In English orthography, many words feature a silent e, most commonly at the end of a word or morpheme. Typically it represents a vowel sound that was formerly pronounced, but became silent in late Middle English or Early Modern English.
In a large class of words, as a consequence of a series of historical sound changes, including the Great Vowel Shift affecting long vowels, the former presence of the vowel sound represented by the e left its mark in the form of a change in the pronunciation of the preceding vowel. This can be seen in words such as rid // and ride //, in which the presence of the final, unpronounced e appears to alter the sound of the preceding i. A silent e which has this effect is sometimes called a magic e. The normal effect is to convert a short vowel sound to a long one, but because of the complications of the Great Vowel Shift, the long vowel is not simply a lengthened version of the corresponding short one, and in most cases (as in the example of ride) is in fact a diphthong.
This vowel-altering effect of silent e has developed into a spelling convention, which may be put to use in new words (such as bike) in which there is no historical reason for the presence of the e other than the need to mark the pronunciation of the preceding vowel.
Effect of silent e on simple vowels
|Without silent e||With silent e||IPA transcription|
|slăt||slātɇ||/slæt/ → /sleɪt/|
|mĕt||mētɇ||/mɛt/ → /miːt/|
|grĭp||grīpɇ||/ɡrɪp/ → /ɡraɪp/|
|cŏd||cōdɇ||/kɒd/ → /koʊd/|
|cŭt||cūtɇ||/kʌt/ → /kjuːt/|
When silent e occurs at the end of an English word, it usually converts a preceding vowel to its "long" equivalent, which means that it makes a vowel "say its name" (except in the case of y, which has the same pronunciation as i – compare byte/bite). (The /j/ sound at the start of the pronunciation of u is omitted after certain consonants, as in rune /ruːn/ and lute /luːt/.)
Depending on dialect, English has anywhere from 13 to more than 20 separate vowel sounds (both monophthongs and diphthongs). Silent e is one of the ways English spelling is able to use the Latin alphabet's five vowel characters to represent so many vowels. There is usually only one consonant between the silent e and the preceding vowel; a double consonant may be a cue that the e is not silent and does not affect the preceding vowel (as in Jesse and posse).
Traditionally, the vowels /eɪ iː aɪ oʊ juː/ (as in bāit bēat bītɇ bōat būtɇ) are said to be the "long" counterparts of the vowels /æ ɛ ɪ ɒ ʌ/ (as in băt bĕt bĭt bŏt bŭt) which are said to be "short". This terminology reflects the historical pronunciation and development of those vowels; as a phonetic description of their current values, it is no longer accurate. The values of the vowels these sounds are written with used to be similar to the values those letters had in French or Italian. The change is due to the effects of the Great Vowel Shift that marked the end of Middle English and the beginning of Early Modern English. The vowel shift gave current English "long vowels" values that differ markedly from the "short vowels" that they relate to in writing. Since English has a literary tradition that goes back into the Middle English period, written English continues to use Middle English writing conventions to mark distinctions that had been reordered by the chain shift of the long vowels. (The pronunciation of u before silent e, found mainly in borrowings from French and Latin, is a consequence not of the Great Vowel Shift, but of a different series of changes.)
When final e is not silent, this may be indicated in some way English spelling. This is usually done via doubling (employee: this word has employe as an obsolete spelling). Non-silent e can also be indicated by a diacritical mark, such as a grave accent (learnèd) or a diaeresis (learnëd, Brontë). Other diacritical marks can appear in foreign words (résumé, café). These diacritics are frequently omitted, however. Some foreign words are always written without indicating that the e is non-silent (e.g. pace, from Latin, meaning "with due respect to").
The 'a' group
The sounds of the 'a' group are some of the more dialectically complex features of contemporary modern English; the sounds that can be represented in modern English by 'a' include /æ/, /ɑː/, and /ɔ/. See broad A and cot–caught merger for some of the cross-dialect complexities of the English 'a' group. The effect of silent e on English 'a' moves it towards /eɪ/.
The 'e' group
Silent e typically moves 'e' to /iː/. This change is generally consistent across nearly all English dialects today, though previously many dialects used /eː/ instead before migrating to /iː/. Some parts of Mid-Ulster English still use /eː/.
The 'i' group
For the "long vowel" represented in written English by 'i', the effect of silent e is to turn it into a diphthong /aɪ/. In some dialects, this diphthong is affected by the voiced or unvoiced quality of the following consonant so that it may be closer to [əɪ]; see Canadian raising.
The 'o' group
Short 'o', in contemporary English, tends to fall in with short 'a' and to share some of the complexities of that group; depending on dialect, the written short 'o' can represent /ɒ/, /ʌ/, and /ɑː/, as well as /ɔ/ and /oː/. The usual effect of silent e on written 'o' is to fix it as a long o sound. In several dialects of English, this long /oː/ is realized as a diphthong /oʊ/; and in some forms of southern British English, the leading element is centralized further, yielding /əʊ/. All of the sounds in the previous sentence are in free variation with one another.
The 'u' group
Silent e generally turns the sound written as 'u' to its corresponding long version /juː/, which developed from Middle English /ɪu/. After certain consonants, depending on dialect, this is reduced to just /uː/ by yod-dropping. Initial long 'u' as in use is almost always pronounced with the initial /j/.
Silent e and consonants
- Măc > mācɇ (/mæk/ > /meɪs/)
- stăg > stāgɇ (/stæɡ/ > /steɪːdʒ/)
where /s/ is the expected outcome of the cɇ digraph, and the g in hūgɇ is pronounced /dʒ/. Silent e is used in some words with 'dg' in which it does not lengthen a vowel: rĭdgɇ, sĕdgɇ, hŏdgɇ-pŏdgɇ. Spelling such words with 'j', the other letter that indicates that sound, does not occur in native or nativized English words.
Truly silent e
In some common words that historically had long vowels, silent e no longer has its usual lengthening effect. For example, the "O" in come (as compared to in cone) and in done (as compared to in dome). This is especially common in some words that historically had 'f' instead of 'v', such as give and love; in Old English, /f/ became /v/ when it appeared between two vowels (OE giefan, lufu), while a geminated 'ff' lost its doubling to yield /f/ in that position. This also applies to a large class of words with the adjective suffix '-ive', such as captive (where, again, the "I" is not lengthened, unlike in hive), that originally had '-if' in French.
Some words loaned to English from French, such as promenade, remain pronounced in an approximation of their French original. In French there is an equivalent of this type of truly silent e, called e muet or e caduc; it has many rules as to when it really is sounded; see the article on the French Wikipedia for more details.
Some English words vary their accented syllable based on whether they are used as nouns or as adjectives. In a few words such as minute, this may affect the operation of silent e: as an adjective, minúte (sounding like my newt, meaning small) has the usual value of 'u' followed by silent e, while as a noun mínute (the time-measuring unit) silent e does not operate. See initial-stress-derived noun for similar patterns that may give rise to exceptions.
Silent e, like many conventions of written language that no longer reflect current pronunciations, was not always silent. In Chaucer's Balade, the first line does not scan properly unless what appears to current eyes to be a silent e is pronounced:
- Hyd, Absolon, thy giltè tresses clerè
Gilte ends in the same sound as modern English Malta. In Middle English, this final schwa had some grammatical significance, although that was mostly lost by Chaucer's time. It was elided regularly when a word beginning with a vowel came next. The consequences of silent e in contemporary spelling reflect the phonology of Middle English. In Middle English, as a consequence of the lax vowel rule shared by most Germanic languages, vowels were long when they historically occurred in stressed open syllables; they were short when they occurred in "checked" or closed syllables. Thus bide /ˈbiːdə/ had a long vowel, while bid /bid/ had a short one.
The historical sequence went something like this:
- In Old English, a phonological distinction was made between long and short vowels.
- In Middle English, vowel length was lost as a phonological feature, but was still phonetically present. A word like bide, syllabified bi.de and phonetically [biːdə], had one stressed, open, long syllable. On the other hand, the word bid, although stressed, had a short vowel: [bid].
- At some point unknown, the phonetically long vowels began to diphthongize. This was the start of the Great Vowel Shift. Possibly at the same time, the short vowels became lax. So as "bide" [biːdə] became [bɨidə], "bid" [bid] changed to [bɪd].
- At a later point, all word-final schwas were lost. The phonetic motivation for lengthening the vowel—the open syllable—was lost, but the process of diphthongization had already begun, and the vowels which had once been identical except for length were now phonetically dissimilar and phonologically distinct.
The writing convention of silent e indicates that different vowel qualities had become phonemic, and were preserved even when phonemic vowel length was lost.
Long vowels could arise by other mechanisms. One of these is known as "compensatory lengthening"; this occurred when consonants formerly present were lost: maid is the modern descendant of Old English mægde. In this example, the g actually became a glide /j/, so in a sense, the length of the consonant stayed where it always had been, and there was no "compensation." The silent e rule became available to represent long vowels in writing that arose from other sources; Old English brŷd, representing *bruʒd-i-, became Modern English bride.
The rules of current English spelling were first set forth by Richard Mulcaster in his 1582 publication Elementarie. Mulcaster called silent e "qualifying e", and wrote of it:
It altereth the sound of all the vowells, euen quite thorough one or mo consonants as, máde, stéme, éche, kínde, strípe, óre, cúre, tóste sound sharp with the qualifying E in their end: whereas, màd, stèm, èch, frind, strip, or, cut, tost, contract of tossed sound flat without the same E, And therefor the same loud and sharp sound in the word, calleth still for the qualifying e, in the end, as the flat and short nedeth it not. It qualifyeth no ending vowell, bycause it followeth none in the end, sauing i. as in daie, maie, saie, trewlie, safetie, where it maketh i, either not to be heard, or verie gentlie to be heard, which otherwise wold sound loud and sharp, and must be expressed by y. as, deny, aby, ally. Which kinde of writing shalbe noted hereafter. It altereth also the force of, c, g, s, tho it sound not after them, as in hence, for that, which might sound henk, if anie word ended in c. in swinge differing from swing, in vse differing from vs.
Mulcaster also formulated the rule that a double letter, when final, indicated a short vowel in English, while the absence of doubling and the presence of silent e made the vowel long. In modern English, this rule is most prominent in its effects on the written "a" series:
- gal, gall, gale (/ɡæl, /ɡɔːl/, /ɡeɪl/).
Digraphs are sometimes treated as single letters for purposes of this rule:
- bath, bathe (/bæθ/, /beɪð/)
- breath, breathe (/bɹɛθ/, /bɹið/)
- cloth, clothe (/klɔθ/, /kloʊð/)
In popular culture
- Tom Lehrer wrote a song called "Silent E" for the children's television series The Electric Company in 1971. In it, he asks the musical questions:
- Who can turn a căn into a cānɇ?
Who can turn a păn into a pānɇ?
It's not too hard to see.
It's Silent "E"!
- Who can turn a căn into a cānɇ?
- A series of similar songs about "Magic E" was featured in the British educational series Look and Read between 1974 and 1994, written by Roger Limb and Rosanna Hibbert and performed by Derek Griffiths.
- In Alphablocks, Magic E is E's impish alter-ego, with a black ninja outfit and a top hat. He does not speak, but in the episode Magic, he sings a song about himself while he causes mischief.
- Silent letter
- Albanian language#Sounds, the Gheg dialect of Albanian also uses "silent e" to mark long vowels earlier in the word