8 Dec 2014

Silent letters: why do they exist and where can I find them?


Today we are going to focus on silent letters, those so common letters that are written but not pronounced, as in the <t> in castle, or the <l> in walk.

You may think they are not all that important if they're not pronounced, but actually they make a huge difference to the meaning of words and can even change their pronunciation (sit vs. site)!

But why do silent letters exist??

Well, you'd be surprised to know that English used to be 100% phonemic, that is, a few centuries ago words sounded exactly as they were written, as in Spanish! However, this began to change around the 15th century because of the influence of Latin and French.

Pronunciation started to evolve and continued doing so for centuries, but the old spelling was preserved by the printing press. Some authors defended that spelling should represent the sound of words, but the writers that came afterwards saw the futility of making spelling phonetic, since they realized that the pronunciation of words constantly evolved. Therefore, the basis for spelling was not pronunciation, but rather custom of usage.

This way, nowadays English is only 40% phonemic, and around 60% of words contain silent letters! See how important they are!

Where can I find them?

It would be impossible to list all the words that contain silent letters, but below I post a picture of the most common ones. You can also check the rules for silent letters to know how to spot them:

If you want to go a bit further, go to Silent Letter Words for another complete list of silent letters. You can listen to the words by clicking on them!