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Why have a letter in a word when it’s silent in pronunciation, like the b in debt?

Can anyone please clarify my uncertainty here?

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I think you mean something else than doubt, so I've edited that in... –  Noldorin Jan 15 '11 at 21:14

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

In general, never trust words in the English language to be phonetic! This is largely a consequence of English being such a fast-evolving language, and importantly, owing its vocabulary to many linguistic sources: Latin, Old French, Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English), Norse, and many others.

In this case it seems we have French to thank. This etymology is given online, and explains the supposed strange pronunciation:

debt
late 13c., dette, from O.Fr. dete, from L. debitum “thing owed”, neut. pp. of debere “to owe”, originally, “keep something away from someone”, from de- “away” (see de-) + habere “to have” (see habit). Restored spelling after c.1400.

In other words, debt comes via the Old French dete, which itself derives from classical Latin debitum. The b sound got lost due to French phonological rules/convention, and hence the French-origin pronunciation in English. Evidently, after the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th century, there was much revived interest in the classical world, and the spelling reverted to include the original b. Pronunciation, of course, stayed the same.

(Note that this sort of evolution occurred with many different English words, and occurred at the same time many new Latin words entered the English language.)

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Minor detail: dete is from Old French, dette is the modern French spelling. –  F'x Jan 16 '11 at 12:13
    
FX_1: Ah cheers. So I mean medieval (Middle?) French really... which happens to be equivalent to the modern French word. –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 13:27
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It's not so much that English is a "fast-evolving language" -- however you're actually quantifying that -- but more that English has never had formal spelling reforms or dictionaries that are "formally endorsed" by some authority or other. The phenomena that you mention did of course occur, but they also occurred in other languages which then had spelling reforms and "endorsed" dictionaries which have tidied up some of the inconsistencies to some extent or other. –  Neil Coffey Dec 1 '12 at 0:44
    
Wrong. English had its first proper dictionary earlier than many other European languages. It's fast evolution and increasing liberalism is due to it being an isolated tongue subjected to various strong influences over its history and some pidginising. –  Noldorin Dec 1 '12 at 1:22

Without them we would not all be lost because of them I am lost often. Maybe I am the exception not the majority but I was diagonosed with dyslexia in the second grade. One of the basic skills they thought us break it down. In spelling a word sounding it out and in trying to understand a sentence break it down what does each sentence mean. Does it sound like a lot of work it does. But then again second I realized what people take years to learn if you want something it wont always be easy and you have to work at it.

Now why do silent letters leave me feeling loss because I am hard of hearing since second grade. My parents couldnt afford hearing aids so it was really hard sometimes for me to distinguish sounds. I would often mix up e and i. Silent letters threw me of because there was no sound therefore when saying it to myself I would go by what I heard. Which often left me misspelling words. An no teacher was ever able to explan to me why we needed the silent letter to spell it if there is no sound. I felt conflicted and confused I had to memorize a lot of words and rules but rules dont always apply. God Bless Adela

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Welcome to ELU. This is more a comment than an answer to the question asked. Please use the comments section in future. :) –  Ronan Apr 4 at 8:40

On the blessings of ‘silent’ letters in English

One important and often overlooked reason for having silent letters in the spelling of English words is because spelling in English is meant to do much more than tell you how to pronounce a word. For one thing, it can also tell you about the history of the word, its origins and its evolution. Not all languages have this property in their written forms, but English does.

It can also serve to create heterographs out of homophones, which helps when reading. For example, consider the word pronounced /raɪt/. That can be any of:

  1. wright
  2. right
  3. write
  4. rite

As soon as you see it on the printed page, you know which of those four words it is. You don’t have to puzzle it out. This increases reading speed and proficiency.


Be Careful What You Wish For

The other largely unsung reason for how English spelling helps you is because if you actually spelled things the way people said them, no one could ever read anything anyone else ever wrote! Well, nobody outside their own current dialect — if that.

Even using something like /raɪt/ doesn’t work to tell you how to say the word if you do not already know English. That’s because that is a phonemic transcription, not a phonetic transcription. Speaking broadly, phonetics is what people actually say, whereas phonemics is more like what people actually hear.

For example, when I think I am saying /raɪt/, I am not. I actually pronounce all four of those words [ɹʷʌɪt] — or often enough, simply [ɹʷʌɪʔ]. You can also spell that [ɻʌɪʔ] if you prefer.

It’s not an uncommon pronunciation, but there are many others:

  • [ɾɜit] Hawick
  • [ræ̠x̟tʰ] Buckie
  • [rɐit] South Wales
  • [rəit] Coldstream
  • [ʁɛ̈it] Holy Island
  • [ɹäˑɪt] North Carolina, Nigeria (Igbo), Rossendale
  • [ɹäˑɪʔ] Morley
  • [ɹäɛ̝̈tʰ] South Africa: Johannesburg
  • [ɹa̠it] Longtown
  • [ɹäi̞t] Middlesbrough
  • [ɹäɪt] Alabama, Chicago
  • [ɹäɪtʰ] Received Pronunciation
  • [ɹäɪt] North Carolina
  • [ɹä̝ɪt] Ohio
  • [ɹaɪθ̠] Liverpool
  • [ɹɐit] Antrim, Belfast, Boston, Chicago
  • [ɹɐiʔ] Norwich
  • [ɹɐɪt] Cornhill
  • [ɹ̝ɐɪt] India: Delhi
  • [ɹɐɪt] Singapore
  • [ɹɑ̈ë̞t] Buxton
  • [ɹɑ̟it̟̚] New York
  • [ɹɑ̈ɪ̠t] Australia: Perth
  • [ɹɑɪt] North Devon
  • [ɹɑ̈ɪt] North Devon, New Zealand: Auckland
  • [ɹɑɪt] Somerset
  • [ɹɑɪʔ] London
  • [ɹɑ̟ɪʔ] North Devon
  • [ɹəɪʔ] Edinburgh
  • [ɹə̟̝xt] Edinburgh
  • [ɹɛ̈ɪs̺̆] Tyneside
  • [ɹɛ̝̈xt] Antrim
  • [ɹɜitʰ] Berwick
  • [ɹɜ̟̆ıĭtʰ] Tyrone
  • [ɹiˑtʰ] Tyneside
  • [ɹʋ͡ɛ̈i̞ʰs̺̆] Tyneside
  • [ɹʌ̞̈it] Edinburgh
  • [ɹʌ̈itʰ] Standard Scottish
  • [ɹʌ̈ɪt̚] Standard Canadian
  • [ɻäiʰtʰ] Lewis
  • [ɻäɪtʰ] Standard American

Summary

As you can see from the list above, you do not have to spell English with “silent” letters. However, when you really do go to the trouble to spell it out phonetically, you thereby:

  1. Cut yourself off from all your literature, so you can kiss your culture goodbye.
  2. Make it impossible to distinguish homophones.
  3. Disconnect a word’s history from its spelling.
  4. Force people to learn a much larger alphabet, one that requires several hundred letters — have fun typing those, too.
  5. Make it so that you can no longer communicate with anybody who lives two miles away, let alone two (or twelve!) thousand miles away.

But because English has silent letters, none of that applies. This is a blessing, you know. You should be happy nearly to the point of being overjoyed that English has silent letters. They are a major win, and without them, we would all be lost.

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Not all of those benefits are entirely down to silent letters...we can have letters that we agree to pronounce differently without having to have silent letters. I do agree with all of your points with regard to the benefits of a non-phonetic language. Also, it makes Scrabble and other word games much more fun if you have to think of all the different ways the letters you have can be pronounced in order to think of all the words you could make with them. –  Theodore Murdock Nov 30 '12 at 23:38
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You make things sound much more intentional and organised than they really are, though. Most of the "benefits" you mention have essentially come to pass by accident rather than design. And you could be much more critical/explanatory of some of these benefits-- for example, so what if homophones cannot be distinguished-- if they're homophones, why shouldn't they be homographs as well? –  Neil Coffey Dec 1 '12 at 0:47
    
I'm not sure the "kiss your culture goodbye" idea is a very compelling prediction. Plenty of languages have regular spelling reforms to make the orthography align with a standard dialect's spoken form and they manage to bring their literature along with them. Especially nowadays with computers, it would become almost trivial to update literature to use a regularized phonetic spelling scheme. –  nohat Dec 1 '12 at 6:07
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@nohat Perhaps, but have you seen the arguments over Portuguese and German about this? Spanish has been more successful, but they have also had considerably fewer changes, and even so, issues remain. What I was thinking was that you have to consider how many printed English-language books would no longer be accessible. It seems difficult to overestimate the effort of replacing every piece of English printed matter if not from all of history, at least from Shakespeare on down, to make it for-the-nonce phonetic. Think of all the libraries, public and private, that people would be cut off from. –  tchrist Dec 1 '12 at 7:10
    
@tchrist it's not as though overnight the entire world of English readers would cease to exist. It would only be maybe a decade into the shift that there would start to exist adult readers who hadn't learned the old system, and by then all the most important texts would have been "translated". Only old and obscure texts would remain untranslated, and those who want to access them would just have to learn the old system, or use technology that can translate for them in realtime. –  nohat Dec 1 '12 at 21:04

I’m sure I remember reading that some “redundant” letters were inserted into English words by early printers, simply to make the typesetting easier or to improve the visual appearance of the text. The example given was the ‘h’ in “ghost”, though while Oxford does indeed attribute that to an early printer, it suggests that the influence was a foreign spelling rather than practicality or aesthetics.

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Possible, but highly unlikely to be the main reason. –  Noldorin Jan 16 '11 at 15:46

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