One thing that’s difficult about learning English is that words are often not spelt the way they sound, or they aren’t pronounced how they look. Today’s post is going to focus on words which contain silent letters.
First of all, have you ever wondered why silent letters exist? Here are a few reasons.
1. The way words are pronounced has gradually changed over time. Some silent letters were actually pronounced hundreds of years ago. For example, people used to say the silent “k” in words like “knife”.
2. Some English words come from other languages. If the word contains unusual combinations of letters that are difficult to pronounce, then those letters may become silent eventually. An example of this is “psychology”, which comes from Greek, and has a silent “p”.
3. In the past, spelling wasn’t actually standardised. People could spell words however they wanted! (Apparently, Shakespeare didn’t even write his own name the same way every time.) When the printing press was invented, spelling became more standardised. Some of the people who operated the printing press were from The Netherlands and Germany so they spelt words close to how they wrote them in their own language. These spellings then became the norm. That’s why we have a silent “gh” in words like “light”.
4. Similarly, some scholars actually added letters to words to remind us of the Latin origins of words. That’s why we have a “b” in “doubt” and a “p” in receipt.
5. I’ve read in a few places that silent letters exist to help us distinguish between homophones - words that sound the same but have a different spelling. I’m not an expert but I don’t think that actually happened deliberately. It seems more likely to me that homophones were originally pronounced differently but then evolved until they sounded the same. However, I think it’s possible that somebody decided it would be a good idea to keep the two different spellings to help us.
Here’s a list of words with silent letters. It’s not a complete list by any means. I’ve tried to include only words that you might find useful.
bomb comb numb climb crumb thumb
dumb lamb limb tomb womb plumber
muscle scent scene descend discipline conscious
science scissors crescent fascinate abscess
sign campaign reign sovereign resign champagne benign foreign
gnaw gnat gnome
hour honest honour
wheel where why white
school chemist choir echo chaos
rhubarb rhino rhyme
night light right bright
sleigh high eight neighbour
although through daughter naughty
bought fought thought caught taught
knee know knife knob knowledge knack
knitting knuckle knot knead knight knock kneel
chalk talk walk yolk
calm palm psalm almond salmon
would could should
autumn column damn
condemn solemn hymn
psychology psychiatrist psychopath psychic
cupboard raspberry coup receipt
isle aisle island debris
whistle Christmas castle wrestling listen fasten
ballet duvet bouquet
biscuit build circuit disguise
guard guess guest guide guitar guilty
league dialogue catalogue tongue
who whole whose
writing wrist wrong wrinkle wrestle wrap wriggle
sword two answer
Please note that I’m British and this is how we say the words in the UK. There are also a few words that are pronounced different ways by different people. For example, I have heard people pronounce the “t” in “often” and the “l” in “almond” but this is less common.
If you would like to listen to the pronunciation of these words, watch the video below:
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