1

My dad and I were playing a game in the car where we picked a letter and then each alternated saying a word that started with that letter. We did it with b, for example, it might go:

Dad: bath
me: ball
dad: buffalo
me: bank
etc.

As we were playing/debating the rules of our game, I noticed that there were no b-words that I could think of that started with a sound other than /b/. Whereas, for example, for words starting with the letter t, some of them begin with the sound /ð/ or /θ/ rather than /t/.

Am I missing some obvious contradictions to this 'rule'? Is there any sort of etymological explanation for this?

To clarify as requested by a comment:

I am looking for

  1. A word that starts with a b that makes a sound other than /b/.
  2. More broadly, whether or not there is an etymologically explained pattern among starting letters that shows whether or not there exists the non-phonetic sound at the beginning of a word for a certain letter (or the commonality of the existence of those cases).

From here I'm looking at which starting letters of words have a tendency to be pronounced non-phonetically.

  • 1
    The explanation is simple. English spelling doesn't represent English sounds. We have 5 vowel symbols and 15 vowel sounds, and very inconsistent ways of putting them together. As for the consonants, they're worse. So any game or puzzle based on English spelling (instead of pronunciation) is going to wallow in strange, arbitrary, nonsensical, and ridiculous inconsistencies like this. – John Lawler Jul 30 '18 at 3:40
  • See also Linguistics – Kris Jul 30 '18 at 7:17
  • Why the obsession with initial sound? A consonant anywhere in a word could be pronounced variously depending on several factors. There has very likely been some research on this, which is I think is in the domain of linguistics, rather. – Kris Jul 30 '18 at 7:20
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is unclear what you are asking. Additionally if you are merely asking whether there are English words that start with a silent B, then this is a general reference question, which, furthermore is too trivial for this site, else active users should busy themselves with 25 similar questions and answers. – AmE speaker Jul 30 '18 at 13:39
6

There are English words that start with the letter B in spelling but that don't start with the "B sound" /b/ in speech, but not very many, and none of them is very common. An example is bdellium, from Greek, although Wiktionary indicates that some people use a "nonstandard" pronunciation /ˈb(ə)dɛliəm/ that does start with the sound /b/. (Compare the fairly common, but I would say nonstandard, pronunciation of yttrium as /jɪtriəm/ "yittrium" instead of /ɪtriəm/ "ittrium".)

The existence of complicated spellings in English is largely based on etymological factors, but there are too many to explain in one answer post on this site. There are a number of good books about the ways English spelling is related to English pronunciation; e.g. Dictionary of the British English Spelling System by Greg Brooks (despite the title, much in that book is relevant to any variety of English, and you can view it for free online.)

I would say that sound changes are one of the main things to consider as possible explanations for the patterns of present-day English spelling. For example, sound changes related to palatalization are responsible for the somewhat complex relationship between spellings like "c", "k", "ch", "g" and sounds like /k/, /s/, /tʃ/, /g/, /dʒ/. Not all of these sound changes occurred in English: the use of "g" as a spelling for the sound /dʒ/ (as in the word "gentle") is based on a French sound change that turned inherited /g/ sounds into /dʒ/ in certain contexts. (Modern French has further changed /dʒ/ into /ʒ/, but most English words of French origin are too old to have been affected by that French sound change.)

I can't think of any sound changes like this that have affected word-initial /b/ sounds in English or any language that has significantly influenced it. It's not impossible in principle for a sound change to affect word-initial /b/ and thereby complicate a language's spelling system: in Irish, the digraph "bh" is used to represent the consonant sounds /w/~/vˠ/ and /vʲ/, which developed from weakening of the "b sounds" /bˠ/ and /bʲ/ in certain contexts. As a result, certain types of words in Irish show alternation between initial "b" and "bh" depending on the grammatical context, such as bean "woman" (pronounced with /bʲ/) and an bhean "the woman" (pronounced with /vʲ/). (The "b/bh" alternation is one of several grammatical "consonant mutations" occurring in Irish words.)

3

There are silent bs in English:

Bdellium, it's a gum like tree resin, it starts with a silent B

http://www.metrolyrics.com/crazy-abcs-lyrics-barenaked-ladies.html

(The above song is filled with examples of words with silent first letters.)

The etymology of this word is quite brief:

Middle English, from Latin, from Greek βδέλλιον.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bdellium

So, the word initial bd is from Greek. As for why Greek hasn’t given us any common words like this I don’t know. But there are other similar rare words:

  • Bdellatomy
  • Bdellometer

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