it’s not that bad, really.
As I mentioned before, around 60% of English words contain silent letters, so it is important to know how to spot them, when they can be pronounced and when they cannot. It could also cause problems if you are trying to find a word in a dictionary by the ‘sound’ of it, and not realising that it has a silent letter in it!
Let’s use the word ‘knowledge’ as an example, if you didn’t know how to spell this word, you might look under the letter ‘N’ in a dictionary!
Don’t worry too much, there is (sort of) a ‘solution’ ….there are some rules that explain which letters are supposed to be silent, before and after certain letters (the only ‘minor’ issue about this is that, like all English rules – there are usually some exceptions!).
Once you start practising these rules and use any new vocabulary that you learn, it will become easier to remember which letters are silent in some words, and in which words they are supposed to be pronounced.
Silent letters are not there to confuse you, even though you may think so! Identifying and understanding them will undoubtedly improve your spelling, speaking and writing skills, as well as boost your confidence!
Helpful uses of silent letters:
- They can be beneficial for readers, when having to distinguish between homophones (these are words that have the same sound, but different definitions and different spelling). Some examples of homophones are know/no, knot/not, their/there/they’re, band, banned and to/too/two.
- Silent letters can change the pronunciation of words, even though they are silent! For example, sin/sign, grim/grime, cop/cope, and rat/rate. So it is very beneficial to know where they are and when they are used, as they’ll help you to work out the meaning of the word!
- The letter ‘H’, when pronounced alone, should sound like ‘aitch’, but when used at the start of most words beginning with H, it uses its pronounced sound (e.g. hotel, house, ham), BUT it is usually silent in words that are of French origin such as hour, honest, heir, and honour.
- If Etymology (the origin of words) interests you, then you’ll find learning silent letters very fascinating, as they provide so much information about the history of words!
- The magic ‘e’ is another one of course! If you add ‘e’ at the end of words with short vowel sounds, it elongates the sound of the vowel, some examples would be: tap/tape, mat/mate, rid/ride, con/cone and fin/fine.
If you really want to improve your English and grow to love spelling, I would recommend you take an interest in the words you are learning. Try to understand the background of the words, think about how and why they’re spelt the way they are, and discover the logic behind them!
This is a great way of understanding, and in turn, remembering any new vocabulary that you learn, but it is especially helpful with silent letters.
A few examples of the origins of words:
- The origin of silent ‘k’ and ‘g’ in words such as gnaw, gnat, knee and knife:
These are examples of Viking words with letters that used to be pronounced, so they are still spelt the same way, but the pronunciation has changed. Although these letters are silent, they remain so that you can see their history and origin. In Sweden, they still pronounce the ‘k’ in their word for knife (kneefe)!
- Why the word island has a silent ‘s’ in it:
Apparently the word ‘island’ comes from Middle English, and was always pronounced the way it is today. It used to be spelt in a different way, without a silent letter, but the spelling was modified during the 15th century because of the word ‘isle’ that was borrowed from the French.
- The origins of the words with silent ‘gh’ like daughter, and why the ‘gh’ in enough and rough is pronounced with a /f/ sound:
This is one of the most difficult silent letters, as it is pronounced in more ways than one! This pattern is from the Anglo Saxons, other examples are dough, bright, fight and fright. The ‘gh’ sound used to be spelt with just the letter ‘h’, and was pronounced like the Scottish word ‘loch’ – a hard sound to pronounce! When the French invaded, they modified the spelling of these words and added the ‘g’ to make ‘gh’. This combination then either became silent or pronounced with the /f/ sound.
Here is a word that might confuse you – Hiccough is pronounced ‘hiccup’! The earliest English form of this word (in 1544) evolved into what it is in modern English today, in this order: hicket, hickot, hickock, hickop, hiccup and finally hiccough. The last word in the series (hiccough) was apparently invented because someone thought that there should be a link between ‘cough’ and ‘hiccup’! Personally, I can’t see why!
Rules of silent letters
This list contains most of the common silent letters and combinations that cause difficulties for English learners. Here are the rules to help you understand when to use some silent letters, but remember there are usually some exceptions!
(Please note that this is not a comprehensive list of all the rules around silent letters, only some of the most common ones that you may come across):
Rule 1: B is not pronounced after M at the end of a word.
- Examples: limb, crumb, dumb, comb, bomb, thumb, climb, tomb
Rule 2: B is usually not pronounced before T at the end of a root word.**
- Examples: debt, doubt, debtor, doubtful, subtle, subtleness
**A root word is the original word in its root form without any prefixes or suffixes attached e.g. doubt is the root word in doubtful, and the ‘ful’ is a suffix. Subtle is the root word, and ‘ness’ is a suffix.
Rule 1: C is not pronounced in the combination SC.
- Examples: Muscle, scissors, ascent, miscellaneous, fascinate, scenario
- Exceptions: Sclera, asclepiad, sclerosis, muscovado, sceptic
Rule 2: C is usually redundant before the letters K or Q.
- Examples: Acquaintance, acknowledge, acquiesce, acquit
Rule 1: D is not pronounced in the following common words:
- Handkerchief, Wednesday, sandwich, handsome
Rule 2: D is also not pronounced in the combination DG.
- Pledge, dodge, grudge, hedge
Rule: E is not pronounced at the end of words, but instead elongates the sound of the vowel before it.
- Examples: Hope, drive, gave, write, site, grave, bite, hide
- Exceptions: Giraffe, brunette, cassette, gazelle (You may be able to spot a pattern in these words; they have similar combinations in the last syllable. This shows that the exceptions are generally words with unusual stress on the final syllable – but not always! One example would be the word ‘minute’ as in the time-measuring unit.)
Rule: G is not often not pronounced when it comes before N.
- Examples: Champagne, foreign, sign, feign, foreign, design, align, cognac
- Exceptions: Magnet, igneous, cognitive, signature
Rule 1: GH is not pronounced when it comes after a vowel.
- Examples: Thought, drought, through, thorough, borough, daughter, light, might, sigh, right, fight, weigh, weight
- Exceptions: Doghouse, foghorn, bighead (As you can see, the exceptions are generally compound words i.e. words that have been formed by combining two complete words)
Rule 2: GH is sometimes pronounced like F.
- Examples: rough, tough, laugh, enough, cough, clough, draught
- Exceptions: Examples from rule 1!
Rule 1: H is not pronounced when it comes after W (n.b. some speakers whisper the H before the W).
- Examples: what, when, where, whether, why
Rule 2: H is not pronounced at the beginning of many words (remember to use the article “an” with unvoiced H).
- Examples: hour, honest, honour, heir
- Exceptions: hill, history, height, happy, hereditary (Plus most other words beginning with H that are NOT of French origin – and remember to use the article “a” with voiced H)
Rule 3: H is often not pronounced when it comes after C, G or R.
- Examples: choir, chorus, ghastly, ghoul, aghast, echo, rhinocerous, rhythm
Rule: K is not pronounced when it comes before N at the beginning of a word.
- Examples: knife, knee, know, knock, knowledge, knead
Rule: L is not pronounced after the vowels A, O and U.
- Examples: calm, half, talk, walk, would, should, could, calf, salmon, yolk, chalk, folk, balm
- Exceptions: Halo, bulk, sulk, hold, sold, fold, mould
Rule: N is not pronounced when it comes after M at the end of a word.
- Examples: Autumn, hymn, column, solemn
Rule: P is not pronounced at the beginning of many words using the combinations PS, PT and PN.
- Psychiatrist, pneumonia, pneumatic, psychotherapy, psychotic, psychologist, pseudonym, Pterodactyl
Rule: PH is sometimes pronounced like F.
- Examples: telephone, paragraph, alphabet, epiphany, sophomore
Rule: S is not pronounced before L in the following words:
- Island, isle, aisle, islet
Rule: T is not pronounced in these common words:
- Castle, Christmas, fasten, listen, often, whistle, thistle, bustle, hasten, soften, rapport, gourmet, ballet
Rule: U is not pronounced when it comes after G and before a vowel.
- Examples: guess, guidance, guitar, guest, guild, guard
Rule 1: W is not pronounced at the beginning of a word when it is before the letter R.
- Examples: wrap, write, wrong, wring, wreck, wrestle, wrap, wrist
Rule 2: W is not pronounced in the following words:
- Who, whose, whom, whole, whoever, answer, sword, two
See if you can figure out how many words that contain silent letters there are in this paragraph (Please note – not all the words have been used as examples in this blog, that would be too easy..!):
It is undoubtedly a tough skill to acquire, you may even consider condemning this language, with all its oddities and words that are spelt the same but do not rhyme! I hope whoever attempts to decipher and recognise silent letters is successful, and manages to train their tongue to listen to the sounds, ignore the unspoken ghosts and soften their speech. Also, that they are able to talk with folk in any matter, may it be business or pleasure, with dialogue as that of a native speaker. So grab your friend’s wrist and practise until your brain feels numb! If you try hard enough, fluent you will become!