In English orthography, many words feature a silent ⟨e⟩ (single, final, non-syllabic <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, the presence of a suffix on the end of a word influenced the development of the preceding vowel, and in a smaller number of cases it affected the pronunciation of a preceding consonant. When the inflection disappeared in speech, but remained as a historical remnant in the spelling, this silent ⟨e⟩ was reinterpreted synchronically as a marker of the surviving sounds.
This can be seen in the vowels in word-pairs such as rid // and ride //, in which the presence of the final, unpronounced ⟨e⟩ appears to alter the sound of the preceding ⟨i⟩. An example with consonants is the word-pair loath (loʊθ) and loathe (loʊð), where the ⟨e⟩ can be understood as a marker of a voiced ⟨th⟩.
As a result of this reinterpretation, the ⟨e⟩ was added by analogy in Early Modern English to many words which had never had a pronounced ⟨e⟩-inflection, and it is used in modern neologisms 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.
Although Modern English orthography is not entirely consistent here, the correlation is common enough to allow us to work with a rule-of-thumb to explain the spelling, especially in primary-school teaching, where a silent ⟨e⟩ which has this effect is sometimes called a magic ⟨e⟩ or bossy ⟨e⟩. Structured Word Inquiry uses the term replaceable <e>.
Effect of silent ⟨e⟩ on simple vowels
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.
Without silent ⟨e⟩
With silent ⟨e⟩
|slăt||slātɇ||/slæt/ → /sleɪt/|
|mĕt||mētɇ||/mɛt/ → /miːt/|
|grĭp||grīpɇ||/ɡrɪp/ → /ɡraɪp/|
|cŏd||cōdɇ||/kɒd/ → /koʊd/|
|cŭt||cūtɇ||/kʌt/ → /kjuːt/|
An ⟨e⟩ when associated with a preceding vowel usually converts the preceding “short vowel” to its "long vowel" equivalent and is silent. In English, the "letter name" of a vowel is its long vowel form (except in the case of ⟨y⟩, which has the same pronunciation as ⟨i⟩ – compare byte/bite).
Depending on dialect, English has anywhere from 13 to more than 20 separate vowel phonemes, both monophthongs and diphthongs. Silent ⟨e⟩ is one of the ways English orthography is able to use the Latin alphabet's five vowel characters to represent so many vowel sounds. 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 /
When final ⟨e⟩ is not silent, this may be indicated in various ways in English spelling. When representing //, this is usually done via doubling (employee, with 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 are preserved in loanwords (résumé, café), or introduced on this pattern (maté), though these diacritics are frequently omitted. Other words have no indication that the ⟨e⟩ is not silent (pace, Latin loan 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 phonemes represented in modern "short" ⟨a⟩ include //, //, and //. See broad A and cot–caught merger for some of the cross-dialect complexities of the English ⟨a⟩ group. A silent ⟨e⟩ typically moves ⟨a⟩ to //.
The ⟨e⟩ group
Silent ⟨e⟩ typically moves ⟨e⟩ to //. 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
The ⟨o⟩ group
Short ⟨o⟩ often falls in with short ⟨a⟩ and shares some of the complexities of that group. Variously, the written short ⟨o⟩ can represent //, //, and //. The usual effect of silent ⟨e⟩ on written ⟨o⟩ is to fix it as a long // sound.
The ⟨u⟩ group
Short ⟨u⟩ can variably represent either // or //, as a result of the foot–strut split. Silent ⟨e⟩ generally turns ⟨u⟩ to its corresponding long version //, which developed from Middle English /ɪu/. Variably by dialect and even word, the // in this // may drop (rune //, lute //), causing a merger with //; in other cases, the /j/ coalesces with the preceding consonant (issue // → //), meaning that the silent ⟨e⟩ can affect the quality of a consonant much earlier in the word (educate (//, nature //).
Silent ⟨e⟩ and consonants
where // is the expected outcome of the ⟨ce⟩ digraph, and the ⟨g⟩ in huge is pronounced //. The same effect on (c) and (g), but not the preceding vowel, arises in words such as “chance”, “change” and “forge”. To stop this softening effect, a silent (u) is added before (e), as in “guess”, “guest”, “plague”, “fugue” and “catalogue”.[nb 1]
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.
The same softening effect (⟨c⟩ /k/ → /s/ and ⟨g⟩ /g/ → /dʒ/) also arises with a following (i) or (y).
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 loanwords from French (promenade) retained their French silent ⟨e⟩, called e muet or e caduc, which has no effect on the preceding vowel.
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 (//, "small") has the usual value of ⟨u⟩ followed by silent ⟨e⟩, while as a noun mínute (//, the unit of time) 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 would 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.
- The American spelling "catalog" does not have either the ⟨u⟩ or silent e.
- Silent letter
- Albanian language § Sounds, the Gheg dialect of Albanian also uses "silent e" to mark long vowels earlier in the word
- Early Modern English (PDF)
- Questions teachers ask about spelling by Shane Templeton and Darrell Morris (PDF)
- Elementarie[permanent dead link] by Richard Mulcaster
- Silent E, complete lyrics by Tom Lehrer
- Look and Read downloads, including a version of the Magic E song