This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at Reasons for English: Silent letters
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Hello everyone! My name’s Stephen and this is English with Stephen.
Today I am going to start an irregular new series of podcasts. This series is called ‘Reasons for English’ and I will look at some of the reasons why English is a bit strange or weird. It will be irregular because I am not sure exactly when I will post them, but there are a few ideas on the way.
Today, we are going to talk about something that annoys a lot of my students when learning English. Why on earth does English have so many silent letters? It makes both spelling and pronunciation more difficult than it needs to be.
Well, first of all, I agree. It is a pain trying to deal with all the silent letters.
However, there are reasons for this. When I show my students the reasons, it often helps them accept it and start to work with it, instead of asking questions about it and struggling to understand why!
Today, I will be looking at four reasons why we have silent letters. All that, coming up after this short piece of music.
So, silent letters, eh?
You know, the way words like ‘know’ have a silent ‘k’ at the beginning? Other examples include the silent ‘b’ at the end of the word ‘bomb’, the silent ‘t’ in the middle of the word ‘listen’ and the silent ‘e’ at the end of words such as ‘kite’.
Well, the thing is, these silent letters don’t just annoy learners of English as a second language, they also annoy kids who are learning to read and write English as their first language.
I am going to present a lot of information today, so it might be a good idea to head over to my site EnglishwithStephen.com. I have a transcript there that will help you understand some of the things I will be talking about. There are also some videos and pictures and other links that show you what I am talking about. So if you need some extra help, go to EnglishwithStephen.com
Ok, so there are four basic reasons why we have silent letters in English. The first reason is called the Great Vowel Shift. From about the year 1400 until about 1700, there was a dramatic movement in the way English was spoken. Nobody knows why this happened, but the sounds of many vowels moved. And they changed in a similar way so that they all moved back in the mouth. This means that today’s word ‘bite’ originally sounded like ‘beet’. If you say the vowel for the original sound /iː/ and compare it to the new sound /aɪ/then you can notice that the place you produce it in your mouth moves towards the back.
I have a link on my site that gives other examples of this.
The reason this is important is that many words already had their spelling before the Great Vowel Shift. After the vowel shift, it was very difficult to change the spelling, because everyone already agreed on the old spelling. This means the pronunciation changed, but the spelling did not, and so some letters became redundant, or silent.
A second reason for silent letters is that English has borrowed a lot of words from other languages. For example, ‘psychologist’ comes from Greek and ‘knife’ comes from Old Germanic. In Greek, the ‘p’ at the beginning of ‘psychologist’ was pronounced so it was something like ‘psychologist’. The same is true for ‘knife’ when it came into English.
However, for English speakers, sound combination of ‘ps’ of ‘kn’ is very strange. So we took the spelling of the original word, but over time the initial consonant disappeared.
The third reason is ego. Some people had the power to influence spelling and did so in a way that was not necessarily useful. For example, the first people to operate printers in the 1400s England were often from the Netherlands. These printers often used Dutch spelling instead of English spellings if they were not sure of a word. As these words were read by many people, these conventions became the norm.
A different example is the word ‘ice’. We saw this word in episode 18 when we looked at the stories behind Gin and Tonic. Originally, the word ‘ice’ was spelled as ‘is’. But in the 15th century, it was changed to make it look more ‘French’ and more sophisticated.
The final reason for silent letters is that sometimes they actually help you with the correct pronunciation. This can clearly be seen with the magic ‘e’ at the end of words. Consider the pronunciation of these words;
The vowels in these words are pronounced /æ/, / ɪ/ /ɒ/, and /ʌ/.
However, if we add a silent ‘e’ to the end, these words change to
Now the vowel sounds like the letter in the alphabet.
So these are the four main reasons why we have silent letters in English. And, I know what you are thinking, why don’t we just change the spelling to simplify things and make the spelling represent the pronunciation. Well, there are a few problems with this.
First of all, who is going to change the spelling? English doesn’t have an academy that sets the rules for the language like French or Portuguese does.
Secondly, which version of English are you going to use as your standard? British English? There will be a lot of angry Americans if you do that. American English? Well, there are lots of people in Britain, Australia, Ireland, South Africa, Jamaica and so on, who might have a few ideas about that! Indeed, there are many varieties of both American and British English. I come from Birmingham and the way we speak is very different to London, Glasgow, and Liverpool.
Finally, it is extremely difficult to change the spelling of a word. People like what they know and are very resistant to change with their language. Indeed, in Germany, they took over 100 years to agree to some minimal spelling changes, and even then lots of people were very angry.
So those are some of the reasons why English has so many silent letters. It doesn’t really help you remember the pronunciation or the spelling, but hopefully, you’ll be happier knowing that at least there are reasons, and it isn’t just a big joke played on English learners.
That’s all from me today. Please make sure you go visit my site EnglishwithStephen.com where you will find pictures and videos that will help you understand this issue a bit better.