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Back in 2009, a job interviewer sent me a link to a web service that would help me make a free telephone call via the internet... Skype. As a native speaker, I knew "instinctively" to pronounce this "sky p," not "sky pee."

Fast forward to now and it is very common in my classroom to hear students pronounce this "Sky pee." Same with "you tu bee" (YouTube). My usual answer to why the ‘e’ is not pronounced is not satisfying to me, maybe students accept it because "English makes no sense," but I cannot accept that.

Just a quick look through The First Folio shows that many English words used to have an ‘e’ at the end, words that now don't. I cannot say whether those words were pronounced differently because of the ‘e’. My guess, based on the little I know about original pronunciation, is that they weren't pronounced differently, in the sense of "ee" sound added to the end, as in "tree."

If I had to guess about the ‘e’ I would say that some of the words picked up the ‘e’ because they have a German root in which the ‘e’ is pronounced. However, I have seen "tell" spelled "telle" and "show" spelled "showe."

Various answers I have come across: 1. Printers were paid extra for extra letters so they added ‘e’ to get paid more. 2. That's English, so get over it. 3. No one knows, same as no one really knows who shot JFK and if they say they know they're liars. 4. The old days of English spelling were the "Wild West" and anything went until Sheriff Webster brought law and order to the untamed frontier, etc.

Silent ‘e’ is such a big thing that most native speakers are familiar with the term and learn it in school or on Sesame Street.

Why was ‘e’ added to the end of so many words, if it wasn't going to be pronounced?

NOTE: I understand that ‘e’ changes the pronunciation and that English has many exceptions and variations. But, at one time it wasn't haphazard; "show" and "old" were written with an ‘e’. Why if it wasn't pronounced? Old is pronounced "old." The ‘e’ isn't necessary to change the vowels. How else would it be pronounced? What about "have"? Was the ‘e’ swept along with all of "Olde Englishe" other spellings?

These are just a few words that used to have ‘e’ at the end: learne, stuffe, sadnesse, mee, selfe, minde, flye, grasse, harme, winde, quicke, alwayes, worke, lordshippe, booke (but foot often did not have the ‘e’ added) etc., etc.

NOTE 2: I am not interested in an answer or comment that points me to a website containing rules and observations about silent ‘e’. I don't want an answer that tells me that silent ‘e’ changes can into cane; a long sound, I already know that. Ermanam's answer is a step in the right direction, however there are so many words that used to have an ‘e’ tacked on to the end and don't seem to follow any reasoning that I can see. Why an ‘e’ and not an ‘i’ or some symbol that wasn't a letter? What about the word "sadnesse"? What's the ‘e’ there for?

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    Usually – and in English, it's almost always "usually," and rarely "always" – the silent e makes the vowel long. Compare: pan vs. pane, pin vs. pine, bit vs. bite, con vs. cone, etc. That's why we say "You Tube" and not "You Tub." (Of course, exceptions are plentiful.) – J.R. Dec 27 '15 at 2:39
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    @Rathony May I ask why? If you have read the entire question, it should be clear to you that Skype was just an introductory example and that the OP is not simply asking for pronunciation rules but for the why's and when's. – dukerasputin Dec 27 '15 at 17:42
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    @Rathony in my eyes it is not a duplicate but a related question, because this other question is about the "how" (that is pronunciation and whether it is possible to infer from the spelling) and the OP does relate to this, but asks why there where, and are, so many words that have an -e, even though they are not pronounced. Skype in this context is an example, the reference to JFK, I suppose, should be humorous in reference to the many (possibly absurd and unresearched) answers he has gotten in response to his question. – dukerasputin Dec 27 '15 at 17:57
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    'Silent ‘e’ is such a big thing that most native speakers are familiar with the term and learn it in school or on Sesame Street.' Now there's irony for you. – Phil Sweet Sep 11 '17 at 18:49
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TL;DR

The "e" was pronounced (until it wasn't). There are many different reasons it appeared at the ends of words--including no reason at all. Generally, our spelling system has kept it when it made a difference to the pronunciation of the rest of the word.

Was today's silent "e" ever pronounced in the past?

Yes, it often was.

One piece of evidence is the spelling of Old English words. As ermanen's answer states, Old English spelling didn't have silent letters, so if they spelled a word with an "e", they pronounced it with an "e".1 Thus, words like line2, sun (OE sunne)3, and eye (OE ege or eage)4 were once pronounced with two syllables apiece.

Further evidence that final "e" was pronounced, even into the Middle English period, comes from poetry. Consider the following line from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

In modern spelling, that's "The tender crops, and the young sun." But this section of poetry is written in iambic pentameter, and so this line ought to have more than eight syllables. The only way for it to scan correctly is to pronounce all the "e"s:

 /   ×   /    ×   /    ×   /   ×   /  ×   /
The ten-dre crop-pes, and the yon-ge son-ne

Was final "e" always pronounced?

In Old English, yes. In Middle English, not always. Take another line from Chaucer:

Ful ofte tyme he hadde the bord bigonne

Here we must pronounce some of the "e"s, but not all of them!

 /   ×  /  ×    /   ×    /   ×    /  ×   /
Ful of-te tyme he hadde the bord bi-gon-ne

The introduction to my edition of Chaucer5 says that final "e" is often elided (i.e. not pronounced) if the next word begins with a vowel or "h". That explains why "tyme" is one syllable. "Hadde" doesn't fit that criterion, and therefore illustrates the other possibility: "Before initial consonants -e is ordinarily sounded, though there are cases on almost every page where it must have been either slurred or entirely apocopated" (my emphasis). In other words, in Middle-English poetry (and probably also in casual speech), you could leave the "e" unpronounced if you wanted to.

Why did they stop pronouncing the "e"?

Besides the convenience of poets, there was a much bigger reason why people wouldn't pronounce the "e": they didn't have to. Language frequently "wears down" over time; pronunciations get more efficient by eliminating sounds. Over time "boatswain" becomes "bo's'n." This reduction happens especially often with unstressed vowels--like final "e", which in the Middle English period was pronounced as a schwa. Why pronounce "name" as "nahm-uh" when you can just say "nahm"?

Note: we do still pronounce some final "e"s--when they are surrounded by certain consonants. For example, consider "cooked" vs. "booted." The "e"s in both words used to be pronounced ("cook-ed" and "boot-ed"). But today, the "e" in "cooked" is unpronounced, as if the word were "cookt," while the "e" in "booted" is still pronounced as a short, unstressed vowel. The "e" in "booted" can't be removed without making the "t" of the stem blend in with the "d" of the ending. It still has a reason to be there, so it gets to stay.

But if the "e"s were unnecessary, why were they there in the first place?

Because they used to carry meaning. In earlier forms of the language, the ending -e formed several different grammatical inflections. For instance, ermanen's quote from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language mentions that hus is the Old English word for "house," but huse is the form when the word in the dative case. Some other sources of final "e":6

  • Some Old English nouns ended in -e even in the nominative case (e.g. ende)
  • Some Old English nouns ended in some other vowel, which came to be pronounced as a schwa in Middle English and was therefore respelled as -e (e.g. OE nama -> ME name)
  • Some words were borrowed from French, which also hadn't stopped pronouncing its final "e"s yet (e.g. corage "heart")
  • Some adjectives took an -e ending in certain grammatical constructions (e.g. the word for "young" is yong, but when it is preceded by the definite article, it becomes yonge: "the yonge sonne"7)
  • One way to make an adjective into an adverb was to add -e (e.g. bright -> brighte; this pattern was eventually replaced by the modern adverb suffix -ly)
  • Several inflections of verbs had an -e ending (e.g., the first person singular: "he singeth, I singe"8)

And, yes, there are some words that add an -e without any etymological or grammatical basis at all. My Works of Chaucer introduction calls this an "unhistoric" -e. Googling the phrase "unhistoric final e" turned up several books that talk about the phenomenon, but the usual explanation seems to be, "Who knows?" Sometimes language just changes and there isn't an obvious rationale.9

One quasi-explanation is the process of analogy. If most words in a particular category end in -e, then the few words that don't may start adding -e to fit in. One source10 says this happened with grammatically feminine nouns: since many Old English feminine nouns ended in -e (at least in some forms), other feminine nouns with different endings in Old English started adding -e in Middle English. It just seemed like the right ending for a feminine noun to have.11

The results

In any case, the fact is that a lot of words came to have an "e" on the end, and also that most of those "e"s were dropped from the pronunciation.

Some "e"s, before they disappeared, affected the pronunciation of preceding vowels and consonants (e.g. rid vs. ride, rag vs. rage). They were kept in the spelling because they could still indicate those changes.

The new coinage Skype is patterned after words in this category. The "y" needs to be a long vowel to sound like sky, so the word's creators tacked an "e" on the end to make sure it would rhyme with type and not with tip. I, too, have known non-native English speakers who pronounced it as "Skypee." But it is following a standard English spelling pattern, even if it's a somewhat baroque one.

Some "e"s didn't affect pronunciation at all (e.g. ende, blisse). They were kept in the spelling because spelling tends to be conservative, continuing to represent pronunciations that nobody uses anymore (knight, for example). But eventually, we got rid of most of them.

Stores, shopping centers, and neighborhoods--at least in the U.S.--have lately begun adding these superfluous "e"s to their names right and left, in an effort to seem "olde-fashioned." My grandmother got me into the habit of mocking this trend by pronouncing the "e"s like your students do: "Oldee Townee" and so forth. What can I say? We've got a weird spelling system--we might as well have some fun with it.


1 The pronunciation was probably /e/--more like a Spanish "e" than the modern English "e".
2 "Line," etymonline.com
3 "Sun," etymonline.com
4 "Eye," etymonline.com
5 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, New Cambridge Edition, 2nd edition, edited by F. N. Robinson.
6 Ibid.
7 These distinctions were the remnants of the Old English system of "strong" and "weak" adjective declension. To get a feel for how it worked, check out the similar usage patterns of German adjectives.
8 Pronounced "sing-guh," not "sinj." This ending is the same in Old English and, incidentally, also in modern German: "Ich singe." It's also the source of the "e" in have (OE hæbbe).
9 I find the explanation about printers being paid by the letter particularly unconvincing. This extra "e" phenomenon was widespread in the writings of Chaucer, who died forty years before the printing press was invented.
10 The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales: The Knightes Tale, the Nonnes Prestes Tale, edited by Mark H. Liddell: "Elements of Middle English Grammar: Inflection," p. xxxviii
11 Of course, Liddell goes on in a footnote to mention some masculine and neuter nouns that also added -e, and once again we're back to, "Who knows?"

  • Good answer. Helps me be a better teacher. YouTube is often pronounced youtubee by my students. Skypee is common. – michael_timofeev Sep 11 '17 at 7:05
  • Is there a kindle version of your Tales? – michael_timofeev Sep 11 '17 at 7:07
  • There doesn't seem to be a Kindle version--this is the hardcover. – DLosc Sep 11 '17 at 7:16
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    Possibly of interest: I believe a Middle English pronunciation of YouTube might have sounded approximately like "Yo Tuba." (Though it appears that's a bit anachronistic: etymonline says the earliest attestation of "tube" in English is in the 1610s. Oh well.) – DLosc Sep 11 '17 at 7:20
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Silent e has its origins in early Middle English so it is before the Great Vowel Shift (1350-1600). However, the rule of giving a long value to a vowel immediately before a consonant which precedes a silent e might have been finalized with the Great Vowel Shift.

Silent e was not always silent and it had various grammatical functions in Middle English. Grammar Girl gives the following information about the origin of silent e by quoting from the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (by David Crystal).

According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, this rule has its origins in the early part of the Middle English period—in other words, in the 11th century. In those days, English used suffixes much more than it does now to show if a word was singular or plural or if it was being used as the subject of a sentence or an object. For example, hus [“hoose”], spelled H-U-S. meant just “house,” but huse [“HOOSE-uh”], spelled H-U-S-E, meant “to a house.” However, in the Middle English period, that final “uh” sound got dropped completely, so that whether the word was spelled H-U-S or H-U-S-E, it was pronounced “hoose.”

Still, that didn’t stop people from writing that final E. As Crystal writes, “Although the final [uh] sound disappeared, the -e spelling remained, and it gradually came to be used to show that the preceding vowel was long. This is the origin of the modern spelling ‘rule’ about ‘silent e’ in such words as name and rose” (p. 42).

Anglo-Saxon monks couldn't use the silent vowel strategy to show a long vowel because every letter was pronounced in Old English. If there was a vowel at the end of a word, it would be sounded. This situation changed as the Old English period came to an end and the Middle English period began. David Crystal, in his another book Spell It Out: The singular story of English spelling, says that the scribes in Middle English period began to use various ways to show long vowel and they used them all from the 12th century. Here is the relevant excerpt:

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  • Thank you for posting an answer. What about the words I included in my question? Can you comment on some of those? For example "minde" or "flye." – michael_timofeev Dec 28 '15 at 1:50
  • What about "sadnesse?" What is the "e" doing there? – michael_timofeev Dec 28 '15 at 2:12
  • @michael_timofeev: In Middle English, sometimes there was no phonetic function of "silent e" and sometimes it came after an unnecessarily doubled final consonant. – ermanen Dec 28 '15 at 4:32
  • But why did it come after a doubled final consonant? Why put it on sadness? Another user suggested all letters were pronounced so this would mean sadnesse was pronounced sad ness eh, or something close. – michael_timofeev Dec 28 '15 at 4:40
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    @michael_timofeev: in Early Middle English (like Chaucer) final unstressed e was not silent, but it is believed to have represented a schwa sound, as in German; it would be somewhere around "eh," (hence the spelling) but also similar to the last vowel of Modern English "comma." It could occur after single or multiple consonants. But after it fell silent, which words were spelled with e and which ones weren't became somewhat random. – sumelic Dec 28 '15 at 6:03
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5 reasons for a silent final e explained by Orton-Gillingham based phonics in order of frequency:

  1. Strong Man e: makes the preceding vowel say it's name. Most common in a vcv pattern like rake.

  2. Supporter e: English words don't end in i, u, v or j "And they need an e to support them so they don't fall over." ;) Eg. love. (Ski, spaghetti and bonsai are borrowed foreign words. My Grade One students have also over the years identified just 1 exception: hi; You and Lou are covered by the vowel team ou.)

  3. Softening e: the letter c says "s" and letter g MAY say "j" when followed by an e, I or y.

  4. Sidekick e: every syllable needs a vowel. Eg. Little

  5. Odd job e: covers any job not done by the other four, such as

    • adding length to give distinction aw/awe or/ore
    • distinguishing a non plural word that would otherwise end with s eg. sense
    • ghost of a forgotten sound eg. giraffe

(The specific program I teach from in Elementary grades is called Spell to Write and Read by Wanda Sanseri and is excellent! By mastering just 28 spelling rules and 70 phonograms, students discover that 98% of the English language can be spelled without breaking any rules.

All About Spelling is also a good program which is more user friendly, but is not quite as efficient.)

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    Hi Cheryl, welcome to EL&U. It's important to read the whole question carefully: Note 2 explains that the OP doesn't want answers that set out the rules. It's also important to read the other answers, two of which provide expert responses - so a beginner's lesson on silent-e might not be pitched at the right level for this answer. But I encourage you to look for other opportunities to contribute, and don't forget to take the Tour. :-) – Chappo Dec 11 '18 at 7:50
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    Cheryl, you may not be aware of our other site English Language Learners. Given what you teach, you might find that there's an abundance of questions on ELL where your expertise could assist! There are many EL&U users who are also contributors to ELL. Worth having a look, anyway :-) – Chappo Dec 11 '18 at 7:54
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I'm not sure whether the following answers your question as it is no historical survey but only a presentation of today's system concerning silent e.

Compare the following spellings:

fat - fate - æ -ei

get - delete - e - i:

hop - hope - ɔ - ou

tub - tube - ʌ - ju:

The English spelling system indicates the short or long pronunciation of the five basic vowels a e i o u as follows:

When a single consonant follows then the vowel is short.

When a single consonant + e follows the vowel is long.

If I find something on the Internet concerning this topic I'll add it here.

Added: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_e

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    Probably because such final letters are historical. Compare German das Ende, Middle English ende, Modern English end. But that is a subject for a specialist of Middle English. – rogermue Dec 27 '15 at 3:38
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    Thank you. Hopefully, we can get a specialist to help out with this answer. I think most of us would like to know about silent "e." Was it there because of German but never pronounced, so at a later time, spelling was revised. Learn comes from German "lehrne" so I can see the "e" coming along for the ride, so-to-speak, but what about "fly" or the others on my incomplete liste? – michael_timofeev Dec 27 '15 at 3:45
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    @michael_timofeev: Modern German isn't any older than English, so it's not exactly correct to say that learn comes from lernen. Rather, they both come from a common ancestral form, in the common language spoken a long time ago from which both Modern English and Modern German have descended and diverged. – sumelic Dec 27 '15 at 3:58
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    @rogermue: There are lots of silent 'e's at the ends of words which never had a real 'e' on them (for example house – Old English hus); these were used during Middle English to indicate a long vowel. – Peter Shor Dec 27 '15 at 12:36
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    Yes, that's right. I have to correct my view. Part of these cases are historical, part of them are cases where an e was added just for pronunciation. – rogermue Dec 27 '15 at 13:30

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