The English language is a lovely mess. Languages get that way after a thousand years of taking on aspects from other languages.
One consequence that has always fascinated me is that English spelling is such a potluck of letters. For example these different syllables produce the same sound: “ot”, “aught”, “aut”, “ought”.
With the help of dictionaries and some Facebook friends, I’ve assembled a list of letters that can be silent in English:
A: early, dead, toast
- B: thumb, doubt, subtle
- C: lock, except, indict, muscle
- D: Wednesday, handkerchief, handsome
- E: morgue, tie, giraffe, toe, queue
- F: clef
- G: foreign, sign, thought, gnome, through
- H: where, technology, whine, thought, hour, honest, honor, cheetah, rhyme, exhibition, through, rhetoric
- I: bruise, business
J: fajita, marijuana
- K: know, knife, knock
- L: calm, half, salmon, would, should, caulk, pill, mull (see comments)
- M: mnemonic
- N: column, autumn, hymn
- O: you, would, should, through
- P: pneumonia, psychology, corps
- R: far, farther
- S: island, isle, viscount
- T: hustle, whistle, often, listen
- U: morgue, source, shoulder, guess, guide, build, queue, tongue
- W: wrap, write, wrong, who, whole, sword
- X: prix, Montreux
- Y: slay, slaying
- Z: rendezvous, chez, laissez-faire
There wasn’t exactly full agreement on all the words. For example “far” was contested; the objection was that the “r” isn’t silent. While that may be debatable, the extra “r” certainly doesn’t make any difference between “father” and “farther”. Another objection was “fajita“; has it truly become part of the English language? I thought it was a very recent entry from Mexican Spanish, but Wikipedia says it’s a term used in “Tex-Mex cuisine” and that the OED cites its earliest use in English as 1971.
Many (most?) of the other words on the list have come to English from other languages… they just did it further back in time. I think I see words of Greek, French, Latin, Old Norse origins in the list. That’s what you get with a language that’s a thousand year-old mutt.
If you can think of examples of silent Qs or Vs, please leave a comment on the blog. I’d love to collect a full alphabet of silent letters.
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