Silence is golden, unless you’re trying to spell something
Published 5:59 pm Thursday, November 2, 2023
Silence can be a welcome (lack of) sound in many situations.
Maybe you’ve been riding for hours on a school bus with a crowd of rowdy children (and none of them wants to play “The Quiet Game.”) Maybe you’ve been listening to construction happening next door for several hours straight. Maybe a really chatty person has been talking your ear off for way too long even though you’re in a hurry to get elsewhere.
These are only a few examples of when we wish for silence, because we live in a very noisy world. (It’s why so many city folk move to the countryside searching for “peace and quiet” without understanding that it can get rather loud out here too… especially during harvest season!)
But, every now and then, being silent isn’t always a great thing. Particularly if spelling isn’t your best skill!
Along with complicated near-nonsensical grammar rules, the English language also has a lot of complicated near-nonsensical spellings. And silent letters are part of why learning the language can be so confusing.
We are all familiar with words like “knife” (silent k) and “lamb” (silent b), but I was reading an article on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website that declared “Every Letter is Silent, Sometimes.” It was fascinating to me to see different examples of silent letters that I’d never noticed before.
If you’re a language nerd like me, read on for some of the most interesting examples from the article. (If you’re not a language nerd, feel free to skip. Unless you’re bad at spelling, in which case, this might be a good one to help!)
Words with silent A: bread, tread, aisle, aesthetic
You could toss the “a” out of each of these words and they’d still sound the same. But without that extra letter, you might get them confused with other words, like “bred” or “isle.”
Does your head hurt thinking about all this yet? Just wait.
Silent C: science, scissors, muscle, indict
The “c” in the first three words seems a bit superfluous when the “s” in front of it is doing all the work. It certainly makes words like that harder to remember to spell. (I always somehow get “descent” wrong twice before I spell it correctly.) But I had never noticed the silent “c” in “indict” before either. It snuck in there like a criminal sneaking in somewhere they shouldn’t be.
Silent D: handkerchief, handsome, Wednesday
Though I have heard a few people pronounce the “d” in “handsome” before, I’ve always heard it skipped over in “handkerchief.” Even the abbreviated version, “hankie,” omits the silent letter.
“Wednesday” is a particularly annoying example. In fact, every time I write this word, I have to say it as “wed-nes-day” in my head to make sure I get all the letters in the right order. Why couldn’t it have been spelled “whensday” like we pronounce it??
Silent G: sign, phlegm, gnat, high
Okay, as much as I’d like to complain about silent letters, I feel like having to pronounce the “g” in these words would be even worse. I image that “phlegm” with a non-silent “g” is maybe the sound you make when you actually have phlegm.
Silent H: heir, honest, rhyme, ghost
I’d never thought about how the “h” in “ghost” is silent but if you take it out, you’d still say the word the same way as before. This letter is like a silent visitor lurking around that you don’t really notice… kind of like a ghost, right?
Silent I: business, suit
“Business” is a weirdly pronounced word in general, because not only does it have that silent “i” in the middle, but that “u” in the first syllable sounds like an “i.” We could have spelled it like “bizness” and saved ourselves the trouble, but the “i” is like that employee who shows up and never does any work. (The “u” has to pull double duty and pick up the slack!)
Silent M: mnemonic
There aren’t a lot of words with a silent “m” thankfully, but it might help to remember that “mnemonic” does have one at the beginning. Maybe we could come up with a mnemonic to remember how to spell this one.
Silent O: rough, colonel, jeopardy, leopard, people
Imagine you flip on your TV and you’re greeted with the catchphrase “This is Je-o-par-dy” with the “o” pronounced instead of being silent. Maybe that gameshow would be completely different than the one that’s been gracing our screens for decades.
Silent P: pneumonia, psalm, psychology, corps, receipt
The silent “p” is more prevalent than I expected, popping up in several words we use on a regular basis. It’s probably a good thing that the letter is silent in “corps” because otherwise, it’d be pronounced “corpse” …as in, “dead body.” And nobody wants that!
Silent S: aisle, apropos, debris, island, bourgeois
I can’t say we can blame the French for every example of the silent “s” in English, but we can definitely blame them for “bourgeois” at least.
Silent T: ballet, castle, listen, whistle
The silent “t” reminds me of the silent “d,” where it’s really just glossed over for easier, faster pronunciation.
Not mentioned in the article, of course, but a local example would be saying “Winton” really fast!
Silent V… actually there are no real English words with this silent letter! This language always has an exception somewhere.
Silent W: answer, sword, two, who
There are plenty of common examples with silent “w” at the beginning of a word (like “wrack” and “wrench”), but I was more fascinated with when the letter pops up in the middle of a word. Now I’m wondering why “two” is spelled like that! (Of course, if it wasn’t, it’d be even more easily confused with “to” and “too.”)
Silent Z: chez, laissez-faire, rendezvous
Again, we can blame the French for these silent letters!
Those are just a few examples of how confusing it can be to spell certain words in English. It can make your head spin, especially if you’re just learning. All I have to say is thank goodness for autocorrect… when it works!
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.