How Many English Words Have Silent Letters?
In an alphabetic writing system, a silent letter is a letter that, in a particular word, does not correspond to any sound in the word’s pronunciation. Phonetic transcriptions that better depict pronunciation and which note changes due to grammar and proximity of other words require a symbol to show that the letter is mute.
Handwritten notes use a circle with a line through it and the sound is called “zero”; It resembles the symbol for the “empty set”, but must not be confused with the Danish and Norwegian letter Ø. In printed or computer’s graphic presentation, using the IPA system, the symbol ∅ is used.
The bad news is that English has a lot of silent letters, and they create problems for both native and non-native speakers of English, because they make it more difficult to guess the spelling of many spoken words or the pronunciation of many written words. Some people think it would be ideal if a language had one letter for every sound.
Unfortunately, the English language has about 45 sounds and only 26 letters. Many of those letters have more than one sound, and combinations of letters are often used to create other sounds. With so many sounds and not enough letters, it’s even more curious that more than half of the letters in the alphabet are silent at least part of the time.
Historians believe that early on English had very few silent letters. However, during the 15th century, many words from other languages, such as Latin and French, were added to the English language. Often these new words didn’t follow English rules of grammar. Since their spellings were fixed, some letters became silent when pronounced in English. Today, experts estimate that approximately 60% of English words have silent letters.
For example, the word “knife” could be spelled “nif” if you only used the letters that made sounds. Yet, it has a “k” at the start and an “e” at the end. Knife, and many other words with a silent “k” or “g” at the beginning (such as gnaw and knee), are Viking words. In Scandinavian countries, these letters are pronounced. In English, however, their spellings are retained while their pronunciations change, resulting in silent letters.
While people trying to learn English may find silent letters frustrating, they can be useful. For example, silent letters help to distinguish between homophones (words with the same sound but different spellings and meanings) in writing. Thanks to silent letters, you can know the difference between two, to, and too!