#6: The Magic Letter ‘E’!

The letter ‘e’ – the magical fifth letter of the English alphabet.  You have no doubt heard of it and come across it countless times.  If not, and you are unsure of what it is, then you will likely struggle with this little article as its littered with ‘e’ all over the place – there was another.  And another!  Oh goodness, there’s loads of them.  Well, to be precise, the letter ‘e’ makes the most appearances within the English language of all the vowels, and in fact, of all the letters.  After rigorous statistical testing, ‘e’ contributes to a staggering 11% of all the letters that appear within the orthography (writing system) of English.  It is the only letter to reach a double-figure percentage.  You may, perhaps, be thinking that this is why ‘e’ has been eponymously dubbed magical.

Wrong.

Right.

Well…

Both.

Not only does ‘e’ have this interesting stature within the orthography, but this could help in explaining why <e> does what <e> does with regards to its vocalic magic – and it’s already done it several times within this article already.  Vocalic is the adjective form of the word vowel, which is a noun – for consonant, the adjective form would be consonantal.  Rather than explain it all, I’d rather show you…

Look at the following words (and their slanted bracket IPA pronunciations):

  • Rat                   /ɹæt/
  • Sin                   /sɪn/
  • Not                  /nɒt/
  • Cut                   /kᴧt/

Each of the words are monosyllabic, meaning that they have only one syllable to them and none of them contain <e> excepting for the second, but here, /e/ is within the nucleus of the syllable and not elsewhere whilst occurring as a monophthong.  But if you add <e> to the end of each word, notice what happens…

  • Rat       + e ->  Rate                             /ɹæt/    + <e>   ->  /ɹeɪt/
  • Met      + e ->   Mete                            /mεt/   + <e>   ->  /miːt/
  • Sin        + e ->    Sine                             /sɪn/     + <e>   -> /saɪn/
  • Not      + e ->   Note                            /nɒt/    + <e>   -> /nəʊt/
  • Cut       + e ->    Cute                             /kᴧt/     + <e>   -> /kjuːt/

Each of the words contains a monophthong that is altered to an elongated diphthong after the addition of the monograph, <e>, not to mention the change of meaning.  The ‘e’ is both silent and ‘loud’, if you will, as the monosyllabic words remain monosyllabic.  Even though <e> is added after the final letter, nothing is phonetically realised after this letter, hence, it is silent – or at least the monograph’s environment is.  Nonetheless, the nuclei – which are the central element of a syllable – have diphthongised and thus elongated as a result of the monograph’s addition.  Therefore the silent e is both silent and verbalised making it what linguists coin as ‘magic’.

Though we can see for magic ‘e’ being applied to itself, we do not get a full diphthongisation of the nucleus, although it still appears elongated.  And for <u>, the addition of <e> seems to elongate the nucleus of the syllable whilst inserting an approximant, and due to the placement of approximants within the ‘more open’ sounds, it is debatable whether or not this is a diphthong or not.

Magic ‘e’ is generally a phonics rule that a lot of us may forget having learned at primary school – if we were taught it, and certainly will contribute to the large number of <e> within the written language of English.  It’s both a silent letter that also does something to pronunciation and speakers of English tend to acquire this phonological rule when learning and practising English.  There’s the real magic.

We have looked at vocalic digraphs and trigraphs, and at monographs without true realisation – next, I’ll be taking a look at monographs that are repeated to become digraphs, or to the lay person tired of linguistic terminology, actual double letters, and their rules.

-DP, Linguistics student

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