Silent Letters: a Pronunciation Guide
Silent letters are an unavoidable and difficult area of English for natives and learners alike. Here we go through them looking at their origins and patterns, and try to find some answers….
A very quick note on the history of English: Modern English is a language of Germanic roots from the Anglo Saxon period (5th century to 12th century). The Norman-French invasion of 1066 brought a huge amount of French vocabulary of Latin origin, mixing with Anglo Saxon grammar and pronunciation to form Modern English around the 15th century.
The letter ‘b’ is silent at the end of a root word with the combination MB, so Germanic words CLIMB, THUMB, COMB, LAMB, CRUMB, LIMB, WOMB and DUMB all end in /m/ not /b/. Some Latin words have also entered English adopting this ending, like BOMB, APLOMB and TOMB. This silent ‘b’ gives us one of the strangest homographs in English: /ˈnʌmə/ meaning more numb, and /ˈnʌmbə/ an arithmetical value, both spelt NUMBER.
It is indeed FASCINATING that the letter ‘c’ is not always pronounced in the combination SC, giving us SCINTILLATING words like SCISSORS, ASCEND, DISCERN, MUSCLE and SCIENCE. It doesn’t always happen though, the ‘c’ is a /k/ in SCEPTIC, SCAR, SCARE, SCORN, SCORCH, SCOPE and SCANDALOUS
Perhaps silent ‘d’ is most commonly found in the word WEDNESDAY, which is from “Woden’s Day” – Woden being a Germanic god. The /d/ mysteriously disappeared around the 15th century and hasn’t made a comeback yet.
‘d’ also has a habit of disappearing when sandwiched between 2 consonants, like in the word…. SANDWICH, originally the name of a coastal town in Kent and of Germanic origin meaning ‘sandy harbour’. Its modern culinary use appeared when the 4th Earl of Sandwich became so addicted to gambling in the 18th century that he would only eat cold meat between slices of bread so as to avoid leaving the gambling table to dine properly. This optional silent ‘d’ can also be heard, or rather not heard, in HANDBAG, and has definitely disappeared in HANDKERCHIEF and HANDSOME.
The letter ‘g’ is not pronounced when it’s followed by ’n’ at the end of a syllable. So FOREIGN, SIGN, DEIGN, DESIGN, and ALIGN have no ‘g’, all of which entered England via France, a journey made today by large quantities of expensive bubbly white wine known as CHAMPAGNE. Cheers!!!
Germanic action words GNARL, GNAW and GNASH, all start with silent ‘g’, as does the swarming insect, GNAT. But possibly the most common word starting with GN is of Latin origin, and is a regular feature in English gardens: the GNOME.
A group of words that didn’t journey through France are those with a silent ‘gh’, like DROUGHT, THOUGHT, THROUGH, THOROUGH, BOROUGH, DAUGHTER and MIGHT. These came from Germanic roots, though not all words developed a silent ‘gh’ – others developed a /f/, like COUGH, ROUGH, TOUGH, ENOUGH and LAUGH.
Broadly speaking we don’t pronounce the ‘h’ in words imported from French like HOUR, HONOUR, HEIR, EXHIBITION and VEHICLE. In practice, ‘h’ disappears in other places where we connect speech too, and many native English speakers never pronounce it – so called ‘h droppers’.
For more on ‘h droppers’, pronounced and silent h, see this post.
There’s a KNACK to this rule. Words with ‘kn’ have a silent ‘k’ and are of Germanic origin: KNEE, KNOT, KNIT, KNAVE, KNEAD, KNEEL, KNIGHT, KNOW, KNOWLEDGE and after saying all of them you might feel a little bit KNACKERED.
‘l’ is often silent after ‘a’, but tends to create a long vowel: /ɔː/ in WALK, TALK, BALK,/ɑː/ in CALM, PALM, PSALM, HALF and CALF. The modal verbs WOULD, COULD and SHOULD shouldn’t contain /l/ nor should FOLK or YOLK. The fish SALMON has no /l/, coming from the French “saumone”, the English word took the ‘l’ from the original Latin word ‘salmo’, just to confuse folk.
’n’ is normally pronounced when it’s written, except in one unique set of words originating from Latin, that end in ‘mn’: AUTUMN, COLUMN, CONDEMN, HYMN and SOLEMN, all of which sound DAMN good to me.
‘p’ is not pronounced in words beginning PN, PS or the less common PT which generally have arrived in English from Greek via Latin, so PNEUMONIA, PSYCHOLOGY, and PTOMAIN have no /p/. Also look out for modern French imported word COUP, which is pronounced identically to COO, the sound pigeons make. Then there’s the odd case of RECEIPT – which comes from Anglo-Norman French receite, the ‘p’ was later inserted to imitate the original Latin word recipere but is not pronounced, presumably to confuse second language shop keepers all over the world.
In GB English we only pronounce /r/ if it comes before a vowel sound, so it’s silent in CARD, WORK, POUR and MOTHER. In American English, though, all ‘r’s are pronounced CARD, WORK, POUR and MOTHER.
For more see ‘r – the Strangest Sound in English?’
Words with silent ’s’ fit into two categories. There are the fancy sounding ones taken from modern French like BOURGEOIS, DEBRIS, PATOIS, APROPOS and CHAMOIS (which posh people call a /ˈʃæmwɑː/). But there is also a strange case of Germanic ISLAND and French AISLE, neither of which had an ’s’ in the spelling until people started confusing them with the unrelated but vaguely similar ISLE, which comes from the Latin word insula. Of course, you can never accuse the British of being insular, can you?
The English famously love tea, but they don’t always say ’t’. The word ending ‘-sten’ doesn’t contain /t/, so FASTEN, LISTEN, MOISTEN and CHASTEN, likewise those ending ‘-stle’ NESTLE, WRESTLE, THISTLE and CASTLE. There are some very sophisticated French imported words which entered English much more recently like BALLET, GOURMET and RAPPORT which all copy the French pronunciation without ’t’. And finally, English speakers often drop the ’t’ in OFTEN and SOFTEN.
The spelling ‘wh’ which originates from Old English ‘hw’ normally has a silent w when followed by a rounded vowel WHO, WHOM, WHOSE, WHORE and WHOLE, though not in the onomatopoeic words WHOOSH or WHOOP which entered English much later.
The Germanic words SWORD and ANSWER contain a silent ‘w’. There is also a group of words beginning with WR in which the ‘w’ is silent, all of them are of Germanic origin, and are quite dramatic in meaning: WRING, WRESTLE, WRAP, WRECK, and WRIST. Note also that WRONG has a ‘w’ but its antonym RIGHT does not, and just to confuse matters further, the verb WRITE does have a ‘w’, alright?
This article uses English IPA symbols – learn each of them with pronunciation notes, diagrams and audio in Pronunciation Studio’s free Starter Pack.