Recently I came across a fascinating if brief question-and-answer about silent letters in English, as in the b in “debt,” for example.
Here is the bit I particularly want to pull out:
One important and often overlooked reason for having silent letters in the spelling of English words is because spelling in English is meant to do much more than tell you how to pronounce a word. For one thing, it can also tell you about the history of the word, its origins and its evolution. Not all languages have this property in their written forms, but English does.
It can also serve to create heterographs out of homophones, which helps when reading. For example, consider the word pronounced /raɪt/. That can be any of:
As soon as you see it on the printed page, you know which of those four words it is. You don’t have to puzzle it out. This increases reading speed and proficiency.
Hah, always knew there was a good reason not to rail against weird spelling in English.
Now, I will add, if you think this
is confusing or awkward as a pronunciation guide, you should definitely click through and glance at the much (much) more extensive discussion of the pronunciation of “right” (etc) when you add in elements like accent and dialect.
The post concludes thus:
As you can see from the list above, you do not have to spell English with “silent” letters. However, when you really do go to the trouble to spell it out phonetically, you thereby:
Cut yourself off from all your literature, so you can kiss your culture goodbye.
Make it impossible to distinguish homophones.
Disconnect a word’s history from its spelling.
Force people to learn a much larger alphabet, one that requires several hundred letters — have fun typing those, too.
Make it so that you can no longer communicate with anybody who lives two miles away, let alone two (or twelve!) thousand miles away.
But because English has silent letters, none of that applies. This is a blessing, you know. You should be happy nearly to the point of being overjoyed that English has silent letters. They are a major win, and without them, we would all be lost.
There’s no point in my trying to improve on that heartfelt declaration, so I just produce it here for you all to enjoy. If you have a moment, you should certainly click through and read the whole thing.