English Spelling and Pronunciation

What is the purpose of silent letters?

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Answered 2008-02-20 21:53:06

There are two uses for silent letters in English. One is to indicate the pronunciation of other letters. For example, in the word "tinny," the second n is silent; its purpose is to show that the i is not pronounced like the i in "tiny." Likewise, a silent e makes "hate" sound different from "hat." The other use is something of an historical accident. As relics of past pronunciation, silent letters often contain clues to the history of the words they are in. Thus we can tell, just by looking at it, that the word "knight, with three silent letters, is probably connected to the German word Knecht, (which has no silent letters).

Attempts to "reform" English spelling are always dismal failures. For one thing, let's say we wanted to spell all our words the way they are pronounced. Well, pronounced where? In Boston we would write cod for what they spell card in Pittsburgh, and cawd for what they spell cod. -----

Hah! Good question. The English Language in particular is full of silent letters. This is because English is a developing language, that has always stolen words from other languages. Local pronunciation then often changes the way a word is said. This has been the case ever since England was settled almost simultaneously by the Angles, the Juts, the Saxons, the Danes and the Vikings. These people then had to communicate with the original peoples of Britain, such as the Britons, the Picts and the Celts. Tied into this was the remains of Latin (brought by the Romans, and kept alive by the Church). Then, in 1066, Norman French was introduced into the equation. If you had to try and speak all those languages, odds are you'd mispronounce words as well. Ultimately there is no real PURPOSE to silent letters, but what is important is that people understand you. It's not "wrong" to use text-message abreviations such as "how r u?" as long as those you are trying to communicate with can understand you. As an interesting aside, Esperanto was invented as a language, designed to be easy for ANYONE to learn. It was hoped that this would lead to the whole world speaking one language. However, it never took off outside academic circles. Silent letters serve no useful purpose. They are there because English spelling has never been reformed. == I'm no lover of all those odd spellings and silent letters, and over time many of them will work their way out of English. It should be mentioned, though, that English spelling has indeed been revised; a quick glance at The Canterbury Tales (original) should put an end to that. It was revised here in the states as well, as recently as Noah Webster, I believe. There is a purpose to many of the odd spellings, though, even if it is a purpose we can dispense with. The spellings often help us determine the origins and the meanings of the component parts of words.

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