English is a language in which you write quite a few letters that you do not pronounce, or you write letters in one order and pronounce it in another.

For example, centre. It is pronounced /ˈsɛn.tə(r)/, so you say e before r, but you write it the other way around. Or Google: /ˈɡuːɡəl/; you say e before l, and then you write it the other way around.

One example of a letter written but not spoken would be practically. You say practic-ly.

There are quite a few examples of that. But I don't see why those things seem to develop.

I am a German, and (most of the time, with a few exceptions) we speak all the letters written (or at least significantly change the pronunciation of the other letters at some points).

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    You don't speak all the letters that are written. You write all the letters that are spoken (where a letter represents, more or less, a specific sound). – msam Mar 25 '14 at 16:33
  • Americans write the word centre as center, with e before r. – Tristan r Mar 25 '14 at 16:35
  • Keep in mind that one is not saying e before l in "Google", which would be /ɡuːɡel/; as you indicate, it is /ɡuːɡəl/, which is in line with the spelling. "centre" came from French; BrE kept the spelling, even though pronunciation evolved. This is typical of why English has silent letters. As Tristan points out, "center" is AmE spelling - there was a concerted effort in the days of colonised America to better match spelling and pronunciation - a process that Britain simply did not copy. Interesting read: etymonline.com/index.php?term=-re&allowed_in_frame=0 – nxx Mar 25 '14 at 16:47
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    Oh, and practically-->practic-ly is another phenomenon known as relaxed pronunciation, which happens in practically every language (consider "Was gibt's" - just English doesn't always use the apostrophe to indicate the shortened pronunciation. When quoting direct speech, to indicate the speaker's relaxed pronunciation, one might well write "practic'ly" or even "practicly"; in formal writing, we maintain the spelling, even though we might say it differently when reading aloud). Generally, the full pronunciation would have been used initially and become relaxed over time but the spelling stayed. – nxx Mar 25 '14 at 17:20
  • Ultimately, English orthography reflects etymology, not pronunciation. – outis nihil Mar 25 '14 at 19:15

Written words are attempts at approximating sounds. In English the way words are written is largely dependent on their origin. For instance, "centre" from the French "centre" kept it's spelling in British English (in AmE it's center) despite the fact that the pronunciation changed.

In German, there are established writing rules to try to keep similarity between the way words are spoken and the way they are written, at least in the way they are spoken in the official dialect, and these rules have to change every now and again to adapt to the changing language.

These rules can change because there is some kind of authority that has a say on how things should be written. This would not be possible in English, mostly due to English being the official language of various sovereign states, and indeed there are different spellings of different words in different countries.

Language always evolves through speech - whether, and to what extent, the changes in language are adopted in the written form is not the same in every language.


It can't be emphasized often enough -- apparently, because we still keep getting these questions --
that English orthography was developed to represent Middle English, not Modern English.
It does not represent Modern English pronunciation, and should not be expected to.

Before printing was developed, English spelling was indovijuwal, like handwriting is today. It was just an attempt to represent the words the writer would be saying, as best one could. There were
lots of individual conventions, some of them pretty bizarre by modern standards.

When Caxton set up his printing shop in England in 1476, he used his own conventions to spell his language, which was Middle English, then undergoing the Great Vowel Shift on its way to Modern English. That's why Canterbury Tales looks like English on the page, but sounds like a foreign language when someone pronounces it correctly in Middle English.

Since Caxton, there have been many new words with many new spellings introduced into the language, but English spelling has not kept pace. There are many occasionally useful partial generalizations about spelling and pronunciation, but they all have too many exceptions to be
really useful.

  • I'm sorry, but Canterbury Tales doesn't look like English on the page to me. – Peter Shor Jul 17 '14 at 19:40

I don't have the source right now, but I once heard a linguist say that, for a variety of reasons, the sound of a language is always changing, sometimes pretty dramatically. With that in mind, the term chershirization, where remnants of the original sound are still silently encoded in the written language, could help explain one situation why this might happen.

As for the word practically, one of the more memorable reasons given was that people will naturally choose the path of least resistance (they're lazy), and if they can save some energy by saying "practic-ly", they will.

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