by Kevin Burton
Silent E is so famous it has a song, we all know about that one. We know how the letter e at the end of man, changes the word to mane, for example.
The silent e turns the a from short to long.
But did you know all the letters can be silent? All of them. So says Merriam-Webster dictionary in its Words At Play column.
“English can be such an intractable heel, especially when it comes to its spelling:” writes the dictionary, “for every rule explaining how a letter is pronounced in a given situation it often seems like there is a herd of exceptions mooing about how the rule doesn’t apply. Letters persist in words despite not playing any discernible role in the word’s pronunciation.”
When I taught English as a Second Language in Mexico, it was my job to explain the quirks of English. But even I never knew that every letter can be silent.
So let’s walk through the alphabet with them and see if they have it right. “Note that this list is not comprehensive,” the dictionary writes, “The situation is actually much worse.”
The a in bread (as well as in tread) does nothing. You might as well spell it bred except that then it looks too much like the past tense of breed. So don’t do that. A is similarly indefensible in aisle and aesthetic.
Oops, I’ve been mispronouncing aesthetic I guess. I have always started the word with a short a sound.
Most silent b‘s come at the ends of words
And just after m: bomb, climb, comb, crumb, dumb, lamb, limb, numb, plumb thumb, tomb. Just when one starts to feel comfortable with the relative regularity of these, debt and subtle show up like a couple of toughs.
C may as well cede all power to s in words like science and scissors, but we’ll also point out that it’s not doing much of anything in acquire, indict, or muscle.
D is shirking its auditory duties in handkerchief and mostly doing the same in handsome. Its appearance in Wednesday can only be seen as some kind of cruel joke.
The word sleeve has an excessive number of e‘s. We’re saying it right now. Sleve or sleev would work fine, but English does not like to leave v‘s on the ends of words; it props them up with e‘s, as though they’d fall over otherwise. That v habit explains, then, words like leave and give, but there’s no excusing the e in words like imagine.
While some people do in fact pronounce the second f in fifth, the first pronunciation given in our dictionary is the one that omits it. Overall, however, f is to be commended for its performance generally. We’d give it an A, if we were on speaking terms with that letter.
“G has no business being in sign nor phlegm, as far as the modern reader is concerned. It obviously doesn’t care. This callousness is also evident in that slew of gn words: gnarl, gnash, gnat, gnaw, gnostic, gnu. It can be no surprise, then, that g also participates in the likes of such offenses as high, though, and through.
The h‘s at the beginning of heir, honest, and honor have nothing to say. Neither do the ones in rhyme and ghost.
I doesn’t do a blessed thing in business, except to be impersonated by the u in the first syllable. It also does no discernible good in suit, which in a decent orthographic system would be spelled soot.
Some of you may be happy to know that we have at this point only one English word in which the j is silent: marijuana.
The silent k in a slew of common words demonstrates a callousness for beginner spellers, especially knee, knife, knight, knit, knob, knock, knot, know, knuckle.
The most indecent of the silent l words is surely colonel. The word sounds identical to kernel, which is an honorable, respectfully spelled word. L is also silent in could, should, would, as well as in calf and half, and in chalk, talk, walk, and for many people in calm, palm, and psalm.
Calm, palm, psalm, those l’s are just not silent for me.
One can get through much of life never encountering m in its silent form. By the time a person is ready for a word like mnemonic they have likely come to accept the vagaries of silent letters.
No silent m’s in my vocabulary then.
That it for the first half of the English alphabet. Do you think Merriam-Webster is on target? Tune in Friday for the rest.