1

There's a common pattern in English spelling where "short" vowels are pronounced as "long" vowels with the addition of a silent "e" at the end of the word.

E.g.

  • bit → bite
  • mat → mate
  • pet → pete

Is there a historical reason for this? Does it relate to The Great Vowel Shift?

Reference: Wikipedia — Vowel Length#Traditional Long and Short Vowels in English Orthography

  • 1
    Quite frankly I do not think the relationship is causal. 'bit' and 'bite' are two completely different words. One is pronounced with a short 'I' and one with a long. And it may be observed that the words with a long vowel sound end in 'e'. and it is because that happens to be true that we can have this 'rule of thumb' rather than because we have a rule the words must be pronounced that way. – Jim Aug 17 '12 at 22:06
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It's not causal at all. Spelling does not cause pronunciation. The reverse can occasionally occur, but not often, and certainly not regularly.

Some facts:

  • English spelling has very little to do with Modern English pronunciation. Don't expect it to.

  • Modern English doesn't have distinct long and short vowels.

  • Middle English had distinct long and short vowels.

  • The Great Vowel Shift occured between Middle and Modern English.

  • The Great Vowel Shift applied only to Middle English long vowels.

  • The Great Vowel Shift changed Middle English long vowels to other vowels in Modern English.

  • English spelling was fixed before the Great Vowel Shift, and before final E's went silent.

The result is that the pronunciation of an English word cannot be determined from its spelling.

Sorry about that, but if you invest in a copy of Kenyon and Knott, you can look it up.

  • 8
    I have to take issue with your last point: it may be true in general, but the vast majority of words spelled CVC and CVCe have a perfectly predictable pronunciation that can be expressed in a tiny number of simple rules which are based on an explainable sequence of changes in English's history. I feel like when your answers to questions about the relationship of spelling to pronunciation are met with a blanket "there is no relationship between spelling and pronunciation" we do our readers a disservice. – nohat Aug 17 '12 at 23:54
  • Link to that "tiny number of simple rules", then, instead of arguing about it here. – John Lawler Aug 18 '12 at 2:11
  • @nohat- I think the point is that, as you've said, it's predictable. I.e., the "rules" were derived from observation of pronunciation rather that the rule prescribing pronunciation. – Jim Aug 18 '12 at 6:02
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    @JohnLawler no link is necessary. Each consonant letter has a default pronunciation. Each vowel letter has two default pronounciations, one "short", one "long". Words spelled "CVC" are pronounced using the default "short" vowel and the default consonant sounds, and words spelled "CVCe" are pronounced using the default "long" vowel and the default consonant sounds. It's so simple, they teach it to 5 year olds, and it works in reverse too. – nohat Aug 18 '12 at 21:08
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    @JohnLawler the actual phonetic values of the vowels are irrelevant (which is why I put "short" and "long" in quotes). Yes, it doesn't work perfectly for /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ and /ə/, and there are other exceptions. But there is a simple letter-to-sound and sound-to-letter correspondence that works for the vast majority of words spelled "CVC" and "CVCe". That is my only point here, that for most of these simple, one-syllable words, there is in fact a predictable close relationship between sound and spelling, and claiming otherwise seems disingenuous. – nohat Aug 19 '12 at 5:08
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The historical reason for this spelling pattern in general is most likely a process of vowel "lengthening" that applied in Middle English to certain words that previously ended in a schwa sound. This happened before the Great Vowel Shift, so that isn't directly relevant. Rather, the "Great Vowel Shift" is the explanation for why English "long a", "long i", and "long e" aren't similar to the sounds typically associated with the letters A, I and E in other European languages.

Word-final E was once used to indicate the sound [ə]

Word-final "silent e" wasn't always silent. In early stages of Middle English, word-final E was used to represent a schwa sound [ə] (which developed from various older vowel sounds). In late Middle English, this schwa was lost, but an originally short A, O or E in the preceding syllable ended up being pronounced long (as /aː/, /ɔː/ or /ɛː/, respectively, before the Great Vowel Shift.) An example of this change is the word knave [neɪv], from late Middle English [knaːv], from early Middle English [knavə], Old English [ˈknava].

Pronunciations with both a long vowel and final schwa (like [knaːvə]) probably existed at some point in Middle English, but I think the correct phonological analysis of such forms might be controversial. I've seen two distinct explanations proposed for the lengthening change: that it was conditioned by the vowel being in an "open syllable" (as well as some stress and syllable-position conditions), and that it was a form of "compensatory lengthening" where a vowel in a short syllable was made long because of the loss of the schwa phoneme in the following syllable.

It may also be relevant that "long" vowels existed in some loanwords from French that originally ended in schwa (spelled E in French, as in Middle English). French is certainly the source of the pronunciation of "long u" in modern English—the Old English "long u" sound came to be spelled as "ou".

After the loss of final [ə], word-final E developed other uses

Because of the sound change mentioned in the previous section, by the end of Middle English the spelling pattern -VCe ended up being used for many words that contained "long" vowels before a single word-final consonant. This caused final E, which no longer represented a vowel sound in and of itself, to become generalized as a marker of a "long vowel" before a preceding consonant letter.

There are many modern English words with this spelling pattern that have long vowels for other historical reasons, not because of the Middle English pre-schwa lengthening sound change; e.g. the words ice and wife had long vowels already in Old English (and didn't even end in schwa etymologically, although I don't know if they might have had schwa-final pronunciations at some point in Middle English during the time period when pronunciations with word-final schwa varied with pronunciations without the schwa sound).

And on the other hand, in most words with short vowels, spellings with word-final "silent e" eventually fell into disuse. So for example, the word frog, from Old English [ˈfrogga], probably ended in the sound [ə] before the loss of word-final schwa. A common spelling in Middle English was frogge, with final E, but this spelling of the word is now obsolete. In modern English spelling, "silent E" is only occasionally found after consonant clusters or double consonants; in a few words where it appears in this context, such as giraffe, it may be analyzed as a means of indicating that the final syllable is stressed.

Another use of "silent E" in Modern English spelling is as a marker of a preceding voiced fricative. The letter V rarely occurs word-finally in English; it is usually accompanied by word-final E, even in words like live (v.) and give that have "short" vowels. At a certain point in history, the sound /v/ did not occur word-finally in English; the existence of word-final /v/ in modern English can be attributed to the loss of word-final schwa, the introduction of loanwords, and some relatively recent clippings such as improv and maglev. Spellings with final V do occur for clippings and some loanwords.


In conclusion, knowing that any particular word is spelled with "silent e" at the end doesn't tell you anything for sure about either that word's current pronunciation, or its historical pronunciation. The (imperfect but real) correlation between this spelling pattern and the use of a "long vowel" in the pronunciation of a word has a historical explanation in the Middle-English sound change that lengthened certain vowels in words that originally had word-final schwa.

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