Sunday, January 6, 2008

Silent letters - a challenge

How many letters in the English language alphabet can be silent? For example: b is silent in "doubt." g is silent in "gnome." How many letters of the alphabet are never silent? Which ones are they? I have no fixed answer to this question at the moment - Whenever you have a free moment, start working on this, and post your answers as comments to this posting. At the start of this project, I will publish only the answers given by members of The Linguistics Club in my school. All others may submit responses, too, but I shall not publish them until all my students have exhausted their guesses. Then, if any others in the world at large can do better, those suggestions will be added at the end. Please provide at least one example for each letter in your submissions.

24 comments:

Aaron R. said...

Do transliterations of foreign words pronounced according to English pronunciation rules count? For example, the "h" in "Afghanistan" is silent in English pronunciation even though "gh" is supposed to be a digraph representing the voiced velar fricative.

What about other digraphs? "gh" is silent in "night" (originally the digraph represented the voiceless velar fricative, I think). Does that count for both "g" and for "h"?

S is silent in "island."

T is silent in words of French origin like "cabernet." As is Z in "rendezvous."

C is silent in "indictment."

K is silent in "knock" and "knife."

R is not pronounced at the end of a syllable in (perfectly standard) non-rhotic accents.

D is not pronounced in "veldt" (it can also be spelled "velt").

You're already mentioned b and g.

Yet to be found: f, j, l, m, n, p, q, t, v, w, x, y. Vowels don't count, I assume.

Aaron R. said...

Also "w" in "wrench" and "p" in "receipt."

El Profe said...

Aaron,

Nice work so far, but much to be covered yet. M and L just came to mind. I have a few exaples in mind of silent m, and two with a silent l. I'm sure there are other examples with the other remaining letters, too. Now this begins to get interesting.

adam said...

N is silent in autumn

M is silent in mnemonic

L is silent in salmon

Adam said...

N in autumn
M in mnemonic
L in salmon

adam said...

N in autumn
M in mnemonic
L in salmon

Adam said...

q is silent in lacquer
I dont know if vowels count but
E at the end of a word is silent
O is silent in Leopard

adam said...

A in cocoa
P in psalm
R in Februrary
T in castle
U in plague

El Profe said...

Good work so far. Watch the spelling of February. Actually, the r is not really silent, although there are people who say it as if it were spelled {Febyuary}. But that is a non-standard variety.

Adam said...

q in lacquer

El Profe said...

Adam,

I'm not sure about your "lacquer" example. If the "qu" were absent, the remaining "lacer" would not be pronounced the same as "lacquer." So its presence has a reinforcing, perhaps gemminating, effect on the c.

Aaron R. said...

You geminated the letter "m" in the word "geminating."

I appreciate your subtlety.

El Profe said...

Aaron, You have a real knack for finding silent b's. By the way, couLd the second "a" in your given name be construed as a silent letter, since without it, your name's pronunciation would have remained unchanged? (Kindly 4give the awl two unsubtle "L"). (Don't you just love the vagaries of English spelling?)

Adam said...

I do believe we have them all
The silent letters are as follows:
A B C D E H K L M N O P R T U W
meaning there are no words in the English language where the following letters are silent.
F G I J Q S V X Z

El Profe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
El Profe said...

Uh, oh.

At least two of Adam's suggestions definitely appear as silent letters in a multitude of words. Which two letters are they, and can you provide a few examples of them?

JFS

Adam said...

I have a question referiing to the letters H and G. They do not make the standard sounds that are assigned to them, but in words where they appear to be silent they still alter the way a word is pronounced. (Through dough though) So are they still considered silent?

El Profe said...

For the sake of this exercise, let us consider them not to be silent, since, as you say, their presence affects the final pronunciation. On the other hand, the absence of the b in "debt" would not affect the word's pronunciation. Keep hunting!

El Profe

Adam said...

I think I have them all now

silent
A B C D E G H I (as in friend) J (as in marijuana) K L M N O P R S T U W X (as in Sioux) Z
meaning the non-silents are
F Q V Y

Adam said...

I missed one
F is silent in Halfpenny

Anonymous said...

a-head
b-lamb
c-muscle
d-Djjin
e-lane
G-night
h-night
I- ceiling
K-kinfe
L- yolk
M-mnomonic
N- Damn
o-leopard
p- pslams
R-Myrrh
S- islnad
t- Tsunami (not spelled right)
U- build
W- written
Z- rendezvous

Debbie said...

A group called "The Bare Naked Ladies" released an album last fall for children named "Snack Time"

They seemed to cover it for all letters at the beginning of the word that are weird or silent except for "r"

anyone know a word that begins with a silent "r"

This is the only reason I stumbled across this discussion.

Anonymous said...

How can a teacher deal with helping students to pronounce words with silent letters?

El Profe said...

As students encounter words with silent letters, ask them to write them down in a separate section of their spelling notebook - one reserved for words with silent letters. Explain to them that English has a very long tradition and that letters which were once pronounced, perhaps 4-500 years ago, have since lost their sounds in certain words. For example, knee derives from the French genou, where the e eventually was lost, and the combination of gn- gradually became pronounced kn- and over time, the k- fell into disuse. The kn in "know" comes from the same root as the Scottish "ken" (Do you ken John Peal with his coat so grey, do you ken John Peal when he's far, far away, do you ken John Peal at the break of day with his men and his hounds in the morning?" The word "cunning" also stems from the same root source as "know," but the /k/ phoneme is represented with the letter c. I'd say that almost all words with silent letters go back a very long time to a point when those letters were not silent.