What good are silent letters?

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.

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3 thoughts on “What good are silent letters?”

  1. That was fun to read. The first assignment in my undergrad phonetics class was to transcribe one sentence in several different dialects using IPA. I made the mistake of transcribing what I thought I was hearing instead of what I actually heard; like using /raɪt/ for all cases of “right”. I was very confused when that assignment came back!

    I think IPA is also why I tend to read E as eh, not ee, and I as ee, not eye in unfamiliar names.

  2. An example from another language, Japanese has a complete set of phonetic characters in addition to the numerous ideographs. I’ve noticed when people are first learning the language, they don’t understand why you would bother to learn 2000 characters if you could just write everything phonetically, but honestly it is really painful to read like that. It isn’t even a matter of wondering if the “hi” word you’re looking at is 日 (day), 火 (fire), or 氷 (ice), or half a dozen others, but because the shapes of the sentences are weird and you can’t see the grammar at a glance. It’s kind of like having no spaces in English so you don’t know easily where you’re cutting words.

    There are lots of fun ways to play with scripts too. To use Japanese as an example again, there is the character 話 (to talk) which consists of a bit on the left about communication and a bit on the bottom about an open mouth, but there is the extremely similar character 語 (language) which also has the bit on the left and on the bottom, but the piece in the upper right says “pronounce this one like 五 (five).” Some characters have histories so distorted through time that they seem to make no sense (but in a fun way, such as this humorous examination of the character for phosphorous.)

  3. I had to look up IPA and now I know that it stands for International Phonetics Alphabet and also where those weird pronunciation characters came from in that post, so thanks, Mona! That was mysterious.

    I didn’t know any of that about Japanese. It sure makes a good real-world example of why basing written language just on phonetics won’t work. Also, that is a really neat post about phosphorus.

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