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Silent and invisible letters in English

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Silent letters

Silent letters constitute a notorious phenomenon in English: in wréstle, for example, only four out of the seven letters are actually sounded (*résl), and there can be strings of them in place names, exemplified by the trio Léicester, Glóucester and Worcester, pronounced Léster, *Glóster and *Wùster. (The accents show stress and pronunciation, see English spellings; there is also a key at the foot of this page; * is placed before an incorrect spelling.)

Silent letters can be misleading, as in Thaîland and îsland, which rhyme, or they can be easy to ignore ("redundant"), as in wróng, yeôman, and w.

They can serve to distinguish between words that sound the same:

knôw knowledge = negative

knót tie = nót negative

wráp parcel = ráp knock, talk

wrîte read = rîght correct = rîte ritual

chéck verify = BrE chéque money

Some typical examples

  • b finally after m or before final t (-mb -bt)
  • g or k initially before n (gn-, kn-)
  • gh finally or before final t (-gh -ght)
  • l after à and before final f or m (-lf -lm)
  • n finally after m (-mn).

Alphabetical list

Silent A is found in: ard, lëarn, Múrray = Mòray; all examples from Latin of aê: nébulaê, fŏrmulaê; in fôrecastle (*fôxl, also fô'c's'le) and in the standard British English pronunciation of words ending in -ary: sécondary, díctionary

B: thúmb, dúmb, númb, clîmb, límb, débt, dòubt, súbtle

C: indîct, Tûcsón, Connécticut, blancmànge (*bləmónzh); sometimes there is a redundant soft c after s before a front vowel: scêne, scîence, effervésce

CH: cht (*yót)

D is redundant before a soft g: dge, édgy, lódging, bádger, brídge, wédge; for most speakers in dnesday; and before a French j in Djiboûti, Abidjàn

DH: cèilìdh (*câlêy)

E: very commonly as final mute e, usually lengthening the preceding vowel, as in lâte, kîte, hôpe, Jûne; in the regular past tense ending, as in loòked, lëarned;[1] exemplifying both of these uses, as in hoped, wâned; in heàrt, heàrth; redundant in yeôman; and in síngeing (*sínjing, from sínge, to distinguish it from sínging, from síng)

F: lfpenny (*hâypəny), fth

G: before n: gn, desîgn, dèign, rèign monarch (= rain weather), campâign, fóreign (BrE *fórən, AmE *fŏrən), sóvereign (BrE *sóvrin, AmE *sàvrən); gnásh, gnåw, gnôme, gnát, gnàrled, Colôgne and in phlégm (but pronounced in phlegmátic)

GH: gh, rîght, fíght, fríght, night, fŏught, ŏught, cåught, èight, wèight

H: hônour, hónest, héir, hòur, vêhicle, àùtobàhn, ôh, ôhm, hn (cf. Jôan), Thaîland, Kathmandû, Délhi, ghôst, ghàstly, in the BrE name-suffix -ham: Béckenham, Chéltenham, Twíckenham, and almost always after a consonant: see H for an alphabetical list of two-letter combinations from àh to zh

I: after u: it, recrûit, frûit, jûice, sluîce, brûise, crûise; in cárriage and márriage; in several unstressed -ain and -eign endings: cërtain (*sërtən), cürtain (*kërtən), Brítain (*Bríttən), fóreign (BrE *fórən, AmE *fŏrən), sóvereign (BrE *sóvrin, AmE *sàvrən); in pláid (optionally), pláit, friénd, pàrliament, business (*bíznəs), Sioux (*Soô), Sålisbury (*Sålzbəri)

J in marijuàna and AmE Juàn

K, initially, before n: knôw, knêe, knîght, knít, knâve, knóll, knót, knîfe, knêad massage; redundant after c, as in báck

L: before d: coùld (*koòd, *kəd), woùld (= woòd tree, *wəd), shoùld (*shoòd, *shəd); before m: lm, bàlm, psàlm, sálmon, Málcolm (*Málkəm); before f: lf, hàlf, hâlfpenny; before v: lve, hàlve; before k: lk, tålk, wålk, and in Líncoln

M: mnemónic

N: after m: cólumn (and optionally cólumnist), condémn, hýmn, åutumn, dámn, sólemn

NC: blancmange (*bləmónzh)

O: after e: ople, léopard, jéopardy, Géoffrey (= Jéffrey) and all BrE examples from Latin of oê: phoênix, oênólogy, foêtus (where AmE omits the o); optionally in the BrE unstressed ending -borough (-brə or -bərə): Mårlborough (*Målbrə, *Målbərə), Scàrborough (*Scàbrə, *Scàbərə);[2] and in chócolate (*chóclət) and èyot islet (= èight 8)

P: before t: recêipt, ptàrmigan, pterodáctyl; before n: pneumátic, pneumônia; before s: psàlm, pseûd; and in topgállant

Q: Colquhoûn (*Cohoôn)

R: In non-rhotic ponunciations, such as the standard British English of most of England, and also in some areas in the US (r is always pronounced in Scotland and most of the US)—a small selection: îron, àrm, àrt, céntre, mürder, pãir, mŏre, dŏor, desîre, squãre, hîre, përson, Thürsday; also in a few French borrowings like bùstièr (BrE; AmE *bûstiây, *bəstiay)

RPS: rps (r sounded in AmE)

S: chássis, prècis, Àrkansås, Íllinois, Des Mŏines (*Dimŏyn), Loûisville (*Loôivíl), îsland, îsle =sle, rendezvous (*róndâyvoô)

T: after s: lísten, whístle, wréstle, càstle, mústn’t; bùffèt, óften, mŏrtgage, bìdèt, Màrgot, wåltz (*wålss), bôatswain, (can be written bôsun), Tchaikóvsky, tsunàmi, and before ch in words such as ítch, cátch

U: bìscuit, cïrcuit, buíld, buŏyant, guíld, guílt, guîde, guàrd, guéss, guést, āunt

UE: tòngue, burlésque, grotésque, vâgue, rôgue, barôque, unìque, plâgue; BrE only: cátalógue, dîalógue (-lóg in AmE)

V is silent in Leveson-Gǒwer (pronounced *Loôson-Gǒre), in the title of the Marquess of Abergavenny (pronounced Abergenny; note that the place itself is pronounced as spelt) and in many English-speakers' pronunciation of the Russian name Vsévolod; traditionally it was also silent in Dáventry, pronounced *Dâintry, but this name is now usually pronounced as spelt

W: two 2 (= to preposition = toô many, also), who (*hû), whôle entire (= hôle space), swŏrd, ànswer, wrîte paper, wróng, wréstle, awrŷ, åwful, bôatswain (can be written bôsun), and before a consonant in the next word: kw, nòw, yew tree (= yoû me); often in the BrE name-suffix -wích: Nórwich (*Nórrich, *Nórrij), Gréenwich (*Grénnich, *Grénnij, *Grínnij) and Hárwich (*Hárrich, *Hàrrij)—though w is pronounced and ch is always itself in Ípswich; often in the BrE name-suffix -wíck: Bérwick (*Bérrik), Ẁarwick (*Wórrik), Késwick (*Kézzik), Chíswick (*Chízzik)

X: faux-pàs (*fô-pà), Sioux (*Soô) and French plurals of -au words: cháteaux (*shátô), tábleaux (táblô)

Y: Îslay (*Îlə), Pêpys (= pêeps), Sándys (= Sánds = sánds)

Z: lâissèz-fãire, rendezvous (*róndâyvoô)

Invisible letters

A somewhat rarer phenomenon in English is the invisible letter, the opposite of a silent one, a letter which is pronounced but not written.

  • There is an invisible initial w in òne, which has the same pronunciation as the past tense of the verb to wín: òne 1 = wòn win.
  • In some American writing, in what in British English would be a sounded apostrophe plus s, the s is omitted in writing but still sounded: BrE Jônes's cát = AmE Jônes' cát; this should not be confused with the plural possessive s' as in thêse càrs' lîghts (cf. thís càr's lîghts), sòme còuntries' lêaders, which is common to British and American, and which does not have an extra s sound. (The written habit has led to a tendency to follow suit in speech, e.g. in the song "Béttê Dâvis' Eŷes", which is sung as Dâvis, not Dâvis's.)
  • In British English and Commonwealth English, there is a frequently sounded r between two words, the first of which ends in a vowel sound, and the second of which begins with one. In Mr Zénda ís hêre to sêe yoû, many speakers will pronounce an unwritten r between the final a of Zénda and the following word ís, as if Zénda were spelt "Zender" (which in a non-rhotic variant such as BrE would sound the same). Unlike the first example, this is not a compulsory usage, and the invisible r may be replaced by a glottal stop, or the first word may glide into the second with no r sound—in rapid, informal speech, of course, one would say: Mr Zénda's...
  • The Scottish word búrgh can be pronounced as the equivalent bòrough is in England, *búrə.
  • There is an invisible á following the M in names like McEnroe and McIlroy, which both begin Máck-: in some versions, and in other such names, the á is of course visible: MácKintosh person = máckintosh raincoat, as it is in Mackénzie, MacKénzie; and it really is unnecessary in the likes of McCǒrmack *Məcǒrməck.
  • A variant pronunciation of St Jóhn *Səntjón is *Sínjən, with an invisible í.
  • In slow speech, in Northámpton and Southámpton, and in Lêithead, an aspirate h may be heard in addition to the h of th. Similarly, thréshold can sound like either "thrésh ôld" or "thrésh hôld", cf. lêasehôld.
  • A comparatively common type is where English speakers attempt to pronounce foreign names with unfamiliar consonant clusters, and insert extra vowels to make it easier: e.g. Khmér, where the h represents an aspirate between two other consonants, is often pronounced *Kəmãir. This is a very old phenomenon, as witness the transformation of the Viking Knût into Canûte.
  • From Russian and related languages, names that have the letter Е, е, which sounds roughly like 'yé', often omit the consonantal 'y' from the transliteration: Evgény = Yevgény—which, strictly speaking, has a second invisible 'y': *Yevgyény (Евгений).

Letter inversion

A related phenomenon is pronunciation of letters in a different order from the written one.

  • In Scotland, North America, etc., wh is pronounced "hw" (this phoneme has also been analysed as an unvoiced w).
  • Many speakers pronounce nûclêar as *nûcular (though this is regarded as incorrect).
  • In some proper names, the ending -thŏrp(e) is pronounced -thrəp or -trəp (in spelling too, alongside the names Thŏrp(e) and Thrúpp, the endings -throp and -thrup are also found).

Notes

  1. Though there is an adjective with the e pronounced, lëarned *lërníd
  2. The same pronunciation occurs in Édinburgh (*Édinbrə, *Édinbərə) but not in Píttsbürgh (*Píttsbürg)
  • The accents show stress and pronunciation (see English spellings): A: sát, mâde, pàrk, cāst (cást/càst), åll, ãir; E: ére, êar, vèin, fërn; I: sít, mîne, skì, bïrd; O: sóng, môde, lòve, wörd, ŏr; OO: moôn, foòt; U: sún, mûse, fùll, pürr; W: neŵ, ẁant; Y: gým, mŷ, keỳ, mÿrrh.