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Peeking into the past with silent letters

Silent letters are easily one of the more frustrating features of the English language. Just ask any elementary student.

These letters and their penchant for being seen and not heard have been making our lives difficult since we first started learning how to read.

Think about the first time you encountered the silent "k" while reading out loud. Who doesn't have at least one embarrassing story involving a "kuh-nife" or a "kuh-night"?

Lexical trappings aside, a young That's What They Say listener wanted to know the point of having silent letters in English in the first place. Great question.

This may be hard to believe, but silent letters aren't here just to trick first graders who're learning how to read.

In fact, silent letters often have stories to tell. As University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan puts it, many are like "a museum of earlier pronunciations."

Take the silent "e" at the end of the word "name" for example. In Old English, it was spelled "nama" and the second syllable was pronounced "ah." Over time, that last "ah" became an "uh" sound, spelled with an "e". 

After that, the spelling got standardized, the final sound was lost, and we were left with a silent "e" at the end. But it hasn't always worked out that way.

The word "meat" started off as "meta." The second "a" became an "uh" sound spelled with an "e," just as it did in "name." This time though, both the sound and the letter dropped off.

Of course, the silent "e" isn't the only exciting exhibit in the museum of pronunciation. Listen to the conversation above for more peeks into the past with silent letters.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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