Why does English have so many silent letters?

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Why does English have so many silent letters?There are two main reasons:

1. The English language is constantly evolving. Silent letters in the past actually used to be pronounced, but phonetic changes over several centuries were never intended to be so confusing. Now the reality is that about 60% of all English words contain a silent letter. Too many!

The word knead (to massage or squeeze with the hands) comes from the Old English verb cnedan and Middle English kneden. At that time, the “k” sound was pronounced but it went silent in Modern English. This included other kn- words, such as knight, knife, and know. The same is also true for many other consonants, like the final “b” in words like dumb and comb.

English also continues to develop due to the addition of new words. For example, 640 new words were added to the Merriam-Webster English dictionary in 2019. To be considered, there must be citations to prove that a word is widely used. A few of the new words for 2019 include Goldilocks, go-cup, bioabsorbable, and buzzy. 

2. We like to borrow words from other languages, like the French, for example. The final “s”, “t”, or “x” is usually silent, such as in debris, fillet, chalet, ballet, faux pas, etc. Italian words that are common in the English language, like spaghetti and ghetto, have a silent “h”.

So, you see, there isn’t one good answer or example for why English has so many silent letters. If you're interested in further detail, a study of English etymology (the origin and history of words) would provide a complete history. Just remember that silent letters are not there to confuse you, even though you may think otherwise, and you will become a more confident speaker, writer, and speller when you recognize and understand them.

*Photo by Kristina Flour

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