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There are many such words that we all know about, but please explain why the makers of the English language made up words with silent letters?

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Janus Bahs Jacquet, Brian Hooper, Matt Эллен, RegDwigнt Sep 22 '13 at 1:07

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You talk about the English language as if a group of people sat down one day and decided on all the rules. We all agree that had this been true, they should have stuck to their day jobs. Words, in particular, have appeared in the English lexicon from many different sources - extremes perhaps being classical Greek and youtspeak. There is no governing body (the French like to think they have one for their language), and there is often dissension over what are 'allowed' words, and how they should be pronounced (and spelt). Many anomalies have appeared over time - and many remain. –  Edwin Ashworth Sep 21 '13 at 8:55
    
There are silent letters in every language. There are silent letters in your mother tongue. –  RegDwigнt Sep 22 '13 at 1:08
    
@RegDwigнt there are no silent letters in my mother - tongue its "Gujarati" and its exactly spoken as we write!!! Even complicated words in Gujarati novels are pronounced as they are written –  Shivam Patel Oct 14 '13 at 8:53
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@ShivamPatel: everyone thinks that their mother-tongue is spoken "exactly as its written", simply because they have fully internalized that particular language's spelling-to-pronounciation mapping. –  Michael Borgwardt Apr 16 at 10:54
    
Just a quick web search brings up that visarga is silent in Gujarati. It used to be pronounced as /h/, but now no longer is. The Wikipedia article lists a whole range of other features of the language that are not represented in writing. In fact it flat-out says that the very alphabet is actually not an alphabet but an abugida, so that vowel notation is completely secondary by design. –  RegDwigнt Aug 29 at 8:45

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

A language (any language) wasn't built in a day. They're also not stand-alone.

Many factors affect the way words are pronounced. Some are:

  1. The land in which the words are frequently used.
  2. The other languages spoken by the people.
  3. The standard/basic phonetic sounds made by the letters.
  4. The standard rules that letters make when used with others.
  5. The language from which an English word is derived.

Here are some examples of words/names related to various lands...

  • The name John (in UK) -> Yohan/Yowan -> Io Wan (Belgium)

  • Joseph (British) -> (pronounced) Yoseph in Austria -> Yusuf (Middle East)

  • The very letter 'j' is pronounced 'y' in Germany and Austria.

  • British anti as in 'tip' while Americans say 'anti' as in 'type'

  • Sugar is from Arabic (Sukkar)

And examples of standard prnunciations:

Sounds created by 'i_e' where the middle blank is a letter.

kite, bite, site - they all end with the same sound.

But this is not always the case. My point is that certain letter combinations together have a certain standard sound with exceptions of course.

So the list goes on...

And this is why you'll find words with some letters not prnounced.

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What @Edwin Ashworth says is true; however, there have been people who have sat down and tried to standardize English, and some were responsible for adding or unnecessarily maintaining spelling anamolies:

"Caxton is credited with standardising the English language (that is, homogenising regional dialects) through printing. This facilitated the expansion of English vocabulary, the regularisation of inflection and syntax, and a widening gap between the spoken and the written word. However, Richard Pynson, who started printing in London in 1491 or 1492, and who favoured Chancery Standard, was a more accomplished stylist and consequently pushed the English language further toward standardisation.[citation needed]

It is asserted that the spelling of "ghost" with the silent letter h was adopted by Caxton due to the influence of Flemish spelling habits.[7]"

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Caxton

Early dictionaries were also aimed at standardization, and of course the authors were responsible for deciding how things should be spelt:

"To the end of establishing an English that could serve the complex needs of education, the Elementarie ends with a list of 8000 "hard words". Mulcaster does not define any of them, but attempts to lay down a standard spelling for them at a time when English lacked universal standardized spellings. Besides making movements toward spelling rules for English (such as the role of the silent e in vowel length in such pairs as bad and bade), the list represents a call for English to have its first dictionary, to gather "all the words which we use in our English tung … out of all professions, as well learned as not, into one dictionarie, and besides the right writing, which is incident to the Alphabete, [the lexicographer] wold open vnto us therein, both their naturall force, and their proper use." "

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Mulcaster

Note the above quote also points out that not all silent letters are arbitrary, as in the case of silent -e ending to indicate a long vowel. Think also "far/fare" "car/care" "sit/site" -- although of course this rule doesn't always hold true: "have", "live" [the verb], "give", etc.

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This is a very big topic which cannot really be answered in a few lines, but part of the answer is that some letters which we don't pronounce now were once pronounced in the past. The pronunciation of words containing them has changed, but their spelling hasn't.

If you're interested in the history of English spelling, I recommend 'Spell It Out' by David Crystal.

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