The 'e' in paste isn't pronounced on its own, but changes the pronunciation of the 'a'.

In that case, is the 'e' still referred to as silent?

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    silent but deadly – JeffSahol Aug 1 '13 at 23:36
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    This is not a general reference question: it deals with a confusing aspect of English orthography that requires expertise to answer, and the good answer from John Lawler reflects that fact. Voting to reopen. – MetaEd Oct 20 '13 at 3:35
  • Why are the close voters silent on why? Voting to re-open. At least I would like to know the answer. – Kris Oct 20 '13 at 8:11
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    Well, yes, it's said to be "silent". However, there's is a school of thought that modifying the pronunciation is the very raison d'etre of "silent" letters. Exceptions are, where the word was originally pronounced with, and now without, the sound of the "silent" letter. – Kris Oct 20 '13 at 8:14

First, there's no international standard for letter silence, nor even a good definition.
It's not a technical term, but something that adults tell children
to keep them from asking "Why?", because the adults don't know the answer.

Second, that doesn't matter, since all letters are silent, anyway.
Letters are written; they are visual. They have no sound. At all.

Written language is just a way of representing spoken language, which is the real language.
You should get over the idea that letters are "pronounced", or not.
Letters are written, or not. Sounds are pronounced, or not.

Writing is just modern technology. Modern compared to agriculture, anyway.
English spelling and writing and reading got frozen at Middle English,
which is a big reason why we have so much trouble spelling.

But saying a letter is "silent" is no help. As you point out, what that means isn't clear.

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    Written language is, most commonly, a way of representing spoken language based on certain general rules and conventions. One basic convention in alphabetic writing systems is that anything written should somehow reflect some part of the spoken item whose representation it is part of. It does make sense, didactically, to group those letters conspicuous for not aiding this representation at all together; the label ‘silent’ is perhaps not ideal, but it is at least well-established. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 1 '13 at 23:25
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    @Carlo_R., yes, it is true in general, and also for the Latin language. The written language is a representation of a language that was spoken before it was written. The fact that nearly no one now speaks (or writes!) the language natively does not change that fact. The only languages whose written forms are not abstract representations of their spoken forms are mechanical and programming languages, as well as music notes (even if you accept music as a language, written notes are an abstraction of something played/sung, not spoken). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 1 '13 at 23:28
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    @tchrist: Poor Carlo certainly makes a rod for his own back when he takes up cudgels against the likes of John and Janus here! But in my time at ELU it seems to me you're more in his camp than the "language is primarily a spoken phenomenon" position being advanced here (a position which I thoroughly endorse, being a crap speller myself, and unable to use punctuation consistently! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 2 '13 at 2:55
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    As I said above, the label ‘silent letter’ is perhaps not linguistically ideal, but it works fine for didactic purposes when helping learners of a language separate letters that do not reflect any spoken counterpart, from the ones that do. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 11 '13 at 22:59
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    Yup. As long as it's localized. "The first D in Wednesday is silent." But there are problems, even there. How about "The G in singer is silent, but not the G in finger"? Or "The H in chasm is silent, but not the H in chastity"? – John Lawler Aug 11 '13 at 23:50

Yes, because that's the definition of a silent letter:

a silent letter is a letter in a word that has no sound when you say the word but that must be used when the word is spelled or written

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  • That 'definition' says nothing about its influence on pronunciation. How then can this answer the question? Prof thinks there's no such definition in the first place. – Kris Oct 20 '13 at 8:09

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