What purpose do silent letters serve? Shashi Tharoor weighs in

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on English language

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Published: Fri 6 Oct 2023, 4:09 PM

In my recent column on the absurdities of English spelling, I mentioned silent letters in passing, merely noting that the letter “l” is silent in English words like “could” and “should”, but pronounced clearly in “mould”. But there’s a lot more to the phenomenon, since it’s estimated that about 60 per cent of English words contain a silent letter.

If English didn’t have silent letters, just imagine how this paragraph would sound if read aloud exactly as written, pronouncing every consonant: “The rogue knight doubted that the asthmatic knave in knickers could climb the castle columns, but when their wrangle wrought chaos on the couple, the knight resigned with the knowledge that their tight-knit friendship wouldn’t succumb to dumb disputes.” In reality, almost every word contains silent letters that save them from sounding absurd.

Silent letters serve different types of purposes in the language. Take, for example, the silent letter “e” at the end of words like lapse, bee, pile, ride and cattle: each serves different purposes. The [-e] of “lapse” shows the word is different from the plural “laps”. Since “be” and “bee” are homophones (words that sound alike), they must use different spellings to aid understanding. The “e” at the end of “pile” is essential to distinguish it from “pill” and similarly “ride” from a word with an entirely different meaning, “rid”. The word “cattle” cannot be spelt without the e because it would look odd — and as the grammarians tell us, syllabic consonants are always spelt with a vowel letter and a consonant letter. (Of course, that rule overlooks the “sm” in sarcasm or prism). The same would apply to words like giraffe, cassette, largesse, or gazelle. Basically “e” serves a diacritic letter, one that is not pronounced but changes the pronunciation of another syllable next to it.

But then how do you defend words like pterodactyl and tsunami, which begin with letters that are not pronounced? The answer lies in etymology — these words originated in other languages, Greek and Japanese respectively. The Greek-origin “mnemonic” loses the sound of its first “m”, though when “mn” also come together in “solemn” or “hymn”, it’s the “n” that’s not pronounced. The “th” in “asthma” are silent; their only purpose is to advertise the word’s classical Greek and Latin origins. Many words borrowed from French end with silent letters, like apropos, rendezvous and faux. Occasionally a silent “p” comes before the end of the word, as in “receipt”; but the “p” is pronounced in “concept”. There are silent “b”s in subtle and debt, and also at the ends of words like bomb, climb, comb, crumb, dumb, lamb, numb, and thumb.

It gets more maddening: the “g” is silent in the word “phlegm” but pronounced in the word “phlegmatic”. When the letters “sc” come together, the “c” is pronounced in “school”, but silent in “scent”. There are differences between British and American pronunciations of “schedule”: the “c” is silent for the former, who say “schedule”, while the “h” is silent for the latter, who say “sked-yule”. The practice is repeated for “herb”, where the “h” is silent for the Americans, while “’erb” sounds uneducated to the British ear. Mercifully, neither pronounces the silent “k” in “knight”, which is essential to distinguish it from the English word “night”, just as “write” needs a different spelling from “rite” and “right” to avoid confusion. Similarly “w” is silent in wrist, wrack, wrangle, wrap, wreath, wrench, wrestle, wrinkle, writ and wrong — and also in answer, sword, two, and who!

The letter “u” and “ue” are silent in words like build, catalogue, dialogue, colleague, guard, guess, laugh, league, and tongue. (Though the Americans have already accepted “catalog” and “dialog” as valid spellings, British English frowns upon taking such liberties). Growing up in India, I enjoyed a childhood joke about the silent letters “ue”. A man wishing to travel to the Netherlands goes to a travel agent, and asks for a ticket to the Hague, which he pronounces “Haig-you”. The travel agent corrects him: “You mean ‘The Hague’”. The belligerent client responds: “Do what I tell you, and hold your tung-you”. The agent laughs: “It is not ‘tung-you’. It is ‘tongue’”. The exasperated client shouts: “Just sell me the ticket, you cheeky fellow. I am not here to arg.”



More news from Lifestyle