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Why do silent letters exist In English? (And Teaching Tips)

Silent letters can be infuriating. P, K, E, and others are often called “silent” letters because we do not hear them in words. However, sometimes, they work with other letters to make new sounds. Why do they exist, and where do they come from?

These questions aren’t new or unusual. Scan Reddit, Quora, or even Wikipedia, and you will find entries and questions about silent letters. So let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this. 

Silent letters exist in English as it is an evolving language that often borrows from other languages. Sounds that enter English from these languages may not have a clear pronunciation in English. Often the letters that don’t fit in with English patterns are then, over time, turned into silent letters

Brief Explanation of Silent Letters in English

The shortest explanation for this is that English is made of many different languages. The United States has often been called a mosaic or melting pot of cultures. English as a language is no different. While it is a much older language than the US is a country.

English borrows from many languages to get its words and spelling patterns. This borrowed language is why we have so many exceptions in our vocabulary. Some words come from Middle English evolving, and other words were coined by authors and playwrights such as Shakespeare.

However, English borrows from Latin, Greek, German, French, Spanish, and even African dialects. Because we borrow so many words, they do not always translate with clean pronunciations.

Translating from languages without our Latin-based letters can make translating the letters more challenging. Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and other writing systems do not transfer letter to letter. Because of this, letters may be blended to try to approximate the sound.

German pronunciations also alter English words. Though the alphabets are the same, the pronunciation and use of the words are different. This means that if we take the German spelling and create an English variant, some of the letters may not be pronounced.

However, in German, they may certainly be pronounced. The pronunciation is simply altered to meet English rules.

Some Are Quietly Working

Let’s look at a few words with hard-working silent letters. Ripe, type, kite, grape, gripe, tape, white, hate, and gate all have a silent e at the end. This ‘e’ is not decorative, and it isn’t necessarily a throwback to letters that are just no longer needed.

These silent letters have purpose. They change the pronunciation of their preceding vowels. Rip, kit, grip, tap, whit, and hat are all words vastly different from their counterparts ending in e. They are all pronounced with the short vowel sound, whereas the others are pronounced with the long vowel sound.

Others are parts of combinations that create a new sound. Th, ph, CK, and wh make new sounds. They are not necessarily the combination of their individual letter sounds. CK may be one exception to that since these letters combine to make a k sound.

However, this digraph makes a specific sound rather than just one or the other since the c can also make a k sound on its own. These letters aren’t just being quiet, even if their sounds are breaths rather than voiced. Wh has a specific sound that is different from w or h alone.

English Silent letter

Living Languages Change

The simple answer to most everything else is that language changes. Languages grow and develop. People’s accents chop letters off words at times. Southern US residents are notorious for chopping the g off ing words.

Other dialects don’t pronounce the hard “r” sound as is typical in many British dialects. As people change their pronunciation of words, sometimes these pronunciations become the norm, and words change.

What’s Does It Matter?

Silent letters get a lot of blame in the phonics game. They are often blamed for children’s struggles with phonics and a reason cited for not using phonics in the classroom. However, with the hard-working silent letters, they often play a role in phonics.

They can tell us about the long and short sounds and digraphs and diphthongs. For instance, the word fear contains a diphthong, but the general rule is that the vowel sound will take on a long form of the first vowel. This rule is not hard and fast, but it can help children learn how much of the language works.

Are There Really All That Many Silent Letters?

According to Grammar Girl at Quick and Dirty Tips, B, D, E, G, H, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, W, X, and Z may all be silent letters. This list is far longer than most of us will likely ever encounter, but don’t forget that silent letters are not always at the beginning or end of a word.

The “gh” in eight, light, night, knight, sight, and ought is silent. Likewise, the b in debt is silent. It seems to have no purpose. Receipt and Recipe use to be the same word. It was a written copy of something. Over time, receipt became synonymous with bill of sale or transaction record, and recipe was the instructions for making a food or drink.

According to Grammar Girl at Quick and Dirty Tips, B, D, E, G, H, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, W, X, and Z may all be silent letters.

Grammar Girl
Why silent letters in English

Examples of English Silent Letters In ” English” Words

So all you teachers out there can demonstrate why silent letters are so important to students and they are present in so many English words we have this table to demonstrate.

You can use it to see if your students can think of any more words that have silent letters, or if they can spot the silent letter in the lists, or even if they can try to say the word and say the letter to see how it changes the pronunciation if they say the letter in the word.

Silent BSilent CSilent DSilent E
Silent GSilent HSilent KSilent L
Silent MSilent NSilent OSilent P
Silent RSilent SSilent TSilent W, X, Z
forkislandjostlefaux, Sioux
birdaislethistlewrap, wreck

How Can We Teach These Letters?

There are no simple rules for teaching silent letters. We can teach the blends that come from ph, wh, and sh, but explaining why the b in debt or k in knight isn’t pronounced to an early reader is never going to be easy. Keep practicing with your children as much as possible.

Begin with the rules behind the blend and digraphs. Move on to the job of the silent e or the diphthongs in double vowel words. Your children will understand these concepts. For the other silent letters, see if you can find their origins. Their beginnings will often help you understand why we no longer use the vowel or why it got dropped in translation.

Culture Lessons and Silent letters

One great way to understand English is to understand the many cultures that comprise the English language. The British Empire has colonized the world over and borrowed words from every new environment.

Learn these origins and the history of the colonies. As a project, you might even try to see how many languages you can easily identify in word roots. No, this might not help with understanding silent letters, but it can help children learn more about their own language and the language of those around them.

How about trying to get students to read this sentence coutesy of the Readers Digest! It has more silent letters than any other sentence i have seen! See if they can count them!

The rogue knight doubted that the asthmatic knave in knickers could climb the castle columns, but when their wrangle wrought chaos on the couple, the knight resigned with the knowledge that their tight-knit friendship wouldn’t succumb to dumb disputes.

Readers Digest

SO when you tell them the reasons why English has silent letters you can show them how often the exist as well. Rough estimates have the number at 60% of all English words have silent letters!! that’s crazy!

Final Thoughts

English is a mashup of nearly every other language on the planet. Even if there are some languages that English does not borrow from, there are words from six of the seven continents and most of the major island nations around the world.

English has evolved since it began. This evolution is what keeps languages alive. Latin stopped moving, so it began dying. We do not always understand the changes and developments in a language, but they work together to create new words, pronunciations, and usages.

Six-hundred years from now, even more vocabulary will have developed and changed from what we know today. It never ends. We will be putting more articles to help these tricky silent letters so jump back soon!

I have been a teacher of English for over 15 years, in that time i made hundreds and thousands of resources and learnt so much i think its worth sharing. Hopefully to help teachers and parents around the world.

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