Why English Has Words With Silent Letters


The English spelling system is famous for not making sense. The phonetic ideal of having each letter represent exactly one sound, and each sound represented by exactly one letter, is impossible when English has about 45 sounds, or phonemes, and only 26 letters to represent them. But more than that, any language that has been written for a long enough time will have spellings that haven’t caught up with modern pronunciations, because pronunciations change.

English has been written for about 1,300 years, which is plenty of time for these mismatches to accumulate. One of the more frustrating signs of these spelling mismatches is English’s abundance of silent letters. With a conservative definition of silent letter, more than half of the letters of our alphabet are silent in at least some words. In alphabetical order, they are B, D, E, G, H, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, W, X, and Z. Today, we’ll find out the stories behind some of these silent letters.


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