Why have a letter in a word when it’s silent in pronunciation, like the b in debt?
Can anyone please clarify my uncertainty here?
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In general, never trust words in the English language to be phonetic! This is largely a consequence of English being such a fast-evolving language, and importantly, owing its vocabulary to many linguistic sources: Latin, Old French, Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English), Norse, and many others.
In this case it seems we have French to thank. This etymology is given online, and explains the supposed strange pronunciation:
late 13c., dette, from O.Fr. dete, from L. debitum “thing owed”, neut. pp. of debere “to owe”, originally, “keep something away from someone”, from de- “away” (see de-) + habere “to have” (see habit). Restored spelling after c.1400.
In other words, debt comes via the Old French dete, which itself derives from classical Latin debitum. The b sound got lost due to French phonological rules/convention, and hence the French-origin pronunciation in English. Evidently, after the end of the Middle Ages in the 15th century, there was much revived interest in the classical world, and the spelling reverted to include the original b. Pronunciation, of course, stayed the same.
(Note that this sort of evolution occurred with many different English words, and occurred at the same time many new Latin words entered the English language.)
One important and often overlooked reason for having silent letters in the spelling of English words is because spelling in English is meant to do much more than tell you how to pronounce a word. For one thing, it can also tell you about the history of the word, its origins and its evolution. Not all languages have this property in their written forms, but English does.
It can also serve to create heterographs out of homophones, which helps when reading. For example, consider the word pronounced
/raɪt/. That can be any of:
As soon as you see it on the printed page, you know which of those four words it is. You don’t have to puzzle it out. This increases reading speed and proficiency.
The other largely unsung reason for how English spelling helps you is because if you actually spelled things the way people said them, no one could ever read anything anyone else ever wrote! Well, nobody outside their own current dialect — if that.
Even using something like
/raɪt/ doesn’t work to tell you how to say the word if you do not already know English. That’s because that is a phonemic transcription, not a phonetic transcription. Speaking broadly, phonetics is what people actually say, whereas phonemics is more like what people actually hear.
For example, when I think I am saying
/raɪt/, I am not. I actually pronounce all four of those words
[ɹʷʌɪt] — or often enough, simply
[ɹʷʌɪʔ]. You can also spell that
[ɻʌɪʔ] if you prefer.
It’s not an uncommon pronunciation, but there are many others:
[ɹäˑɪt]North Carolina, Nigeria (Igbo), Rossendale
[ɹäɛ̝̈tʰ]South Africa: Johannesburg
[ɹɐit]Antrim, Belfast, Boston, Chicago
[ɹɑ̈ɪt]North Devon, New Zealand: Auckland
As you can see from the list above, you do not have to spell English with “silent” letters. However, when you really do go to the trouble to spell it out phonetically, you thereby:
But because English has silent letters, none of that applies. This is a blessing, you know. You should be happy nearly to the point of being overjoyed that English has silent letters. They are a major win, and without them, we would all be lost.
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
I thought to quote this excellent overview of 'silent letters' herefrom.
Q[uestion]: Why do words like “caught,” “ought,” “thought,” “bought,” “naught,” “laugh,” and “should” have endings with no bearing on the way the words sound?
A[nswer]: I think you’ve asked a much larger and more complicated question than you realize!
Our spelling system began as an attempt to reproduce speech. But because most spellings became fixed centuries ago, they no longer reflect exact pronunciations.
As a result, spelling is about more than pronunciation; it also reflects a word’s meaning and etymology and history. And in the case of English words, their spellings often have very idiosyncratic histories hidden within.
You mention “caught,” “ought” and others. The appearance of “gh” in words like these is annoying to people who’d like to reform English spelling. Many wonder, for example, why “laughter” and “daughter” don’t rhyme. Well, they once did.
“Daughter” has had several pronunciations over the centuries, including DOCH-ter (with the first syllable like the Scottish “loch”), DAFF-ter (rhyming with “laughter’”) and DAW-ter. We know which one survived.
The Middle English letter combination “gh” is now pronounced either as “f” (as in “cough/trough/laugh/enough”) or not at all (“slaughter/daughter/ought/through,” etc.).
The word “night,” to use another example, went through dozens of spellings over 600 years, from nact and nigt and niht, and so on, eventually to “night” around 1300. It’s a cousin not only to the German nacht but probably to the Greek nyktos and the Old Irish innocht, among many others.
The odd-looking consonants in the middle of “night” (as well as “right” and “bright”) were once pronounced with a guttural sound somewhere between the modern “g” and “k.” But though the pronunciation moved on, the spelling remained frozen in time.
You also mention “should,” a word in which the letter “l” looks entirely superfluous. But the “l” in “should” and “would” was once pronounced (as it was in “walk,” “chalk,” “talk,” and other words).
Same goes for the “w” in “sword” and the “b” in “climb.” They were once pronounced. Similarly, the “k” in words like “knife,” “knee,” and “knave” was not originally silent. It was once softly pronounced. But while pronunciation changed, spelling did not.
There are several reasons that English spellings and pronunciations differ so markedly.
Much of our modern spelling had its foundation in the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500). But in the late Middle English and early Modern English period (roughly 1350 to 1550), the pronunciation of vowels underwent a vast upheaval.
Linguists call this the Great Vowel Shift, and it’s too complicated to go into in much detail here. To use one example, before the Great Vowel Shift the word “food” sounded like FODE (rhymes with “road”).
While the pronunciations of many words changed dramatically, their spellings remained largely the same. Why? Because printing, which was introduced into England in the late 1400s, helped retain and standardize those older spellings.
Complicating matters even further, the first English printer, William Caxton, employed typesetters from Holland who introduced their own oddities (the “h” in “ghost” is an example, borrowed from Flemish).
In addition, silent letters were introduced into some English words as afterthoughts to underscore their classical origins. This is why “debt” and “doubt” have a “b” (inserted to reflect their Latin ancestors debitum and dubitare).
Sometimes, a letter was erroneously added to reflect an imagined classical root. This is why “island” has an “s” (a mistaken connection to the Latin isola). I’ve written a blog entry about this.
Still other English spellings came about in the Middle Ages when scribes found that the letters “m,” “n,” “u,” and “i” caused readers difficulty because of all those vertical downstrokes of the pen (“m” + “I” was hard to tell from “n” + “u”). So “o” was substituted for “u” in words like “come,” “some,” “monk,” son,” and “wolf.”
Apart from ease of reading, “o” was sometimes swapped for “u” because, as Dennis Freeborn writes in his book From Old English to Standard English, “u was an overused letter. It represented the sound v as well as u, and uu was used for w.”
Another authority, David Crystal, has pointed out that England’s “civil service of French scribes” following the Norman Conquest in the 11th century also influenced the spelling of English words.
Crystal writes in his book The Fight for English that not only did consonants change (the French “qu” replaced the Old English “cw” in words like “queen,” to use just one example), but vowels “were written in a great number of ways.”
“Much of the irregularity of modern English spelling derives from the forcing together of Old English and French systems of spelling in the Middle Ages,” he says.
As you can see, this is a vast subject. In summary, spellings eventually settle into place and become standardized, but pronunciations are more mercurial and likely to change.
First, you have to understand that English spelling was not designed for modern English. It was designed for Middle English, a very different language, with very different sounds.
The designers were the first English printers; Caxton started in 1476, in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift marking the end of Middle English and the beginning of Modern English. Then printing standardized spelling; before, everybody speld funettikli, in there oon fasyun. Rather like handwriting still is today.
As far as "silent" letters are concerned, they remain where they were put, for whatever reason, but the sounds have changed in the words while the spelling has not. Sometimes (like the P in pneumonia) it never was pronounced at all, but was just borrowed with the foreign (in this case Greek) spelling of the root. Others, like the K in knife and the G in singer (which doesn't rhyme with finger because finger does have a G), used to be pronounced in older Englishes, but aren't any more.
English speakers don't like English spelling any more than you do. It's awful and takes a lot of time out of education. But we're stuck with it; too much installed base.
I’m sure I remember reading that some “redundant” letters were inserted into English words by early printers, simply to make the typesetting easier or to improve the visual appearance of the text. The example given was the ‘h’ in “ghost”, though while Oxford does indeed attribute that to an early printer, it suggests that the influence was a foreign spelling rather than practicality or aesthetics.
The answer is complicated and requires knowing the etymological and phonological history of English. Doubt for instance comes to English ultimately through the Latin verb dubitare (to hesitate), in which the "b" is not silent. But it first took a detour through the Old French word douter, which had lost the letter "b" and its sound. The OED notes that douter was the "normal" form through the 14th century. The dictionary finds the first use of doubt-with-a-b in 1398 (as a noun, in an obsolete usage meaning a difficulty), this "artificial" spelling effected by "the influence of Latin." The two forms coexist through the 16th century, with the OED giving, on the one hand, the example of the Great Bible of 1539, a project of King Henry VIII, which records Matthew 28:17
But some douted.
and on the other hand, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury under King Henry who writes in 1548 of church doctrines
wherefore it is not lawful to doubt at them.
Perhaps the motivation for the insertion of the silent "b" was that it made clear the link between doubt and related words like dubious, which came to English directly from the same Latin word, and which not having taken the French detour, kept the "b". By the 17th century, the "b" is entrenched in English. Interestingly, the opposite happened in French, which eventually abandoned the extra letter.
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.