23

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?

13
  • I think you mean something else than doubt, so I've edited that in...
    – Noldorin
    Jan 15 '11 at 21:14
  • 3
    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
  • 1
    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
  • 1
    FWIW, I think you might mean rules of silent letters, not laws. Dec 31 '14 at 15:48
  • 3
    A lot of them weren't always silent.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 24 '19 at 1:43
24

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:

debt
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.)

4
  • Minor detail: dete is from Old French, dette is the modern French spelling.
    – F'x
    Jan 16 '11 at 12:13
  • FX_1: Ah cheers. So I mean medieval (Middle?) French really... which happens to be equivalent to the modern French word.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 16 '11 at 13:27
  • 4
    It's not so much that English is a "fast-evolving language" -- however you're actually quantifying that -- but more that English has never had formal spelling reforms or dictionaries that are "formally endorsed" by some authority or other. The phenomena that you mention did of course occur, but they also occurred in other languages which then had spelling reforms and "endorsed" dictionaries which have tidied up some of the inconsistencies to some extent or other. Dec 1 '12 at 0:44
  • 1
    Wrong. English had its first proper dictionary earlier than many other European languages. It's fast evolution and increasing liberalism is due to it being an isolated tongue subjected to various strong influences over its history and some pidginising.
    – Noldorin
    Dec 1 '12 at 1:22
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On the blessings of ‘silent’ letters in English

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:

  1. wright
  2. right
  3. write
  4. rite

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.


Be Careful What You Wish For

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:

  • [ɾɜit] Hawick
  • [ræ̠x̟tʰ] Buckie
  • [rɐit] South Wales
  • [rəit] Coldstream
  • [ʁɛ̈it] Holy Island
  • [ɹäˑɪt] North Carolina, Nigeria (Igbo), Rossendale
  • [ɹäˑɪʔ] Morley
  • [ɹäɛ̝̈tʰ] South Africa: Johannesburg
  • [ɹa̠it] Longtown
  • [ɹäi̞t] Middlesbrough
  • [ɹäɪt] Alabama, Chicago
  • [ɹäɪtʰ] Received Pronunciation
  • [ɹäɪt] North Carolina
  • [ɹä̝ɪt] Ohio
  • [ɹaɪθ̠] Liverpool
  • [ɹɐit] Antrim, Belfast, Boston, Chicago
  • [ɹɐiʔ] Norwich
  • [ɹɐɪt] Cornhill
  • [ɹ̝ɐɪt] India: Delhi
  • [ɹɐɪt] Singapore
  • [ɹɑ̈ë̞t] Buxton
  • [ɹɑ̟it̟̚] New York
  • [ɹɑ̈ɪ̠t] Australia: Perth
  • [ɹɑɪt] North Devon
  • [ɹɑ̈ɪt] North Devon, New Zealand: Auckland
  • [ɹɑɪt] Somerset
  • [ɹɑɪʔ] London
  • [ɹɑ̟ɪʔ] North Devon
  • [ɹəɪʔ] Edinburgh
  • [ɹə̟̝xt] Edinburgh
  • [ɹɛ̈ɪs̺̆] Tyneside
  • [ɹɛ̝̈xt] Antrim
  • [ɹɜitʰ] Berwick
  • [ɹɜ̟̆ıĭtʰ] Tyrone
  • [ɹiˑtʰ] Tyneside
  • [ɹʋ͡ɛ̈i̞ʰs̺̆] Tyneside
  • [ɹʌ̞̈it] Edinburgh
  • [ɹʌ̈itʰ] Standard Scottish
  • [ɹʌ̈ɪt̚] Standard Canadian
  • [ɻäiʰtʰ] Lewis
  • [ɻäɪtʰ] Standard American

Summary

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:

  1. Cut yourself off from all your literature, so you can kiss your culture goodbye.
  2. Make it impossible to distinguish homophones.
  3. Disconnect a word’s history from its spelling.
  4. Force people to learn a much larger alphabet, one that requires several hundred letters — have fun typing those, too.
  5. Make it so that you can no longer communicate with anybody who lives two miles away, let alone two (or twelve!) thousand miles away.

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.

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  • 5
    Not all of those benefits are entirely down to silent letters...we can have letters that we agree to pronounce differently without having to have silent letters. I do agree with all of your points with regard to the benefits of a non-phonetic language. Also, it makes Scrabble and other word games much more fun if you have to think of all the different ways the letters you have can be pronounced in order to think of all the words you could make with them. Nov 30 '12 at 23:38
  • 5
    You make things sound much more intentional and organised than they really are, though. Most of the "benefits" you mention have essentially come to pass by accident rather than design. And you could be much more critical/explanatory of some of these benefits-- for example, so what if homophones cannot be distinguished-- if they're homophones, why shouldn't they be homographs as well? Dec 1 '12 at 0:47
  • 3
    I'm not sure the "kiss your culture goodbye" idea is a very compelling prediction. Plenty of languages have regular spelling reforms to make the orthography align with a standard dialect's spoken form and they manage to bring their literature along with them. Especially nowadays with computers, it would become almost trivial to update literature to use a regularized phonetic spelling scheme.
    – nohat
    Dec 1 '12 at 6:07
  • 1
    @nohat Perhaps, but have you seen the arguments over Portuguese and German about this? Spanish has been more successful, but they have also had considerably fewer changes, and even so, issues remain. What I was thinking was that you have to consider how many printed English-language books would no longer be accessible. It seems difficult to overestimate the effort of replacing every piece of English printed matter if not from all of history, at least from Shakespeare on down, to make it for-the-nonce phonetic. Think of all the libraries, public and private, that people would be cut off from.
    – tchrist
    Dec 1 '12 at 7:10
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    Note: I wouldn't trust any of the written pronunciations on the website you link to. I've noticed a number of mistakes in it. For example, the Boston accent famously uses two quite different vowels for north and four. The transcriptions use the four vowel for north, while the pronunciation gets it right. Apr 4 '14 at 12:49
5

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.

5

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.

1
  • I'm sorry, but Canterbury Tales doesn't look like English on the page to me. Jul 17 '14 at 19:40
4

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”).

Melinda J. Menzer’s Furman University webiste can tell you more about the Great Vowel Shift. I’ve also touched on it briefly in a blog item.

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.

1
  • Why did spelling become fixed centuries ago? It could be that this is the issue: the language was never cleaned up.
    – Koyovis
    May 25 '17 at 2:39
4

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.

3

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.

2
  • Good answer. It would be even better though, if you cited your source.
    – WS2
    Apr 23 '16 at 9:06
  • No, it would not have been better. Unless, of course, you're measuring on the scale of unwarranted self-satisfaction, on which ELU pegs high with its claim of being a repository of knowledge. My original source made its claim for the work of "scribes", which I couldn't verify and which seems somewhat anachronistic.
    – deadrat
    Apr 23 '16 at 18:00
2

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.

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  • 1
    Possible, but highly unlikely to be the main reason.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 16 '11 at 15:46
0

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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