by Kevin Burton
When my parents issued me flash cards before kindergarten, I wondered why the work “knife” had a K in it when it didn’t do anything.
All these years later I hear from Merriam-Webster that not just e’s and k’s but all the letters of the English alphabet are silent at one time or another.
Wednesday I gave you the examples they came up with for letters A-to-M (“All The Letters Can Be Silent? Shut Up!” June 29). Some were obvious, some questionable, some dubious.
Let’s walk through the second half of the alphabet with them today.
“Like silent b‘s, silent n‘s tend to come at the ends of words and after m: autumn, column, damn, hymn, limn, solemn. While this might suggest to some that m is a little too accommodating, we would never anthropomorphize letters in such a way.”
The word “limn” is a verb meaning “to depict or describe in painting or words.”
“There is the flagrant excess of letters in enough, rough, and tough, where o is among several who have no place being there. Then there is the formerly mentioned ruffian colonel, in which neither o behaves properly and the second o doesn’t even bother to try. But in addition to those we then also have jeopardy, leopard, and people.”
“P is silent before n in a selection of somewhat technical terms, such as pneumonia and pneumatic. And it’s silent before s in a different selection of words such as psalm, psyche, and psychology. It boldly says nothing in corps and coup and receipt.”
The dictionary says some people pronounce comptroller with the m and p sounding like an n. I have never heard the word said that way.
“Q tends to function wholly aboveboard as an upstanding member of the alphabet. Most of us are fortunate to encounter its dereliction in lacquer only occasionally.”
Forecastle is the foreword part of a ship, usually containing the sleeping quarters for the crew. A landlubber is someone unfamiliar with the sea or sailing.
“S is a mostly-reliable letter. Its failings are limited largely to aisle, apropos, debris, isle, and island. We cannot, however, overlook its participation in the hot mess that is bourgeois.”
“T refuses to be audible in ballet, castle, listen, and whistle. In asthma it conspires with h to shun its usual duties.”
“U may appear reasonable, but evidence to the contrary is not difficult to find: build, catalogue, dialogue,
colleague, guard, guess, laugh, league,
tongue. Note that the second and third of these words have attempted eviction and are meeting with significant success: catalog and dialog are both fully accepted variant spellings.
“V is at this point the only letter that refuses to be unheard in any established word of the language. And yet a dark cloud gathers on the horizon: in May 2017 a much-followed and likely sleep-addled Twitter user tweeted what was clearly a partially developed composition. The Internet seized on the enigmatic final word and discussed it ad nauseam. Of the myriad pronunciations suggested for this non-word, several of the strongest contenders had a silent v.”
A-ha! So not all letters are silent! Maybe I should stop pronouncing the V in my name?
“W yields all power to the r that follows it in wrack, wrath, wrangle, wrap, wreath, wren, wrench, wrestle, wrinkle, wrist, writ, write, wrong, and wrought. As if that lot were not enough, w with no apparent logic whatsoever sits idly silent in answer, sword, two, and who as well.”
“We will admit to some small appreciation of x‘s discretion in its orthographic indiscretion. Its silence seems perhaps calculated in faux and faux pas.”
“We cannot blame y for its gratuitous presence in beyond. The letter may, in fact, believe itself to be essential in the word. It cannot be ignored, however, that the word would reasonably have its same pronunciation if it were spelled “beond,” “beeond,” or “be-ond.”
OK, stop with the “be-ond” stuff. That is just silly. “Beeond” isn’t much better.
“Beond” would be pronounced “BE-und,” with the o changing to a schwa sound.
When I say “beyond” my tongue goes forward to form a Y, before going backward to form the short o sound. Therefore I say the Y is voiced.
“There will surely be attempts to blame the French, and yet the following have been fully established members of the English language for centuries now: chez, laissez-faire, and rendezvous.”
So V is an exception to the dictionary’s silent letter rule and I say so is Y unless there is an example beyond “beyond.”
Hey, if I stopped pronouncing the V in Kevin, would you pronounce my name “KAY-un” or “keen”?