Silent Letters in English

Definition and Examples

Holiday wreath
W is a silent consonant in the word wreath.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

In English pronunciation, a silent letter—a term used informally—is a letter or letter combination of the alphabet that is usually not pronounced in a word. Examples include the b in subtle, the c in scissors, the g in design, the t in listen, and the gh in thought

Many words contain silent letters. In fact, according to Ursula Dubosarsky, author of The Word Snoop, "roughly 60 percent of words in English have a silent letter in them," (Dubosarsky 2008). Keep reading to learn the types of silent letters as well as how they affect pronunciation and English language learning.

Types of Silent Letters

Edward Carney, author of A Survey of English Spelling, categorizes silent letters into two groups: auxiliary and dummy. He breaks down the two groups as follows.

Auxiliary Letters
"Auxiliary letters are part of a group of letters that spell a sound that does not have a usual single letter to represent it. For example,

  • /th/ thing
  • /th/ there
  • /sh/ share
  • /zh/ treasure
  • /ng/ song."

Dummy Letters

"Dummy letters have two subgroups: inert letters and empty letters.

Inert letters are letters that in a given word segment are sometimes heard and sometimes not heard. For example,

  • resign (g is not heard)
  • resignation (g is heard)
  • malign (g is not heard)
  • malignant (g is heard)."

"Empty letters do not have a function like auxiliary letters or inert letters. For example, the letter u in the word gauge is empty. Here are some examples of silent consonants:

  • b: dumb, thumb
  • c: indict
  • ch: yacht
  • d: bridge, ledge, edge
  • g: foreign, sign, design, assign
  • h: rhinoceros, spaghetti
  • k: knee, knit, knob, know, knuckle
  • l: calf, talk, could, should, would
  • m: mnemonic
  • n: autumn, column
  • p: raspberry, receipt
  • t: castle, listen, whistle
  • w: answer, wrap, wreath, wreck, wring, wrong, write," (Carney 1994).

Empty letters are more difficult to predict in new words than other silent letters. Strausser and Paniza, authors of Painless English for Speakers of Other Languages, comment: "There are no rules that we can apply to words with empty letters[;] you just have to use them and remember their spelling," (Strausser and Paniza 2007).

Silent Consonants

Silent consonants make pronunciation much more difficult, especially for English language learners. Authors of A Practical Course in English Pronunciation create rules for pronunciation in the presence of silent letters for learners of English. "Silent consonant letters constitute one of the problem areas in respect to pronunciation of English words. To solve some of the problems of the learners, a few spelling sequences containing silent letters are discussed below:

  • b is always silent in the spelling sequences mb and bt occurring in the word-final position: comb, numb, bomb, limb, debt...
  • d is always silent in the spelling sequence djadjective, adjunct, adjacent...
  • g is silent in the spelling sequence gm or gnphlegm, gnarl, champagne, sign, gnat, gnaw...
  • h is silent in the spelling sequence gh and in the word-final position: ghost, ghetto, aghast, ghastly, ah, eh, oh...
  • k is always silent in the word-initial spelling sequence knkneel, knee, knob, knight, knave, knowledge, knife, knock," (Sadanand et al. 2004).

The History of Silent Letters

So where did silent letters come from? According to author Ned Halley, they are remnants of the Classical period. "As the influence of the Classical world was revived in the 15th century, scholars of English desired to remind their readers that most of the words in the language originated in Latin and Greek. To show off their knowledge that doubt, then spelled 'dout' because it came into medieval English via French doute, derived originally from Latin dubitare they added the — and it stuck. In its way, it was a nationalistic gesture, reasserting the Classical origins of English over Dutch, French, German and Norse influences of the intervening millennium since Roman influence waned in Britain from the fifth century and Anglo-Saxon languages began to infiltrate," (Halley 2005).
Ursula Dubosarsky also comments on the evolution of silent letters: "Another important thing to know is that quite a few of today's silent letters have not always been so quiet. The word knight, for example, used to be pronounced in English with the k and the gh sounded out (ke-nee-g-hht), as were many of the silent e's and l's. And the silent w in words like wreck or write was originally there to show a funny sort of Old English r sound that was different from the the ordinary r. But over time the way people spoke English changed, even though the spelling didn't. And don't forget The Great Vowel Shift ..., " (Dubosarsky 2008).

Silent Letters and Spelling Reform

Because silent letters have been in place for centuries, some wonder whether they shouldn't be reformed to fit modern English. Edward Carney defends their use—especially silent e—in his book A Survey of English Spelling. "Empty letters are naturally a target for spelling reformers, but one should not rush in with the scissors too hastily. A favorite target is final [-e].

The instances of [-e] at the end of copse, bottle, file, giraffe, are often referred to as 'silent' letters, but they are very different. The [-e] of copse marks the word as different from the plural cops. The word bottle cannot sensibly be spelt as *bottl, since syllabic consonants are always spelt with a vowel letter and a consonant letter, except for sm in sarcasm, prism. Similarly it might be thought that file could be spelt *fil. It would still be different from fill, as it is in filing, filling. However, some degree of redundancy is essential to human language . . .. Even the [-e] at the end of giraffe has something to be said in its favour. It can be said to mark the unusual final stress of the noun as in the [-CCe] of brunette, cassette, corvette, largesse, bagatelle, gazelle," (Carney 1994).

Silent Letter Jokes

Silent letters, known for being frustrating and seemingly unnecessary, have long been the subject of comedy routines and punchlines. These examples poke fun at silent letters.

"A man walked into a travel agency in New Delhi, and said to an agent, 'I wish to purchase an airplane ticket to the Netherlands. I must go to the Haig-you.'
'Oh, you foolish man. Not 'Haig-you.' You mean 'The Hague."
'I am the customer and you are the clerk,' replied the man. 'Do as I ask, and hold your tung-you.'
'My, my, you really are quite illiterate,' laughed the agent. 'It is not 'tung-you.' It is 'tongue.'
'Just sell me the ticket, you cheeky fellow. I am not here to arg,'" (Cohen 1999).
Mr. Loobertz: "We put the 'cool' in 'school.'
Special Agent G. Callen: Wouldn't that be 'chool'?
Mr. Loobertz: The 'h' is silent.
Special Agent G. Callen: I'm in ell," ("Full Throttle").
"Who would shoot a gnome? And why is the 'g' silent?" ("Charmed Noir").
Lt. Randall Disher: "First letter, 't' as in 'tsunami.'
Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: Tsumani?
Lt. Randall Disher: Silent 't.'
Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: What? No. 'T' as in 'Tom.' Just say 'Tom.'
Lt. Randall Disher: What's the difference?
Captain Leland Stottlemeyer: It doesn't. The 't' is silent.
Lt. Randall Disher: It's not completely silent. 'Tsumami,'" ("Mr. Monk and the Daredevil").

Sources

  • Dubosarsky, Ursula. The Word Snoop. Penguin Random House, 2008.
  • Carney, Edward. A Survey of English Spelling. Routledge, 1994.
  • “Charmed Noir.” Grossman, Michael, director. Charmed, season 7, episode 8, 14 Nov. 2004.
  • Cohen, Ted. Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • “Full Throttle.” Barrett, David, director. NCIS: Los Angeles, season 1, episode 17, 9 Mar. 2010.
  • Halley, Ned. Dictionary of Modern English Grammar. Wordsworth, 2005.
  • “Mr. Monk and the Daredevil.” Collier, Jonathan, director. Monk, season 6, episode 7, 24 Aug. 2007.
  • Sadanand, Kamlesh, et al. A Practical Course in English Pronunciation. PHI Learning, 2004.
  • Strausser, Jeffrey, and José Paniza. Painless English for Speakers of Other Languages. Barron's, 2007.