Why's there a 'b' in subtle? Understanding the logic of silent letters

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

By Shashi Tharoor

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Shashi Tharoor I saw his first Test match with his father at the age of seven
Shashi Tharoor I saw his first Test match with his father at the age of seven

Published: Thu 9 Mar 2023, 5:26 PM

English may well be the world’s most popular language, but spelling its words properly can be a nightmare. Amongst the biggest challenges is the curse of “silent letters” — the letters that pop up in words but are not pronounced, like the "k" in "know" or the “w” in “wrong”, the “b” in “subtle”, the “a” in “bread”, and the “h” in “ghost” — leading the foreign student of the language to tear their hair out in despair, wondering what on earth these letters are doing there in the first place.

And they’re everywhere. According to the author of The Word Snoop Ursula Dubosarky, about 60 per cent of English words contain silent letters, and they can be consonants as well as silent vowels. Worse still, they can be found at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. There is no simple rule to explain when to use a silent letter. You just have to know the spelling of the word.

How did this awkward phenomenon come about? In many cases, it’s because the English word originated in a foreign language and retained elements of the original spelling in that language, like “psychology” with the silent “p”, which testifies to its Ancient Greek origins. Fans of the immortal English humorist P.G. Wodehouse will recall his memorable character Psmith telling people the “p” in his name was silent, “as in Phthisis and ptarmigan”. Tsunami, similarly, is a Japanese word, and though the “t” is silent in English, it helps indicate the foreign origin of the term.

These are “dummy silent letters”, which are written but produce no sound. There are also “auxiliary silent letters”, letters that work with other letters to form a distinct sound, such as silent letters in “exocentric” combinations (two letters that produce a new sound, like 'ch') or “endocentric” combinations (two letters that produce the sound of one of the letters in the pair, like the 'ff' in 'different').

That’s all very well, you might say, if you’re a linguist or an etymologist. But for ordinary folk, do these silent letters serve any useful purpose? Well, arguably they do. Different spellings help you tell similar-sounding words (or “homophones”) apart, like “our” and “hour”, which takes a silent “h”. Silent letters help you distinguish among the different meanings of the words know, now, and no.

But for the most part, silent letters just are, and you simply have to know them to get your spellings right. Attempts to spell out rules are so complicated that no normal person will remember them, such as:

•B is silent before 't' and after 'm'.

•C is silent after 's' and before 'i,' 'e,' or 'y.' C is also silent in the combination 'ck.'

•E is silent at the end of a word and makes the internal vowel a long vowel.

•GH is silent at the middle or end of a word, and when preceded by an 'i' the 'i' is long.

•H is silent after most consonants and between two vowels. An initial 'h' may be silent or pronounced.

•K is silent in the combination 'kn' at a word's beginning.

•N is silent in the digraph 'mn.'

•P is silent in the combination 'ps' at the beginning of a word.

•S is only pronounced once in the combination 'ss,' and is sometimes silent after an 'i.'

•T may be silent in the pair 'st,' after 'f,' and in the combination 'tch.'

•U is silent in the pair 'ui' and when it follows 'g' in the combinations 'gui' and 'gue.'

•W is silent in words beginning with 'wr' as well as in some other words.

And to make matters worse, there are exceptions to almost all these rules. So I tend to sympathise with the brilliant anonymous poet who wrote this verse that a friend forwarded to me recently:

The Sound of Silenced Letters

We know the letter B doesn’t belong in subtle

But what has the letter C got to do in a muscle?

The role of the D in Wednesday we can’t define

Why should G be present in a gnat or in a sign?

To be honest, does the H in rhyme ring a bell?

And can the J in marijuana anybody smell?

Who knows why the K in knee won’t knock

And why the L in walk or in calf would not talk

The first M in mnemonic is hard to understand

Would the damned N in the column ever stand?

We can’t say the P in psalm or in psychology

And S alone gets tossed out from the debris

Is the T heard when you listen to a whistle?

W is not write, it’s wrong, don’t try to wrestle

X is the mistake in a faux pas, get the clue?

Hush, no rendezvous with Z, goodbye, adieu!


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