#5: Why So Silent?

English.  English.  English.  What a strange and quirky array of dialects with plenty of antiques  linguistically fossilised within the very fabric of the language.  We have talked primarily about vowel digraphs and trigraphs and their respective diphthongs and triphthongs, but we have not yet talked though about singular letters – monographs.  And just a reminder of the oddity of English, some of the letters actually have zero phonetic realisation but still have important features relating to their existence.

In linguistics, and more specifically in phonology and phonetics, monophthongs are vowels that only have one perceived target vowel sound and do not include the gliding feature from one target to another and possibly even another as in diphthongs and triphthongs.  Similar to the morpheme <mono> meaning ‘one’, we can say that a monograph is a singular letter in a notation system.  Whilst the vast majority of letters are monographic and make sense on their own, there are examples such as <oa> in <boat> where the o and the a are not pronounced as in their pronunciation in the alphabet to give /bəʊeɪt/ (‘bow’-‘ate’) nor are they pronounced as <o> in <got> and <a> in <cat> (written as /ɒ/ and /æ/ respectively), which together make a unit of sense known as a digraph; which also happens to be a diphthong.

person saying shh

Though, after looking at the written units, which are known as graphemes, we can see that some of them have zero phonetic expression in a lot of dialects and here are some examples:

  • <b> in ‘debt, doubt, bomb, climb, crumb
  • <c> in ‘science, scissors, muscle
  • <d> in ‘bridge, edge
  • <g> in ‘sign, cologne, gnarl, gnome, high, dough
  • <h> in ‘anchor, chaos, hour, heir, when, where
  • <k> in ‘knock, kneel, know
  • <l> in ‘talk, yolk, calf, half, salmon, should, would
  • <m> in ‘mnemonic
  • <n> in ‘solemn, autumn, hymn
  • <p> in ‘psychology, pneumonia, pseudo, receipt
  • <t> in ‘fasten, listen, thistle, hustle, often
  • <u> in ‘guess, build, biscuit, baguette
  • <w> in ‘write, wrong, awry, wrestle

So we only have thirteen examples of silent letters in English and there’s twenty-six letters in our notation system – this is why English can be so frustrating to new learners and also how a great many subtleties in accentual differences can occur as some of these letters are not silent in some dialects but are in others.  And yes, silent e has not been included and would bring the total of silent letters in English to fourteen, over half, but there’s plenty to talk about next time about silent e.

In phonology, certain sounds in the mind appear in certain environments and an environment is to roundaboutly say what the sound is appearing in between.  The silenced letters above may well have an underlying form (a mental input), that for some environments, the surface form (a physical output) is realised phonetically as no sound (which I am going to write as [Ø]).  These silenced letters do seem to follow some sort of patterns and I’ll detail them below:

  • <b>  [Ø] before a syllable-final t or m
  • <c>  [Ø] preceding any vowel other than <a> but after <s>
  • <d>  [Ø] preceding a [ʤ] sound
  • <t>  [Ø] when following an <s> and preceding an <e> or <l>

I won’t go through them all as I think I have made my point that there are some rules that can be made.  But that being said, the final of the rules does not fit for the word ‘often’ and so reminds us again that there is great complication of English’s silent letters from an orthographic and phonological point of view.

But why are they even there in the first place?

Some of the silent letters such as the silent h after a c and the silent, word-initial p come from morphemes and words that have been borrowed, in most cases, from Greek.  There are few examples of silent b’s and g’s coming from French whilst silent n’s are often from Latin.  With <sin> and <sign> we can see ‘g’ seems to alter the pronunciation of the latter word without itself being pronounced.  This means that silent letters can be because of etymological fossils remaining littered throughout a subset of environments, or to phonological rules for the brain as to the pronunciation of the word.

Finally, there are words that sound the same but have different meanings, and these are called homophones.  The words divided by slashes are homophones: in/inn, be/bee, to/too/two, their/there (yes I used the silent e when I have not yet explained it).  These words show us the difference between the words even if this is not conscious knowledge – though linguistic information often is subconscious.  The pairs of words are both of different word classes (or lexical categories) and they are words which are familiar yet different in their function within the language.

So, monographs that provide little to no phonetic realisation are necessary for the distinction between lexical categories and pronunciation rules whilst sometimes they are just there as an antique showing where they came from.

Next, I’ll actually explain e when it appears but is silent.

-DP, Linguistics student

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