Silent letter

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In an alphabetic writing system, a silent letter is a letter that, in a particular word, does not correspond to any sound in the word's pronunciation. Phonetic transcriptions that better depict pronunciation and which note changes due to grammar and proximity of other words require a symbol to show that the letter is mute. Handwritten notes use a circle with a line through it and the sound is called "zero"; it resembles the symbol for the "empty set", but must not be confused with the Danish and Norwegian letter Ø. In printed or computer graphic presentation using the IPA system, the symbol is used.

Common[edit]

For all languages listed, one of the speaking dictionaries, offered in the internet can be used.[1]

English[edit]

One of the noted difficulties of English spelling is a high number of silent letters. Carney distinguishes different kinds of "silent" letter, which present differing degrees of difficulty to readers and

  • Auxiliary letters which, with another letter, constitute digraphs, i.e. two letters combined which represent a single phoneme. These may further be categorized as
    • "exocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is different from that of either of its constituent letters. These are rarely considered "silent". There are examples
      • where the phoneme has no standard single-letter representation, as with consonants ng for /ŋ/ as in sing, th for /θ/ as in thin or /ð/ as in then, diphthongs ou in out or oi in point. These are the default spellings for the relevant sounds and present no special difficulty for readers or writers.
      • where standard single-letter representation uses another letter, as with gh in enough or ph in physical instead of f. These may be considered irregular for writers but less difficult for readers.
    • "endocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is the same as that of one of its constituent letters. These include
      • most double consonants, as bb in clubbed; though not geminate consonants, as ss in misspell. Doubling due to suffixation or inflection is regular; otherwise it may present difficulty to writers (e.g. accommodate is often misspelt) but not to readers.
      • the discontiguous digraphs whose second element is "magic e", e.g. a_e in rate (cf. rat), i_e in fine (cf. fin). This is the regular way to represent "long" vowels in the last syllable of a morpheme.
      • others such as ck (which is in effect the "doubled" form of k), gu as in guard, vogue; ea as in bread, heavy, etc. These may be difficult for writers and sometimes for readers.
  • Dummy letters with no relation to neighbouring letters and no correspondence in pronunciation:
    • Some are inert letters, which are sounded in a cognate word: e.g. n in damn (cf. damnation); g in phlegm (cf. phlegmatic); a in practically (cf. practical). If the cognate is obvious, it may aid writers in spelling, but mislead readers in pronunciation.
    • The rest are empty letters which never have a sound, e.g. w in answer, h in Sarah, s in island, b in subtle, the t in ballet. These may present the greatest difficulty to writers and often to readers.

The distinction between "endocentric" digraphs and empty letters is somewhat arbitrary. For example, in such words as little and bottle one might view le as an "endocentric" digraph for /əl/, or view e as an empty letter; similarly with bu or u in buy and build.

Not all silent letters are completely redundant:

  • Silent letters can distinguish between homophones, e.g. in/inn; be/bee; lent/leant. This is an aid to readers already familiar with both words.
  • Silent letters may give an insight into the meaning or origin of a word, e.g. vineyard suggests vines more than the phonetic *vinyard would.
  • Silent letters may help to put weight on a certain syllable, telling the reader to put more stress on the syllable (Compare physics to physiques). The final fe in giraffe gives a clue to the second-syllable stress, where *giraf might suggest initial-stress.

Silent letters arise in several ways:

  • Sound changes occurring without a spelling change. The digraph gh was pronounced [x] in Middle English in such words as light.
  • Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by r and rh in Latin, but merged to the same [r] in English. Similarly with f / ph, the latter from Greek phi.
  • Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters e.g. silent th in asthma, silent t in Christmas (in Conservative RP, such as that spoken by Dame Vera Lynn, the t is pronounced - /krɪstməs/, instead of /krɪsməs/ in all other dialects). Similarly with alien clusters such as Greek initial ps in psychology and mn in mnemonic, and the much rarer clusters in chthonic and phthalate.
  • Compound words are often simplified in pronunciation, while their spelling stays the same. For example, cupboard and breakfast were once pronounced as written, but were then simplified over time. The words forehead and waistcoat have largely reverted to their spelling pronunciations, but were once pronounced forrid and weskit, respectively.
  • Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling to reflect etymology (real or imagined). The b in debt and doubt (from French dette, doute) was inserted to match Latin cognates like debit and dubitable. A silent s was inserted in isle (Norman French ile, Old French isle, from Latin insula; cognate to isolate) and then extended to the unrelated word island. The p in ptarmigan was apparently suggested by Greek words such as pteron ('wing').

Since accent and pronunciation differ, letters may be silent for some speakers but not others. In non-rhotic accents, r is silent in such words as hard, feathered; in h-dropping accents, h is silent. A speaker may or may not pronounce t in often, the first c in Antarctic, d in sandwich, etc.

French[edit]

Silent letters are common in French, including the last letter of most words. Ignoring auxiliary letters that create digraphs (such as ch, gn, ph, au, eu, ei, and ou, and m and n as signals for nasalized vowels), they include almost every possible letter except a, j, o, q, v, and y.

Vowels[edit]

Final e is silent or at least (in poetry and song) a nearly-silent schwa /ə/; it allows the preservation of a preceding consonant, often allowing the preservation of a grammatical distinction between masculine and feminine forms in writing, e.g., in vert and verte (both ‘green’); the t is pronounced in the latter (feminine) but not the former. Furthermore, the schwa can prevent an awkward ending of a word ending in a consonant and a liquid (peuple, sucre).

After é, i, or u, a final e is silent. The spelling eau is pronounced just the same as that for au and is entirely an etymological distinction, so in that context, the e is silent.

After g or q, u is almost always silent.

Consonants[edit]

The letter h is always silent, except in the digraphs ch and ph. Numerous doubled consonants exist; French does not distinguish doubled consonants from single consonants in pronunciation as Italian does. A marked distinction exists between a single and doubled s: doubled ss is always voiceless [s], while an intervocalic single s is voiced [z].

The nasal consonants m and n when final or preceding a consonant ordinarily nasalize a preceding vowel but are not themselves pronounced (faim, tomber, vin, vendre). Initial and intervocalic m and n, even before a final silent e, are pronounced: aimer, jaune.

Most final consonants are silent, usual exceptions to be found with the letters c, f, l, and r (the English word careful is mnemonic for this set). But even this rule has its exceptions: final er is usually pronounced /e/ (=é) rather than the expected /ɛʀ/. Final l is silent after i even in a diphthong (œil, appareil, travail). Final -ent is silent as a third-person plural verb ending, though it is pronounced in other cases.

Final consonants that might be silent in other contexts (finally or before another consonant) may seem to reappear in pronunciation in liaison: ils ont [ilz‿ɔ̃] "they have", as opposed to ils sont [il sɔ̃] "they are"; liaison is the retention (between words in certain syntactic relationships) of a historical sound otherwise lost, and often has grammatical or lexical significance.

Italian[edit]

The letter h most often marks a c/g as hard (velar), as in spaghetti, where it would otherwise be soft (palatal), as in cello, because of a following front vowel (e or i). Conversely, a silent i marks a c/g as soft where it would otherwise be hard because of a following back vowel (a, a, o or u), as in ciao, Perugia.

Silent h is also used in forms of the verb avere ('have') – ho, hai and hanno – to distinguish these from their homophones o ('or'), ai ('to the') and anno ('year'). The letter h is also silent at the beginning of words borrowed from other languages, such as hotel.

Spanish[edit]

Despite being rather phonemic, Spanish orthography retains some silent letters:

  • h is silent outside of the digraph ch and loanwords such as hámster or hachís.
  • The digraph qu, used to represent [k] before the front vowels e and i, has a silent u
  • gu for /ɡ/ has the same silent u before e and i. When the u is not silent it must be marked with a trema: ü. Before a and o, the u is not silent.

Turkish[edit]

In Turkish language, ğ is often nearly silent.[2]

Estonian and Finnish[edit]

The Estonian and Finnish languages use double letters for long vowels and geminate consonants.[1]

Danish[edit]

The Danish language has two different letters which can be silent.

The letter h is silent in most dialects if followed by v, as in hvad (‘what’), hvem (‘who’), hvor (‘where’).[3]

The letter d is usually (but not necessarily) silent if preceded by a consonant, as in en mand (‘a man’), blind (‘blind’), jorden (‘the earth’). Many words ending in d are pronounced with a stød, but it's still considered a silent letter.[4]

See also[edit]

References[edit]