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So I saw a post on a funny pictures site...

"In the word "Scent", is the S or the C silent?"

And I thought I could ask about it here.

In particular, how does the pronunciation of "scent" differ from "cent" and "sent"? Small audio references would help me in particular.

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the pair "sc" forms a sound in English. (just like, say "sh" or "ch" or "ck" or many other examples.) It's a funny poster though! –  Joe Blow Aug 27 '14 at 11:42
The only honest answer is: all letters in that word are silent. All letters in all words are silent. It's spoken language that gets written down, not written language that gets pronounced. –  RegDwigнt Aug 27 '14 at 12:12
@RegDwigнt Feel free to edit my question to "How does the pronounciation of scent differ from sent and cent?" if you feel that "silentness" is not objective enough. –  Pimgd Aug 27 '14 at 12:26
The referenced post is making an attempt at humor. The point is, such a question has no answer, since the distinction is meaningless. –  Robusto Aug 27 '14 at 14:01
The problem is that you're trying to make scents out of Englisc as if it were a science and not scpelling scoup. –  user3105234 Aug 27 '14 at 18:39

5 Answers 5

up vote 53 down vote accepted

User dawnhunter of Reddit writes in the /r/Showerthoughts/ thread called In the word "scent", is it the S or the C that is silent?:

Here's what a google search brings up:

late Middle English (denoting the sense of smell): from Old French sentir ‘perceive, smell,’ from Latin sentire . The addition of -c- (in the 17th century) is unexplained.

So the c is silent and also shouldn't really be there.

Also, further down the thread, another comment says:

The 'c' was probably added because that was the style at the time.

Originally a hunting term. The -c- appeared 17c., perhaps by influence of ascent, descent, etc., or by influence of science. This was a tendency in early Modern English, also in scythe and for a time threatening to make scite and scituate.

Stating this entry at etymonline.com as the source

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Whoa, "scite" and "scituate" sound like murdering language... –  Pimgd Aug 27 '14 at 11:59
Lucky they didn't make it Scmeg-head eh Rimmer? ;-) –  Mikey Mouse Aug 27 '14 at 13:53
@Pimgd Here in New England Scituate is a reality. –  emodendroket Aug 27 '14 at 21:10
If I had to guess, the -c- appeared as a result of a spurious etymology from the Latin scire ‘to know,’ cf. the archaic French spelling of sçavoir for savoir, ‘to know,’ which actually derives from the Latin sapere. –  Branimir Ćaćić Aug 27 '14 at 22:32
@BogdanAlexandru Sentir is also Old French. The Normans certainly didn't bring modern French to England... –  SevenSidedDie Aug 28 '14 at 16:06

Speakers of the Queen's English have no trouble with this; if neither letter in "scent"were silent, it would be pronounced like the beginning of "sceptic". Actually, the C is silent, making the word (to all but Professor Higgins-level phoneticians) identical to "sent". Coincidentally, there is a funny little foreign coin, cent, that is pronounced the same way.

(I understand the question may be harder for those across the Atlantic; that is just one of the many disavantages of having left the British Empire all those years ago.)

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@TimLymington So which letter in science is silent? :) –  GalacticCowboy Aug 27 '14 at 13:16
"to all but Professor Higgins-level phoneticians" - oxforddictionaries.com has sɛnt for both scent and sent - is there anyone who would have these different?? –  AakashM Aug 27 '14 at 13:47
@AakashM No, no one. Scent, sent, and cent are all pronounced exactly the same in every single dialect of English that I have ever heard the words pronounced in. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 27 '14 at 13:51
@Tim: Your answer is a red herring. According to Google, "skeptic" is about 10 times as common as "sceptic"; even Stack Exchange spells it with a "k". Most words containing "sce" are pronounced "se" rather than "ske"; e.g., "scene" (and "obscene"), "abscess", "ascend"/"ascent"/"descend"/"descent", and "scepter". –  Scott Aug 27 '14 at 22:14
@AmeliaBR I suspect that is your own weird affectation. I have never seen any description of or myself heard any dialect of English that distinguished more unvoiced sibilants than /s/ and /ʃ/, and in all the words we’re discussing here, plain old /s/ is used. No difference whatsoever. Their identical pronunciation is why some words can be spelt differently with no problems in different orthographies: offence/offense, defence/defense, etc. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 27 '14 at 22:25

Neither is silent.

The "s" and the "c" together make a softer "s" sound. Compared to the words "sent" and "cent", the word "scent" sounds more like "sscent."

Similar to the words "ascent" and "assent", where assent has a harder and faster sound.

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Hmm, another Canadian who believes that sent/scent/cent are pronounced differently; perhaps it isn't just my affectation after all. That said, I'm not sure that ascent vs assent is a good comparison: that could be interpretted as the difference between a-scent and as-sent, the two separate s sounds in the second word blurring into the stronger hissing sound. –  AmeliaBR Aug 28 '14 at 14:35
Approach a random person, speak any permutation of the phrase "Cent sent scent." (e.g. alternately "Sent scent cent."), and then ask them how the phrase is written. Do you really think they'll be able to naturally (i.e. without prefacing with a discussion about how "sc" is/might be pronounced) determine which of the three words is spelled "scent"? I'm inclined to think not. –  talrnu Aug 28 '14 at 16:25
As Canadian who doesn't hear this difference, I condescend to dissent. Perhaps it's regional, perhaps it's a hypercorrection. :) –  SevenSidedDie Aug 28 '14 at 16:26
@talrnu I think all the remains is for you to carry out your experiment –  itcouldevenbeaboat Sep 22 '14 at 13:59
I think an even more telling experiment would be to take one of these people who claim to have a distinction, record them reading an extended passage which uses all the different forms a few times, extract the individual words from the passage, and ask them to identify which extracted word is which. I'd be willing to bet they'll be statistically no better than random. –  nohat Oct 7 '14 at 8:44

Neither letter is silent. Both make the same sound /s/ And when two identical sounds are put together in the same word English, they are almost always said as if they were one sound. So we say [s] instead of [ss].

The fact that the C was added later is irrelevant, as it was likely added because it would not change the pronunciation of the word.

Silent letters in English were usually at one time pronounced (whether in English or the originating language). The P in pneumonia is silent because we don't say /pn/ at the beginning of words. The W in write is silent because we can't say /wr/.

Analyzing a letter as being silent is more of a last resort thing, what you do when no other rule of English orthography will work.

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Oh, I dunno. A penknife seems to have two different (geminated) /n/ sounds in it to me. –  tchrist Aug 29 '14 at 2:44
Some silent letters were just added in English and were never pronounced in any language; but in most cases, you're right of course. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 29 '14 at 8:04
I confirm what @JanusBahsJacquet said. The r-wr distinction was present in Old English but I think it was gone by Middle English already. The difference was that r wasn't "rounded" while wr was. As for scent, see here. –  MickG Aug 29 '14 at 8:38
Not all silent letters were originally pronounced. "Debt" was never pronounced /debt/; although borrowed from Old French "dette", the "b" was added (restored?) to resemble the original source word, Latin "debitum". –  chepner Aug 29 '14 at 18:47
@tchrist Yes, it does, but it's an exception due to it being a compound word. It is not uncommon for doubled consonants to be geminated between words. –  trlkly Aug 30 '14 at 20:26

"Sc" in "scent" or "science" is used as a consonant digraph (two consonant combined to make one sound); therefore, neither are silent (they are being used as a consonant digraph). "Sc" in "scare" is used as a consonant blend (two consonants combined to make two different sounds), so the two different usages can't be compared effectively.

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