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.
One of the noted difficulties of English spelling is a high number of silent letters. Edward Carney distinguishes different kinds of "silent" letters, which present differing degrees of difficulty to readers.
- Auxiliary letters which, with another letter, constitute digraphs, i.e. two letters combined which represent a single phoneme. These may further be categorized as:
- "Exocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is different from that of either of its constituent letters. These are rarely considered "silent". Examples:
- Where the phoneme has no standard single-letter representation, as with consonants ⟨ng⟩ for /ŋ/ as in sing, ⟨th⟩ for /θ/ as in thin or /ð/ as in then, diphthongs ⟨ou⟩ in out or ⟨oi⟩ in point. These are the default spellings for the relevant sounds and present no special difficulty for readers or writers.
- Where standard single-letter representation uses another letter, as with ⟨gh⟩ in enough or ⟨ph⟩ in physical instead of ⟨f⟩. These may be considered irregular for writers, but less difficult for readers.
- "Endocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is the same as that of one of its constituent letters. These include:
- Most double consonants, as ⟨bb⟩ in clubbed; though not geminate consonants, as ⟨ss⟩ in misspell. Doubling due to suffixation or inflection is regular; otherwise, it may present difficulty to writers (e.g. accommodate is often misspelled), but not to readers.
- The discontiguous digraphs, whose second element is "magic e", e.g. ⟨a_e⟩ in rate (cf. rat), ⟨i_e⟩ in fine (cf. fin). This is the regular way to represent "long" vowels in the last syllable of a morpheme.
- Others, such as ⟨ck⟩ (which is in effect the "doubled" form of ⟨k⟩), ⟨gu⟩ as in guard, vogue; ⟨ea⟩ as in bread, heavy, etc. These may be difficult for writers and sometimes also for readers.
- "Exocentric" digraphs, where the sound of the digraph is different from that of either of its constituent letters. These are rarely considered "silent". Examples:
- Dummy letters with no relation to neighboring letters and no correspondence in pronunciation:
- Some are inert letters, which are sounded in a cognate word: e.g. ⟨n⟩ in damn (cf. damnation); ⟨g⟩ in phlegm (cf. phlegmatic); ⟨a⟩ in practically (cf. practical). If the cognate is obvious, it may aid writers in spelling, but mislead readers in pronunciation.
- The rest are empty letters, which never have a sound, e.g. ⟨w⟩ in answer, ⟨h⟩ in Sarah, ⟨s⟩ in island, ⟨b⟩ in subtle, the ⟨t⟩ in ballet. These may present the greatest difficulty to writers and often to readers, as well.
The distinction between "endocentric" digraphs and empty letters is somewhat arbitrary. For example, in such words as little and bottle, one might view ⟨le⟩ as an "endocentric" digraph for /əl/, or view ⟨e⟩ as an empty letter; Similarly, with ⟨bu⟩ or ⟨u⟩ in buy and build.
Not all silent letters are completely redundant:
- Silent letters can distinguish between homophones, e.g. in/inn; be/bee; lent/leant. This is an aid to readers, already familiar with both words.
- Silent letters may give an insight into the meaning or origin of a word; e.g. vineyard suggests vines more than the phonetic *vinyard would.
- Silent letters may help to put weight on a certain syllable, telling the reader to put more stress on the syllable (Compare physics to physiques). The final ⟨fe⟩ in giraffe gives a clue to the second-syllable stress, where *giraf might suggest initial-stress.
Silent letters arise in several ways:
- Sound changes occurring without a spelling change. The digraph ⟨gh⟩ was pronounced [x] in Middle English in such words as light.
- Sound distinctions from foreign languages may be lost, as with the distinction between smooth rho (ρ) and roughly aspirated rho (ῥ) in Ancient Greek, represented by ⟨r⟩ and ⟨rh⟩ in Latin, but merged to the same [r] in English. Similarly, with ⟨f⟩ / ⟨ph⟩; The latter from Greek phi.
- Clusters of consonants may be simplified, producing silent letters; e.g. silent ⟨th⟩ in asthma, silent ⟨t⟩ in Christmas (in Conservative RP, such as that spoken by Dame Vera Lynn, the ⟨t⟩ is pronounced - /krɪstməs/, instead of /krɪsməs/ in all other dialects). Similarly, with alien clusters, such as Greek initial ⟨ps⟩ in psychology and ⟨mn⟩ in mnemonic, and the much rarer clusters in chthonic and phthalate.
- Compound words are often simplified in pronunciation, while their spelling remains the same. For example, cupboard and breakfast were once pronounced as written, but were then simplified over time. The words forehead and waistcoat have largely reverted to their spelling pronunciations, but were once pronounced *forrid and *weskit, respectively.
- Occasionally, spurious letters are consciously inserted in spelling to reflect etymology (real or imagined). The ⟨b⟩ in debt and doubt (from French dette, doute) was inserted to match Latin cognates like debit and dubitable. A silent ⟨s⟩ was inserted in isle (Norman French ile, Old French isle, from Latin insula; cognate to isolate) and then extended to the unrelated word island. The ⟨p⟩ in ptarmigan was apparently suggested by Greek words such as pteron ('wing').
Since accent and pronunciation differ, letters may be silent for some speakers, but not others. In non-rhotic accents, ⟨r⟩ is silent in such words as hard, feathered; in h-dropping accents, ⟨h⟩ is silent. A speaker may or may not pronounce ⟨t⟩ in often, the first ⟨c⟩ in Antarctic, ⟨d⟩ in sandwich, etc.
Other Germanic languages
The Danish language has two different letters which can be silent.
The letter ⟨d⟩ is usually (but not necessarily) silent if preceded by a consonant, as in en mand (‘a man’), blind (‘blind’), jorden (‘the earth’). Many words ending in ⟨d⟩ are pronounced with a stød, but it's still considered a silent letter.
In the Faroese language there are two silent letters.
The letter edd ⟨ð⟩ is not pronounced in almost all instances. It is rendered in orthography for historical reasons (e.g. faðir 'father' [ˈfɛajɪɹ], cf. Old Norse faðir). In some cases, however, the letter edd is pronounced [ɡ̊], as in veðrið 'the weather' [ˈvɛɡ̊ʐɪ].
The letter ge ⟨g⟩ (i.e. continuant of Old Norse [ɣ]) is usually silent between vowels or when following a vowel before a pause (e.g. dagur 'day' [ˈd̥ɛavʊɹ], cf. Old Norse dagr [ˈdaɣʐ]; eg 'I' [ˈeː], cf. Old Norse ek). Use of the silent letter ge in Faroese is the same as for the letter edd - it is written for historical reasons as Faroese orthography was based on normalised spelling of Old Norse and Icelandic language.
In German, silent letters are extremely rare and occur rather in loanwords than in German words.
In some words of foreign origin, the ⟨e⟩ after ⟨i⟩ is pronounced, e.g. Ambiente, Bakterien (plural of Bakterium), Hygiene, Klient, Spermien (plural of Spermium), but is silent in e.g. Kurier, Papier, rasieren, Turnier. In Zeremonie, the final ⟨e⟩ usually is silent, but is always pronounced in its plural form Zeremonien.
Words ending in ⟨-ie⟩ can be somewhat tricky to learners:
For example, in the words Akazie, Aktie, Begonie, Familie, Folie, Geranie, Hortensie, Hostie, Immobilie, Kastanie, Komödie, Kurie, Lilie, Linie, Orgie, Pinie, Studie, Tragödie, the final ⟨e⟩ is pronounced,
while it is silent in the words Akademie, Allergie, Amnesie, Amnestie, Apathie, Artillerie, Blasphemie, Chemie, Chirurgie, Demokratie, Energie, Epidemie, -gamie, Garantie, Geometrie, -grafie/-graphie, Harmonie, Hysterie, Infanterie, Ironie, Kavallerie, Knie, Kompanie, Kopie, -logie, Liturgie, Magie, Manie, Melodie, Monotonie, Nostalgie, Orthopädie, Partie, Phantasie, Philantropie, Philatelie, Philosophie, Psychiatrie, Rhapsodie, Sinfonie, -skopie, Theorie, Therapie, Utopie.
In the female names Amalie, Emilie, Otilie, Zäzilie, the final e is pronounced, but it is silent in Leonie, Marie (but in compound words such as Marienplatz [a place in Munich], Marienstatue [statue of the Virgin Mary], the e is pronounced; the Virgin Mary is called Maria in German), Nat(h)alie, Rosalie, Rosemarie, Stefanie (or: Stephanie), Valerie.
The e is pronounced in the names Ariel(le), Daniel,Daniela, Gabriel, Gabriel(l)e (in Gabriele, the final e is pronounced), Gabriella, Mariele (the final e is pronounced), Mariella, Muriel,, but it is silent in Dieter, Frieda, Friederich, Siegfried, Siegrid, Sieglinde (the final e is pronounced), Wieland.
In country names ending in -ien , the e is pronounced: Australien, Brasilien, Indien, Kroatien, Serbien, Slowenien. In city names, pronunciation varies: In Wien (Vienna), the e is silent, but in Triest, it is pronounced.
In certain cases, a silent h indicates vowel length, as in Stuhl ('chair'), or a hiatus, as in drehen ('to turn'). That h derives from an old /x/ in some words, for instance sehen ('to see') zehn ('ten'), but in other words it has no etymological justification, for instance gehen ('to go') or mahlen ('to mill').
Silent letters are common in French, including the last letter of most words. Ignoring auxiliary letters that create digraphs (such as ⟨ch⟩, ⟨gn⟩, ⟨ph⟩, ⟨au⟩, ⟨eu⟩, ⟨ei⟩, and ⟨ou⟩, and ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩ as signals for nasalized vowels), they include almost every possible letter except ⟨a⟩, ⟨j⟩, ⟨o⟩, ⟨q⟩, ⟨v⟩, and ⟨y⟩.
Final ⟨e⟩ is silent or at least (in poetry and song) a nearly-silent schwa /ə/; it allows the preservation of a preceding consonant, often allowing the preservation of a grammatical distinction between masculine and feminine forms in writing, e.g., in vert and verte (both ‘green’); the ⟨t⟩ is pronounced in the latter (feminine) but not the former. Furthermore, the schwa can prevent an awkward ending of a word ending in a consonant and a liquid (peuple, sucre).
After ⟨é⟩, ⟨i⟩, or ⟨u⟩, a final ⟨e⟩ is silent. The spelling ⟨eau⟩ is pronounced just the same as that for ⟨au⟩ and is entirely an etymological distinction, so in that context, the ⟨e⟩ is silent.
After ⟨g⟩ or ⟨q⟩, ⟨u⟩ is almost always silent.
In most dialects, the letter ⟨h⟩ is almost always silent, except in the digraphs ⟨ch⟩ and ⟨ph⟩. Numerous doubled consonants exist; French does not distinguish doubled consonants from single consonants in pronunciation as Italian does. A marked distinction exists between a single and doubled ⟨s⟩: doubled ⟨ss⟩ is always voiceless [s], while an intervocalic single ⟨s⟩ is voiced [z].
The nasal consonants ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩ when final or preceding a consonant ordinarily nasalize a preceding vowel but are not themselves pronounced (faim, tomber, vin, vendre). Initial and intervocalic ⟨m⟩ and ⟨n⟩, even before a final silent ⟨e⟩, are pronounced: aimer, jaune.
Most final consonants are silent, usual exceptions to be found with the letters ⟨c⟩, ⟨f⟩, ⟨l⟩, and ⟨r⟩ (the English word careful is mnemonic for this set). But even this rule has its exceptions: final ⟨er⟩ is usually pronounced /e/ (=⟨é⟩) rather than the expected /ɛʀ/. Final ⟨l⟩ is silent after ⟨i⟩ even in a diphthong (œil, appareil, travail). Final -ent is silent as a third-person plural verb ending, though it is pronounced in other cases.
Final consonants that might be silent in other contexts (finally or before another consonant) may seem to reappear in pronunciation in liaison: ils ont [ilz‿ɔ̃] "they have", as opposed to ils sont [il sɔ̃] "they are"; liaison is the retention (between words in certain syntactic relationships) of a historical sound otherwise lost, and often has grammatical or lexical significance.
The letter ⟨h⟩ most often marks a ⟨c⟩/⟨g⟩ as hard (velar), as in spaghetti, where it would otherwise be soft (palatal), as in cello, because of a following front vowel (⟨e⟩ or ⟨i⟩). Conversely, a silent ⟨i⟩ marks a ⟨c⟩/⟨g⟩ as soft where it would otherwise be hard because of a following back vowel (⟨a⟩, ⟨a⟩, ⟨o⟩ or ⟨u⟩), as in ciao, Perugia.
Silent ⟨h⟩ is also used in forms of the verb avere ('have') – ho, hai and hanno – to distinguish these from their homophones o ('or'), ai ('to the') and anno ('year'). The letter ⟨h⟩ is also silent at the beginning of words borrowed from other languages, such as hotel.
- ⟨h⟩ is silent outside of the digraph ⟨ch⟩ and loanwords such as hámster or hachís.
- The digraph ⟨qu⟩, used to represent [k] before the front vowels ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩, has a silent ⟨u⟩
- ⟨gu⟩ for /ɡ/ has the same silent ⟨u⟩ before ⟨e⟩ and ⟨i⟩. When the ⟨u⟩ is not silent it must be marked with a trema: ⟨ü⟩. Before ⟨a⟩ and ⟨o⟩, the ⟨u⟩ is not silent.
In Hebrew language, almost all cases of silent letters are silent aleph – א. Many words that have a silent aleph in Hebrew, have an equivalent word in Arabic language, that is written with a mater lectionis alif –ا ; a letter that indicates the long vowel "aa". Examples:
- The Hebrew word for "no" is לֹא (sounds like "lo", spelled like "loa") and the Arabic word for "no" is لاَ (sounds and spelled like "laa").
- The Hebrew word for "left side" is שְׂמֹאל (sounds like "smol", spelled like "smoal") and the Arabic word for "north" is شَمَال (sounds and spelled like "shamaal").
- The Hebrew word for "head" is רֹאשׁ (sounds like "rosh", spelled like "roash") and the Arabic word for "head" is رَأس (sounds and spelled like "ra's").
The explanation for this phenomenon is that the Hebrew language had a sound change of all the mater lectionis aleph letters into silent ones (see Canaanite shift). Due to that sound change, in Hebrew language, there are only two kinds of aleph - the glottal stop (/ʔ/) and the silent one, while in Arabic language all three kinds still exist.
The silent Arabic alif is marked with a wasla sign above it (see picture), in order to differentiate it from the other kinds of alifs. An Arabic alif turns silent, if it fulfils three conditions: it must be in a beginning of a word, the word must not be the first one of the sentence, and the word must belong to one of the following groups:
- Verbs that start with the prefix "ʔi", due to their conjugation and derived stem.
- Ten specific nouns that begin with "ʔi":إسم, إست, إبن/إبنة, إثنان/إثنتان, إمرؤ/إمرأة, إيمن الله/إيم الله. Some of these words have a Hebrew word equivalent, and that equivalent had totally lost the beginning aleph. Examples: إسم (ʔism), meaning "a name", sounds like "ism" if it is in the beginning of the sentence and "sm" if not; its Hebrew equivalent is שֵׁם (shem). إبن (ʔibn), meaning "a son", sounds like "ibn" if it is in the beginning of the sentence and "bn" if not; its Hebrew equivalent is בֵּן (ben).
- The alif of the word اِل (ʔal), meaning "the" - sounds like "il" if it is in the beginning of the sentence and "l" if not.
Besides the alif of the Arabic word ال (ʔal, meaning "the"), its lām (the letter L) can also get silent. It gets silent if the noun that word is related to, starts with a "sun letter". A sun letter is a letter that indicates a consonant that is produced by stopping the air in the front part of the mouth (not including the consonant M). The Hebrew equivalent to the Arabic word ال (ʔal, meaning "the") had totally lost its L.
Unconventional to Sanskrit and Proto-Indo-European root languages, some Indic languages have silent letters. Among them Tamil and Malayalam have certain distinct styles of keeping few of their letters silent.
Tamil is a classical language phonetically characterized by allophones, approximants, nasals and glottalised sounds. Some words, however, have silent letters in them. The words அஃது (while that is), and அஃதன் (that) contain the Āytam or 'ஃ', which is not pronounced in Modern Tamil. It is explained in the Tolkāppiyam that āytam could have the glottalised the sounds it was combined with, though some may argue it sounded more like the Arabic 'خ' (/x/). That being said, modern words like ஆஃபிஸ் (Office) use 'ஃ' and 'ப' in sequence to represent the // sound.
Another convention in Middle Tamil (Sen-Tamil) is the use of silent vowels to address a mark of respect when beginning proper nouns. The Ramayana was one such text where the word Ramayana in Tamil always began with 'இ', as in இராமாயணம் (/ɾɑːmɑːjʌɳʌm/), though it was not pronounced. The name கோபாலன் (/ɡoːbɑːlʌɳ/) was so written as உகோபாலன் prefixed with an 'உ'.
Malayalam is a Sanskritized language in which speakers always pronounce all letters. The only known exception for consonants in the language being നന്ദി (/n̪an̪i/, thank you), where 'ദ' (/d̪a/) is never pronounced.
Inheriting elision, approximants and allophones from Tamil, in Malayalam, except for Sanskrit words, words ending in the vowel 'ഉ' (/u/) become silent at the end and if not compounded with words succeeding them, replace the 'ഉ' vowel by the schwa or /ə/. However, it is considered disrespectful to change this pronunciation in the simple present verbs, when using imperatives and using what can be termed as Imperative-Active voice in Malayalam, where the second person is respectfully addressed with his or her name instead of നീ (/n̪i:/, you) or നിങ്ങൽ (/n̪iŋaɭ/, yourselves). For example, in the sentence, രാകേശ് പണി തീർക്കു (/ɾʲaːkeːɕə paɳi ti:ɾʲku/, Rakesh, finish your work), the use of the second personal pronoun is avoided with the name രാകേശ് (/ɾʲaːkeːɕ/, Rakesh), but this sentence sounds less respectful if the 'ഉ' in തീർക്കു (/ti:ɾʲku/, finish} is replaced by the schwa or /ə/, as in "തീർക്കു!" (/ti:ɾʲkə/, Finish!) which sounds like an order. Notice the /ə/ at the end of the name Rakesh which is pronounced after being added to the Sanskritic name.
- Schwa deletion in Indo-Aryan languages, explains rules of Modern Indo-Aryan languages that delete the schwa sound.
- Silent e
- Silent k
- Three letter rule source of some common English silent letters.
- List of names in English with counterintuitive pronunciations, many with multiple silent letters.
- Silent English alphabet, composed of words with silent letters.
- da:Stumt bogstav
- "Zeremonie". PONS. Retrieved 12 October 2015.
- Nicolas, Nick. "Greek Unicode Issues: Punctuation". 2005. Accessed 7 Oct 2014.
- A rare example for a Hebrew silent letter, which is not a silent aleph, is in the word יִשָּׂשכָר (meaning Issachar). In this word, the silent letter is equivalent to the English letter S. This word sounds like "ysachar", but is spelled like "ysaschar".
- The Cambridge Biblical Hebrew Workbook: Introductory Level By Nava Bergman
- Introduction to Arabic Natural Language Processing By Nizar Habash